How To Know If Your Target B-Schools Really ‘Fit’ You


Large Vs. Small Entering Class

Would you be more comfortable in a large class with more than 600 students where you won’t get to know everyone, where there is a greater sense of anonymity and, more likely, greater competition but also a larger immediate network of students and alumni? If so, set your sights on Harvard, Columbia, Kellogg, Chicago, and Wharton, among others (see size of annual class intake here at top schools). Or would you prefer a small group of classmates who are more knowable, where there is greater likelihood of intimacy and partnership, more leadership opportunities, and a tighter alumni network? If so, you’ll want to look at Stanford, Tuck, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Washington University, and Vanderbilt.

There’s another element to size to consider. Most business school carve up the incoming class in sections or cohorts to make them more manageable and to allow newbie students to get to know each other more intimately. Harvard slices and dices entering students into sections of 90, while UC-Berkeley and Kellogg mix and match students into cohorts of 60 each. Stanford and Chicago Booth, however, have no sections because their core curriculum offers maximum flexibility to incoming students.

A Shark Tank Vs. A Kumbaya Culture

The stereotypical MBA student is supposed to have sharp elbows and be too ambitious for his or her own good. Toss that stereotype right out the window. It doesn’t exist. But there are schools, as noted above, that both have natural advantages for a more collaborative, team-based culture and who also strongly reinforce those behaviors among the students and the faculty.No school wants to admit it is filled with sharp-elbowed students or fails to have a close-knit culture. But it’s all a matter of degree. Urban schools typically are more competitive and less close-knit as a rule, but if you visit, you’ll find plenty of students who fail to fit the stereotype.

When it comes to the kumbaya spirit, Kellogg, Tuck, Stanford, Yale, and Haas are near the top of the list. Those cultures foster teamwork and group projects, they frown upon backstabbing, and they emphasize self-less ambition over a Me First mentality. “If you are looking for a collaborative, close-knit community then the out-of-town experience at Kellogg, Tuck, Cornell or Duke could be just right for you,” believes Symonds. “If you are happiest in a more competitive and self-sufficient environment with the energy of the city on your doorstep then schools like Columbia or Booth could be just right. So you need to reach out to the schools and pursue those opportunities to connect with the people, and if possible visit the place.”

Warm Sunny Weather Vs. A Cold Hard Winter

When it wouldn’t stop snowing this winter in Boston, the MBA students at UCLA in Los Angeles were smiling more broadly than usual. For some, weather really matters because it can impact your mood and your extracurricular choices. Many love the Tuck School, for example, because the school has a quintessential outdoorsy culture, even in the cold when ice hockey tournaments and skiing become part of weekly social life. But geographic location, often chosen for weather, has a lot of other more important consequences.

As Dan Bauer, founder and CEO of The MBA Exchange, a leading MBA admissions firm, puts it, “It’s relatively easy to decide whether you like a rural setting vs. a bustling city location, New England vs. the West Coast, etc. But go beyond the variety of ethnic restaurants and the average days of sunshine. Consider the impact of location on recruiting opportunities, housing options, and transportation costs. Most important of all is the dispersion of alumni — Does the school have a substantial number of grads based in the cities where you are most likely to live after B-school? How large and active are the nearest alumni chapters?”

Case Study Vs. Mixed Learning Approach

Do you think you would like to earn your MBA almost exclusively through case study (think Harvard, Darden, Western Ontario, and IESE) or a mix of teaching methods (just about every other school? (See How The World’s Best Business Schools Teach Their MBAs). Understand that in a case study school, half of your grades will depend on class participation. “Some people really hate lecture-based courses and would be bored at schools that have a lot of them, while others would consider the case based approach at HBS, Darden, or IESE to be an act of torture on a daily basis,” says Markus. “Will the
program meet those needs?”

Silicon Valley Vs. Wall Street

What do you want to ultimately do with your MBA? Your career goals can also determine your fit. In many case, geography is destiny. If you want to work in Silicon Valley, for example, you would obviously be better off at Stanford, UC-Berkeley, UCLA or a school that has a sizable alumni base in SV. If you want to work on Wall Street, the most well-worn paths to finance are Wharton, Columbia, and NYU. If you want to land a job with a consumer packaging company or as a consultant, you would be hard pressed to find a better MBA than Kellogg.

Of course, this issue goes well beyond Wall Street or SV. “Whether you’re planning to join an established company or launch a startup, the guidance and support available at a school is another vital component of fit,” says Bauer of The MBA Exchange. “Start by determining which career paths are most popular among recent grads. Ask career services staff which industries and employers recruit and hire their students for summer internships and full-time positions. And future entrepreneurs should find out what kind of labs, incubators, competitions, conferences and funding are available to MBA students who intend to launch businesses of their own.”

Faculty Obsessed With Research Agendas or Focused On World-Class Teaching

Given the heavy pressure on faculty to do research, most business schools–even those considered world class–have inconsistent teaching quality in their MBA programs. Do you want to be taught by the absolute best professors? If so, you’ll want to put Darden, Tuck, Cornell, UNC, and Indiana high on your list of schools. The professors at those schools have consistently been rated highest for their teaching abilities over the years (see Business Schools With The Best MBA Teaching Faculty).