Which MBA Programs Should Be On Your List?

Outside the Wharton School on the University of Pennsylvania campus – Ethan Baron photo

Many students who are applying to business school know they want to go to a top school, but don’t know how to come up with a target list.  You might have an idea from rankings, which are a place to see the names of schools, but I’ll say it right here: It’s not useful to just go through the rankings list and pick the top 4 or 5.  You can be more thoughtful than that.  But how do you begin?

10 Things You Can Do Right Now to Start Your List of Schools

Here are 10 things you can do right now to figure out which school should be on your long list.  Unless you absolutely hate a school because of its location, or you think everyone you’ve ever met from that school is a weenie, keep an open mind about schools you simply want to research. It doesn’t mean you have to apply, or if you get in, go. But it helps you clarify your thinking.

  • Ask trusted friends

Ideally, you want to ask friends who know what they are talking about, who have applied, rather than those who are just reading rumors on the internet.  Work colleagues, alumni of your undergraduate school all might have some insights from their own experiences.

  • Think of people you know and admire who hold an MBA

Ask them why they chose that school and how it helped them become who they are.

  • Look up people in your target field and see where they went to business school

LinkedIn has a variety of free ways you can search to figure that out (just make sure you put in “MBA” a search parameter). Or find the profiles of executives at companies you like and deconstruct their career paths.

  • Pick a school, any school, and look at their employment reports

It’s worth it to wander around the career section of a school’s website See who recruits at the school, check out top employers, dig into the actual names of companies that employ students. Also, LinkedIn can help you here – especially if you know the right tricks. (Spelled out in this blog post.)

  • Go to in-person events.

Because it is summertime when I am writing this, going to class is usually not an option. But every business school goes on international and national road trips. These incredibly worthwhile presentations include a mix of admissions officers, current students, alumni, and sometimes senior faculty. The best way to get a seat is to get on the school mailing list so they can email you details of all upcoming events.  Let me say that again in italics: The best way to get a seat is to get on the school mailing list so they can email you details of all upcoming events.  Note: you will not get dinged from a school if you register to a big event and cannot make it.

  • Read through school websites.

Not just the overall marketing material and student voices, which are helpful, but look at the academics. Look at courses, concentrations, special research centers, and initiatives. Many schools have special centers for entrepreneurship and social innovation; but what about real estate, health care, luxury goods, data analytics, or global operations?

  • Look at the school profiles.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a school profile gives the demographics and breakdown of an entering class. Importantly, you’ll find the average (and hopefully range of) grades, scores, years of work experience, geographic breakdown, previous industry, and more fun statistics to see if you are in the ball park for that school. Be realistic, but don’t consider these numbers gospel. In the case of GPAs, for example, schools are more interested in the quality of your transcript as well as the absolute number. (I talk about it here in this Poets&Quants article. )

  • Look at all-in costs and probabilities of financial aid.

Poets&Quants has done some great work on the average grant size and number of students on financial aidfor top schools. Combine this with their work on current costs of business school, and you might add or subtract some schools.

  • Look at a map.

Even in this global world, location does matter. But do keep an open mind.  Most schools are right near major airports, so you can explore and interview without too much trouble.  Still, location tends to have a visceral pull, especially if a spouse or significant other are coming along for the ride.  (And yes, ask for their input.)

  • Look at rankings.

Of course they matter. But be smart about them. They are imperfect, and they shouldn’t drive your entire decision. Or you will drive yourself crazy, and life is so much better than that. A good place to start is the composite list put together each year by Poets&Quants. In one quick glance, you can see where each school lands on every one of the five most influential lists and how they come together across all of those rankings.

Betsy Massar

Betsy Massar is founder of Master Admissions, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm. After graduating from Harvard Business School, Betsy worked on Wall Street for Goldman Sachs and then Bankers Trust (now Deutsche Bank). She later lived and worked in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam for a decade, alternately as a securities salesperson and as a financial journalist and project consultant for Euromoney Institutional Investor.

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.