Essential advice before you start your B-School application.
You’re resolved to pursue the MBA. Now that it’s mid-June, you may even think you know which business school is for you. But before you start the laborious and exacting process of application writing, you’ll want to be confident in your reasoning. The amount of effort, time and money you’re gearing up to invest means that where you go to business school stands to be one of the most significant life decisions you’ll make.
Business school offers a life-changing experience that positions you to reimagine, then pursue, your highest aspirations. It’s the rich soil to fertilize your next stage of growth – both professionally and personally. But like a cactus transplanted to the rainforest or a geranium in a desert, not every ecosystem is conducive to your thriving. And the ecosystem of any business school is at the intersection of community culture, institutional identity and academic style.
That’s why most Admission Committees are obsessed with fit, and you should be too. It’s vital to do your homework – which is where things can get tricky. The sheer volume of information that’s instantly accessible from various sources on countless topics means it’s all too easy to go down a rabbit hole. There’s a hierarchy of information and you’ll want to separate the wheat from the chaff.
With fit in mind, here are four tips on researching schools from my colleagues at Fortuna Admissions:
Define your personal lens and filter
First, pause to sincerely reflect on your ambitions, strengths, passions and personal values. The time you invest in introspection will directly influence your ability to be discerning (and efficient) throughout the research process. A key question the Admissions Committee will ask in assessing the thousands of applicants vying for just a few hundred spots is: “Why do you want an MBA? And why an MBA at our school?” Your unique motivations and vision for your post-MBA future are effectively the lens and filter for discerning what’s most useful, relevant and meaningful to you.
Follow the hierarchy of good information
The programs themselves are the best sources of information. While you’ll want to digest each school’s website, it’s valuable to start with a look at its MBA Student Profile and employment report. Both reflect data about current and graduating students, which gives you a sense of where folks are coming from and where they’re headed after graduation. Too often, candidates skate rich source material like the employment report, yet it’s a rich mine of useful data and stats that can tell you a lot about whether your post-MBA goals are feasible and which school may be best positioned to make those goals happen. When comparing schools, ask yourself: How can each program help me achieve my career goals? Can I picture myself thriving there?
School-hosted blogs are among the best sources of accurate and timely information. In addition to keeping applicants apprised of news, events, admissions policies and opportunities, a blog’s tone and content is telling of a school’s personality and priorities. Same for a school’s social media channels such as Instagram, Facebook or Twitter—where you can follow the latest and often get the swiftest response to your queries.
These and other online resources are part of each school’s ‘MBA Cloud’—and everything that isn’t should be judged with a dose of skepticism: Who’s giving the advice and what’s their agenda? Are they a student, alum or experienced consultant? How can you fact-check the information?
Gauge each program’s culture and strengths
At a glance, schools may seem similar, but each one possesses a distinctive culture and management development approach. It’s tempting, but don’t over-rely on the MBA rankings to tell you what matters. The institutional values, curriculum strength, community vibe, opportunities for career advancement and connectedness of its alumni network, and are all more important. Remember to also consider program length, cost and location.
And when you do consider rankings, keep in mind that each one uses a different methodology. Know what’s being measured and evaluate how relevant it is to you. For example, The Economist emphasizes the international make-up of the school and post-MBA career opportunities, the Forbes ranking is a fairly simple calculation of ROI, and Business Week favors satisfaction levels of students and recruiters.
Get a firsthand feel for the personality and vibe
It’s tempting these days to think that you can learn everything you need to know about a school online. And while you can glean a great deal, there’s still no substitute for getting a gut feel for the environment yourself by visiting its campus. It can be time consuming and expensive, but considering the time and financial investment you’ll make in the MBA itself, it is an effort well worth making. Take the official tour and attend information sessions, of course, but go beyond the scripted experiences by sitting in on a class or catching students in the lounge. Is the environment collaborative, or there a more competitive energy? Are people welcoming? Is faculty dashing off to other commitments or engaging with students? Nothing else will give you a better feel for a school’s personality or whether the community is a good fit.
But if a visit is out of the question, be sure to connect virtually with alumni and students who share similar interests, and initiate frank conversations that help you understand a school’s identity beyond its brand. Having conversations with professors will offer more depth than the ‘official view.’ You can also take advantage of webinars and attend local information sessions or an MBA fair.
Too often, candidates assume that if they get into a top school, they are destined for a wonderful MBA experience and a stellar post business school career. But sadly, sometimes students even at the very top schools realize too late that they didn’t make the optimal choice. And the issue is usually the cultural fit with the community.
The competition for a spot in any top tier MBA program is fierce, and business schools are screening for fit as well as excellence. Your thoughtful research ensures you know what matters to your top programs, and what matters most to you.
Caroline Diarte Edwards is a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former INSEAD Director of Admissions, Marketing and Financial Aid. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 13 of the top 15 business schools.
MORE FROM CAROLINE: Writing Powerful Essays – Part 2: The ‘Introduce Yourself’ Question, Need a Brand Name Company for a Top Tier MBA?, Should Women Apply for the MBA Differently than Men?(co-authored with Judith Silverman Hodara)