The concept of school fit is an elusive one to many MBA applicants. When the school websites all seem to focus on the same things, the rankings are hard to ignore, and the MBA forums are full of conflicting advice, how do you know which program is the right one for you and why? And just as importantly, how do you effectively and uniquely convey fit for a school in your application? To help you answer these questions for yourself, Vantage Point MBA Admissions has used an analogy most of us are all-too-familiar with: shoes.
If the Shoe Fits
The year was 1999, and Nick Swinmurn was walking around a mall in San Francisco, looking for a pair of shoes. With Y2K looming, Sam Goody still grooving, and a mall packed full of patrons seeking retail therapy, Nick was searching for his own remedy. The prescription in particular? A pair of brown Airwalk Classics – it was 1999 after all. After scouring every shoe store, skate shop, and department store in the mall for over an hour, Nick finally went home empty-handed and frustrated…*
In shopping for shoes and in shopping for schools, the ultimate determination of happiness is decided by the multi-faceted concept of fit. Fit is much more than simply a size, shape, brand, or color. Fit is how you feel. And that feeling becomes evident throughout applications. Just like a pair of shoes, picking out the school that “fits” is a multi-step process. And remember that the operative word in all of this is that second-person personal pronoun “you.”
The Importance of Brand
It may seem counterintuitive to jump immediately to the brand of shoe (or school). However, the brand often serves as an efficient rule-of-thumb to point you in the right direction. A common fallacy is to select a school based on brand alone. However, much of what you hear, see, read or feel from a particular school is an indication of the values and brand of that school. It is important to reflect on the values of a school and determine if they align with your own.
Another common misconception when thinking about a school’s brand is that the brand is equivalent to the ranking. Highly ranked schools are proud of their ranking and do incorporate rank into their brand. But it is important to consider what sets highly ranked schools apart from one another. What makes them unique? Let’s explore…
Geographical factors run far deeper than climate or proximity to your current location. While these are important considerations, you may want to think about the effect the location of school has on its values and its brand. For example, many west coast schools have connections to the tech industry and Silicon Valley. However, they also have a strong Asian influence on their student body, culture, and connections to Asian universities and firms.
Directly related to this factor of location is the factor of discipline or concentration. Due in part to the historical foundations and financing of the school, location or award winning faculty, a school’s brand may evolve to become known for a particular discipline such as finance, marketing, or management. While the designation to a school may seem obvious, consider what this means for you and your future plans. If choosing a school specializing in your expected field of focus, consider the top talent being selected and your daily interactions. Or to the contrary, would you prefer to be a trailblazer, building and shaping a department which is less well-known at another school?
Lastly, one of the most valuable and discussed assets of the MBA experience is the professional network. This is comprised of both fellow classmates and alma mater of past and future. These networks and leaders continue to shape the brand of a school 20, 30, even 50 years after they have graduated through industry achievements or philanthropic endeavors.
Along with shaping and defining the brand of any one school, the professional network is also a critical source of support. Like any good pair of shoes, selecting the type and level of support is an important factor to fit. Professional networks’ geographic reach and involvement in one’s academic career (either during or post-grad) can be a key to long term value and success.
Beyond professional network’s longer term support, the culture and support from students and staff alike is crucial. Understand if you are looking for a collaborative, group learning environment. Or, are you looking to be pushed and challenged by those around you in a more competitive environment? Both have their merits but underestimate the importance of culture and support, and a competitive environment may feel cutthroat to some, and likewise, a collaborative culture claustrophobic to others.
Trying It On
Now that you have decided on what will fit you, it is time to find out what does fit you.
You almost certainly know what size shoe you wear. However, with just as much certainty, this size does not happen to be any one number. A 7 for running shoes but a 7 ½ in anything over a 2” heel. Size 10 in Nike, but 9 ½ in Adidas – everyone knows they “run big.”
So even as you know exactly the school you want, not all shoes that stack up the same have the same fit. Two top 10 schools within 20 miles of one another and with almost identical brands, versatility, support, and size can fit very differently.
As Nick Swinmurn left the mall that day in 1999, he took these concepts of fit and began one of the most successful companies of the e-commerce era, Zappos.com. The core principle and differentiator at Zappos, well ahead of its time and at considerable cost, was free shipping both ways. While price, selection, and brand were all recognized as critical for purchase, Swinmurn understood that his vision for customer service, and ultimately the success of his company would revolve around a single, simple requirement – trying on the shoe for fit.
Try it on. Whether that means talking to alumni, sitting in on a class, meeting with professors, or all of the above – lace it up, try it on, and run with your education and career!
Once you know which programs are a good fit for you and why, conveying that fit in your applications, namely the essays and later, the interview, will come naturally because you believe it. Your genuine passion and excitement will shine through in everything you write and say. Be specific, get personal, and don’t hold back!
Molly is a Booth MBA with experience in public accounting, corporate strategy and finance, and human resources. Molly is not only able to provide strong guidance to those interested in a career in Corporate America, but also those interested in leveraging an MBA to change career paths.