As in the research phase (4 Top Tips for Researching Schools), honing your target list of schools demands self-awareness and introspection from the outset — a practice that continues throughout the application process. To make the most of your time and energy (not to mention money), your short list should be reflective of your priorities, personality, and ambitions.
First, a caution: It’s tempting to rely too much upon the various business school rankings when deciding where to apply. Sure, rankings can be useful, but without an understanding of their respective algorithms and methodologies, it’s easy to be misled by other people’s definition of “best school.” More importantly, any ranking is vastly more useful after you’ve determined your own key criteria. So how do you get there?
As you hone your short list of target business schools, consider these eight key considerations drawn from our team at Fortuna Admissions, former MBA admissions directors and insiders at the world’s top business schools:
Personality and Community Culture
What can you pick up of the overall “vibe” of the school? Who does it attract and what kind of environment does it nurture? Are your personal interactions consistent with the school’s stated values? When you speak with alumni and current students, do you get the sense of a supportive and collaborative climate, or a more competitive classroom? Nothing will give you a better sense of a school’s culture and identity than a visit to its campus. But if that’s not possible, much can be gleaned by participating in webinars or MBA fairs and networking with alumni and students in your areas of interest. Remember: It’s not just about whether you’re a fit for the program, but also whether the program is a good fit for you.
Geography influences ties to recruiters and school strengths, not to mention the community environment. It’s not surprising that London Business School, Columbia and Chicago Booth have excellent reputations in finance. Similarly, schools in California benefit from ties to startup and technology hubs in Silicon Valley. Europe provides a gateway to fields such as biotech, aerospace and luxury brand management, while schools in Asia are on the doorstep of the world’s most dynamic, growing economies.
At the same time, there are compelling benefits to escaping the urban core. B-schools in small towns — like Dartmouth Tuck in Hanover, New Hampshire — are legendary for their tight knit, supportive communities. Cornell Johnson boasts the best of both worlds with a scenic location in upstate New York that’s also a short train ride from a tech campus in New York City.
Specializations and strengths
Many programs have reputations in specific areas such as technology, real estate, entrepreneurship, non-profit, finance or luxury goods. They might have an incubator luring venture capital for entrepreneurs or offer immersion-learning internships for NGO experience. Some programs have a flexible curriculum that allows you to explore elective or experiential opportunities. London Business School, for example, offers flexible exit points and more than 70 electives and applied learning options. Think about whether a school’s core competencies, as well as its curriculum and teaching methodology, match your areas of interest.
Prestige and brand recognition
A school’s brand recognition can be a major differentiator in terms of opening doors, although prestige is inherently subjective. But it’s not just about rankings. How might a school’s reputation and strengths, as well as the network and experiences it offers, support your career ambitions and future job placement? Sure, HBS, Wharton and Stanford GSB, have peerless name recognition, but a world-class program like MIT Sloan endows its grads with exceptional access in to the university’s top-notch engineering school.Meanwhile, the globally focused curriculum at schools like LBS and INSEAD, along with their uniquely international student communities, provide a springboard for working abroad.
The strength of a program’s alumni network is a powerful indicator of its career opportunities. Some alumni networks are more geographically concentrated than others. Stanford GSB will give you a fantastic Silicon Valley network, while INSEAD offers unmatched international breadth. How well students rank their alumni network is another barometer of alumni strength, as well as the number of overseas alumni chapters and a program’s ratio of alumni to current MBA students.
You’ll want to be confident that your favored schools are well positioned to help advance your career vision. Talk to alumni and learn about their experiences with the career services team, campus visits from potential employers and recruitment events. Is the career services team proactive in reaching out to personal contacts and alumni networks?What opportunities exist to participate in career treks?Be sure to review at each program’s career and employment reports, looking beyond starting salaries to examine career statistics and recruiter data.
The time commitment of your chosen program sets the pace of your studies, as well as the speed of job market re-entry. A fast-track program is attractive if you have focused career goals and want to beef up your skills before quickly returning to the workforce. In terms of intensity, you can expect to spend about six hours a day in class during accelerated programs, and roughly half that in standard ones. Accelerated programs at top schools like INSEAD, Columbia J-Term, Cambridge Judge and Oxford Saïd run between 12 and 18 months. The traditional two-year format affords the opportunity to delve deeper over an extended period and complete a seasonal internship, as found in programs like the US M7.
Cost and ROI
Return on investment (ROI) goes beyond those coveted starting salaries and is inherently individual.Forbes rankings, for example,are drawn from pre- and post-MBA compensation, location and career choice and based exclusively on ROI. Forbes examines the five-year gain for MBAs across a host of key factors, while other media, like The Economist rankings, calculate ROI in terms of one-year gain to determine early value from first-year salaries against tuition. If you’re curious to consider a lower ranked program because of tuition cost, know that its ROI may also be lower. At Fortuna Admissions, we generally encourage candidates to go to the best school that they are admitted to regardless of short term cost considerations; over the long term, better programs usually pay greater dividends.
At the end of the day, it’s not just about brand name, post-grad salaries or even number of job offers. It’s about imagining the professional you want to become and defining the qualities that matter most to you for your business school experience. Your discerning approach and thoughtful research ensures you’re crafting a list of target schools that will be the best fit for you. Do this, and you’ll optimize the return on investment of your energy and time between now and September.
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.