Ben Fouch, an aspiring member of the MBA Class of 2021, is documenting his journey as an applicant every other week in his “Diaries of a Darkhorse” column. He works on the corporate development team at Booz Allen Hamilton on the sourcing, valuing, and structuring of potential M&A deals. Among his target schools is Harvard Business School. He was also a 2017 Best & Brightest business major with Poets&Quants.
MBA applicants are knocking on school doors, hoping we’re one of the lucky few who get a treat. It can be easy to forget the admissions reps who hand out decisions like candy are people too. That made me wonder who or what scare admissions departments. Who is their boogeyman?
Could it be accidentally rejecting a future star, like when a young Warren Buffet was rejected by Harvard Business School? Maybe it is having their admissions process made public, like when Stanford’s financial aid strategies leaked? I’d maintain, however, that the spookiest fate for any business program is the specter of a drop in their rankings.
ADMIT IT: RANKINGS MATTER
We all know rankings matter, but they matter in even more ways than you think. I remember one conversation I had with an admissions representative from an elite undergraduate program. The rep talked about the dreaded “drop” with the type of fear you’d reserve for seeing a ghost. The reason that they care so much is because we care so much.
Universities have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in focus groups and surveys to figure out how students pick schools. In these studies, the overwhelming determining factor for undergraduates was the U.S. News rankings. While there might be more rankings for MBAs than undergrad programs, they remain equally important.
We can argue about why that is. It might be because rankings are a simple and ordered way to establish relative hierarchy. Perhaps it’s because the rankings are genuinely a good measuring stick, capturing factors ranging from class size to student satisfaction. Whether you think rankings are a godsend or totally bunk, we can’t deny that they are important.
IS GEOGRAPHY DESTINY?
As I’ve tried to plot out my own list of top schools, moving beyond the rankings became a priority. Having someone else sort through the schools gives a great sense of what is best for the average applicant to do. I just don’t think most of us would say we like the same things as the average person. We all weight the factors of our decisions differently based on what we value most. For me, regional influence and presence were particularly important.
If you laid out the P&Q or U.S. News Top 20 MBAs by geography, you could travel from coast-to-coast. The distance between Stanford and Harvard alone is almost 3,000 miles! For a lot of careers, going that far may not make much of a difference. You can go from Berkeley Haas to working as a management consultant in New York – or start at Columbia Business School and move to a venture capital firm in San Francisco. Still, not all of the career paths have this same flexibility, and our broader aspirations can complicate things too.
In my case, I’m from the American Midwest. I grew up surrounded by farms and open spaces, and I loved it. I know that whatever path I take, I want it to wind through the region. Looking only at top twenty programs, it looks like any path through business school and to the Midwest is going to be a lonely one. In 2017 schools like Wharton (6%), Stanford (2%), MIT (4%), and Yale (3%) sent few graduates to the Midwest. The only schools sending a large cohort to the region were Michigan Ross, Chicago Booth, and Northwestern Kellogg.
FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU WANT…AND GO FOR IT!
What does that mean for me? It means that if I’m fortunate enough to attend from one of these programs, I would have to rely on the name of the school. They just don’t have as large and active of alumni communities where I hope to live. They’re all undeniably phenomenal programs, but not having as deep and rich of a local community is a very real downside.
When I began thinking about my schools of interest beyond the published rankings, I heavily weighted each school’s location. Doing so altered my list considerably. Some schools like the University of Chicago, which sits at the top of the rankings, became even more appealing. It was the same case with Stanford. While the GSB doesn’t send many graduates to the Midwest historically, they have made huge investments in encouraging more graduates to go there.
Here’s what was most interesting: schools lower in the traditional rankings can always move up. In my case, being a proud Hoosier, Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business stood out. They place a whopping 46% of their graduates in the Midwest. Graduating from a more regional program like Kelley would ensure that I would be surrounded by my peers after graduation. A program like IU Kelley might not break a national ranking’s top twenty, but they are still a great program with extensive resources and an engaged alumni base. Most important of all, that alumni base is right where I want to be.
It’s safe to say the Midwest is not where most of you want to go after graduation, much as we’d love to have you. No matter where you want to end up, I’d encourage you to think more deeply than just in terms of published rankings. It’s about pinpointing what matters most to you. It could be the type of job, the location where you do it, or the community who ultimately support. I wish I had re-ranked the schools earlier. Once I did it, my choices felt like they were truly my own, tailored to what I valued.
Originally from Indiana, Ben graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Finance and Political Science. While at Notre Dame he co-founded Dark Horse Sports Recruiting, an undergraduate academic and athletic admissions consulting service. He enjoys baking, dad jokes, alternative history novels, and obstacle course races.