How To Target MBA Programs (And How To Avoid Choosing)

As an aspiring MBA, you have so many programs from which to choose (Poets&Quants offers an annual ranking of just the top 100). And you can access an incredible number of information sources about MBA programs beyond the rankings—guidebooks, message boards, friends, and co-workers, just to name a few. So how can you make an informed, yet largely painless, decision about where to apply? 

Narrowing your target list of MBA programs early in the process is an important move, because doing so lets you focus sooner on preparing standout applications for the schools you ultimately choose. In our experience at mbaMission, most successful applicants apply to five to seven schools, with a carefully chosen mix of programs that range from dream school to safety school. As you compile your own list of target schools, remember that the only “right” programs are those that fit your unique needs, preferences, goals, and risk tolerance (and perhaps, in some cases, budget). We recommend evaluating six main factors as you weigh your options:

  1. Reputation: This is a good place to start in determining whether an MBA from a certain school is worth your investment. Consider how prestigious the program is, especially in your target region and industry. High starting salaries for graduates are one indicator of prestige, notable alumni are another, and of course, rankings are a way of seeing how a school stacks up against its peers in the public eye. But avoid using only rankings when choosing programs (more on this later), or at least proceed with caution. Some schools have brands that are considered prestigious in certain countries or industries, but this might not necessarily be reflected in the rankings. 
  2. Your career goals: Hopefully, you have some idea of where you would like to take your post-MBA career (if not, you have some other work to do!). Do some focused online research on each school’s placement rates in your target industry, and check to see whether your dream companies hire from the program. Also, delve into the school’s academic and extracurricular offerings and make sure it offers electives, student clubs, and events (e.g., industry-specific conferences) that fit your career goals. 
  3. Educational approach: Many schools follow a “core” curriculum that involves a predetermined set of classes that all students must take before moving on to electives in the second semester or year. However, some programs are more flexible, allowing students to opt (or test) out of core courses or even design their own schedule from day one. You will also find variations in how individual classes are taught—from the case method, to lectures, to hands-on group projects. Beyond understanding these elements of a school’s pedagogy, you also need to know your own personal learning style and goals. Do you retain the most from case-based learning, lectures, or hands-on learning? Do you prefer individual work or team projects? Or might a mix of approaches be the best option? Do you work well with structure or prefer to plan your own schedule? Check each school’s website for curriculum requirements, elective offerings, course descriptions, professor profiles, and typical class schedules to gain an understanding of what the learning experience in that program may be like. And ideally, visit campus and observe a class firsthand!
  4. Location: Programs with urban campuses can offer unmatched social and cultural opportunities, while schools in college towns boast close-knit environments. Location also encompasses practical considerations, such as weather and cost of living. Where a school is located can be a deal breaker for some applicants, whereas others are totally open-minded about location. Would a bustling city or a close-knit campus setting be a better fit for you? Do you need to consider family members who might live nearby or perhaps employment opportunities for your partner or even school options for your child(ren)? Most importantly, can you see yourself living there? Of course, visiting is the best way to evaluate this.  
  5. The school’s community: What defines a school’s community can be hard to pinpoint, but it usually encompasses student clubs, social events, the closeness of classmates, student engagement with alumni, and students’ shared values. You will be spending two years within this community, plus many more as an alumnus/alumna, so you want to be confident going in that it is somewhere you will feel at home. Interacting directly with members of the school’s community—students, alumni, and admissions representatives are all great resources—is an ideal way to gauge this. In your interactions, do you feel comfortable? Excited? Can you see yourself as a happy member of the community? 
  6. Competitiveness: Finally, we must insert a reality check. What is the MBA program’s acceptance rate? How do your GMAT/GRE score and GPA compare against the school’s ranges and averages? How about your work experience level? What other factors might influence your competitiveness at the school? Some of these questions can be answered with data and others by reflecting on your personal risk tolerance. Having an informed third party who can help you evaluate how you stack up against other applicants can also be helpful. 

Focusing on these six factors should streamline your decision process. As mentioned, visiting campus is the best way to research many of these elements—you can observe a class, interact with multiple representatives of the school, see how the community interacts, and get a feel for the location. However, to save time and resources, we recommend waiting until you have an initial target list of schools before arranging visits. And for some applicants, visiting may not be logistically possible. In such cases, check the school’s website for information about upcoming webinars, MBA fairs/tours, or information sessions in a city near you. Reach out to students and alumni via your personal network, or through the school’s admissions office or student clubs, and schedule short phone conversations. Also, search online for student blogs to gain additional insight into the program and the MBA experience there. Another source to consider is mbaMission’s free Insider’s Guides to the top MBA programs, which examine multiple aspects of each program and are enriched by input from students, alumni, and school representatives. 

Now that we have listed the primary things you should do when identifying your target schools, here are a few things you should avoid:

  1. Relying solely on rankings: MBA rankings can strongly indicate a school’s reputation, and we all pay attention to them, but these lists also fluctuate from year to year and do not provide the full story about a program’s offerings or nature. We are certainly not saying you should ignore rankings, but they must not be the only factor you consider. 
  2. Blindly accepting school stereotypes: Have you ever heard statements like “Kellogg is just a marketing school” or “Columbia is only for finance types”? These are common stereotypes, and practically every school has one. And like all stereotypes, they only tell part of the true story. Debunking such stereotypes typically only takes a few minutes. (For instance, did you know that more Kellogg graduates work in consulting than in marketing?) Whenever you hear a blanket stereotype about a program, let that be your cue to investigate it! 
  3. Over relying on message board information: The mbaMission message boards are full of requests like “Here are my GMAT/GPA stats. I want to work in strategy consulting. Which schools should I apply to?” While a third party’s view can be helpful, your school choice is a very complex and personal decision (as we have shown), and someone else’s opinion should be no more than a small factor in it! 
  4. Not trusting your gut: Reflect on what is important to you, do your research, and trust what you ultimately feel. If friends, family members, or coworkers want to weigh in, consider their input, but do not lose sight of the fact that this is your investment and your future, so the voice that carries the most weight should always be your own. 

Going to business school is a big decision that will have longstanding and far-reaching effects on the rest of your life. Your target schools should not only advance your career goals but also be places where you will thrive personally. Finding this right fit takes effort, so do your research and reflect on what you value. If you are thorough with this crucial step in the beginning, writing your essays and preparing for your interviews will be easier down the line, because you will already have a clear idea of why each program is a great fit for you. 

Kate Richardson of mbaMission

Kate Richardson is a senior MBA admissions consultant for mbaMission, one of the leading MBA admissions consulting firms. She earned her MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and has a BS in psychology from the University of Illinois. After earning her MBA, Richardson worked for several years in management consulting at Axiom Consulting Partners, a boutique strategy execution firm. Kate’s work at Axiom focused on ensuring that clients had the right organization and talent in place to execute their business strategies. As a principal with the firm, she also co-managed its recruiting program, including hiring MBA interns, and mentored entry-level consultants.

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

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.