For the last few weeks, my Fortuna Admissions colleagues and I have been talking with fortunate (if anxious) business school applicants who face an array of life-changing decisions. While the scenarios are fairly predictable, the factors are distinctively personal:
- One candidate received an acceptance from his dream program, London Business School, along with an offer from Columbia that included $120,000 in financial aid. With a background in energy and international career aspirations, he strongly favored LBS. But the uncertainty of Brexit and concerns about securing a visa in Europe – plus the reality that the LBS offer came with no money – tipped the balance for CBS.
- Another young woman, in the enviable position of choosing Stanford GSB or Harvard Business School, was leaning towards the GSB for its cultural fit and proximity to Silicon Valley. But when her partner was able to secure a job in Boston, she turned down Stanford for HBS. For her, keeping her family together was the deciding factor.
- A young man was heartbroken to be waitlisted after his interview with HBS, though he had offers from both Kellogg and Booth (with no money). His partner has him convinced that an offer from any school that isn’t HBS isn’t worth the ROI, and he’s losing sleep about whether he can credibly increase his odds of acceptance by waiting and reapplying to HBS.
We should all be so lucky to lose sleep over this kind of good fortune, but the stress is real – you can only take one MBA and the path you choose will change the course of your life. And when the choices are M7 schools, or even two in the top 10, the stakes feel even higher.
Whether these true scenarios resonate with you or not, my advice is the same for anyone wrestling with a concern about future debt or more than one offer. I also tapped my Fortuna colleagues on top factors to fold into your process at decision time.
Our team’s top six tips for MBA decision-making:
- Invest in the long view.
Given the turbo boost an MBA will inject into your earning power over time, in 20 years from now can you imagine $65k will be the make-or-break number it feels like today? Consider it this way: Your access to opportunity will never diminish, and stands to multiply exponentially, because of the degree.
“I do think that scholarships can be compelling, but sometimes may not actually be worth it in the long run if one school would have better career and salary prospects than another,” says Fortuna’s Karen Hamou, Columbia MBA alum and former Deloitte Consulting recruiting lead. “Try not to be swayed by sums of money in the very short run that could come back to you in a few years by securing the right job offer. Review each school’s employment reports to see if there is a substantial difference in ROI.”
- Think of ROI Beyond the Dollars.
Does your top choice program offer access to relationships, opportunities, faculty and networks you’re unlikely to find elsewhere? While it’s hard to take perspective when you’re facing down a big tuition bill while also foregoing your salary, consider the return on investment more broadly. It’s less quantifiable benefits like relationships that can make the biggest difference in your professional career.
When asked about the most valuable thing she gained from business school, Minted CEO and Stanford GSB grad Mariam Naficy told Fortuna’s Matt Symonds in an interview, “The network of friends, and really, future colleagues, was by far the most important thing.”
- Fit Matters Most.
Fit factors such as cultural vibe, location, class size and personality will make a big difference in your day-to-day. Prioritizing a visit to your top choice schools and spending time on campus is invaluable to gain confidence about where to spend the next two years of your life.
You might assume no one would turn down an offer from HBS, but that’s exactly what London Business School grad Paul Heslop did after a round of campus visits. “I went to up to Harvard for the interview and sat in on a class, but I didn’t like the atmosphere or the way the student body interacted,” says the UN Peacekeeping Chief in an interview with Fortuna. “When I went to London for the familiarization day, I loved how the students were interacting, the enthusiasm they brought, the alumni.” For Heslop, a major factor in his decision-making was the international vibe of the LBS campus and the distinctively global culture of its community.
“I tend to advise clients to keep their options open and treat every school as if it is their number one, as a lot can change throughout the application process,” says Hamou, who turned down an offer from her top choice program in favor of Columbia. “Someone’s top choice school can become their second or third choice as they interact more with the school and start to envision themselves there. By the time decisions come out, priorities may have shifted.”
- Advice Is Nice, But Not the Authority.
I worked with a young woman who shocked everyone by turning down Wharton for NYU Stern. Despite relinquishing a coveted spot at a top three program, she had no regrets about moving to New York City for business school. Having pursued her undergrad at Wharton, she didn’t think she’d be happy living in Philly as she wanted to be part of an observant Jewish community. A lot of people challenged her decision, but she was clear about the kind of community she wanted to join. She enrolled in Stern, moved to Brooklyn and has been very successful professionally, fulfilled personally.
Whether it’s talking to alumni or processing the options with your friends and family, at the end of the day, the person most qualified to assess program and culture fit is you. “Getting input from students and alumni who have been through the program is helpful, but it’s just one data point,” says Fortuna’s Catherine Tuttle. “There are so many variables that come into play when it comes to making the most of the opportunity.”
- Consider a School’s Strengths Against Your Career Vision.
Many schools have reputations in areas such as entrepreneurship, tech, finance, non-profit, marketing, luxury goods or real estate. They might have an incubator luring venture capital for startups, or offer immersion-learning internships with NGO experience. Some schools have a flexible curriculum that allows exploration of elective or experiential opportunities. Consider a school’s management curriculum and teaching style, as well as whether a its strengths are in alignment with your areas of interest. Study career statistics and explore the opportunities that may be on offer for you post-MBA.
“Geography influences ties to recruiters and school strengths, not to mention the community environment,” says Fortuna’s Caroline Diarte Edwards in her article on how to create a target list of business schools. “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.”
- Have No Regrets.
Picture yourself walking onto campus for the first class of your business school career. How will you feel? For me, this is the clincher. When you have the privilege of a world-renown degree and access to the relationships, learning and networks it offers, your worst enemy isn’t likely to be debt. The worst thing would be walking into your first day of class and thinking, I could’ve, I should’ve … I didn’t.
“At the end of the day, we are usually comparing one great program to another great program, and so it often boils down to intangible factors,” says Hamou. “How do you feel when you visit the school and interact with the students? Could you see yourself there?”
Still stuck in the spin-cycle of indecision? In all seriousness, I recommend flipping a coin on the answer. Not to do what the coin dictates but to gut-check how you feel about the outcome, which can tell you a lot about how to proceed. While it’s challenging for the quant-leaning among us, the deciding factors are usually the least quantifiable.
Judith Silverman Hodara is a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Wharton head of Admissions. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program,