How to Choose an MBA Program

Where you attend graduate school for your MBA will shape your future career and your future in general. An MBA degree is likely to be one of the most significant investments of time, energy, and money you’ll ever make. Not to mention the fact that the business school you attend will be on your resume and part of your “personal brand” for the rest of your life!

Given the stakes of choosing the right MBA program, it is a shame that so many applicants make the mistake of beginning and ending their school research with the MBA program rankings. While you can’t entirely disregard those rankings, we want to show you how to choose an MBA program by looking beyond them and ranking schools based on factors that truly matter to you.

There’s another important consideration when choosing an MBA program. Just about every business school is going to ask why you’re applying to their school. If you follow our step-by-step approach, you’ll be able to choose the schools that are the best fit for you, and you will have the building blocks for a convincing answer to the “Why Our School” essay question.

School selection requires four critical steps:

  1. Select Business Schools That Fit Your Career Goals
  2. Select the Best Academic Environment for You
  3. Select the Best Culture for You
  4. Apply to Business Schools that Match Your Qualifications

We’ll start with big-picture questions about the MBA program design and location. Once you’ve narrowed your list of programs by answering those bigger questions, we’ll pose a series of questions to help you figure out which programs best match your career goals, academic goals, and cultural expectations.

Last, we will touch on some final considerations that will help you prioritize the schools that make your shortlist, including how well your qualifications match what the schools expect. As you proceed through these decision-making steps for choosing an MBA program, you will be able to narrow the field until you have a target list of business schools that are an ideal match for you as an individual.

Knowing where to find the answers to the questions we posed above is essential. Let’s first explore the process of school research and the best resources for finding the information you need to help you choose among potential MBA programs.

School Research Techniques

Visiting the school’s website and perusing the brief profiles you’ll find scattered across the internet isn’t sufficient when you are considering a six-figure investment in your MBA education.

Let’s look at seven ways to go beyond what an average candidate will do in terms of school research. Building a personal database of information about the various MBA programs is well worth your time and effort.

As you’ll see, your school research efforts will provide you with a competitive advantage over less knowledgeable candidates throughout your MBA application process.

Sign-up for Email Lists and Follow Social Media Accounts

Many business schools’ admissions committees publish blogs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages. Sign-up for all of them and take careful notes on what impresses you about each program. Start building a list of questions you would like to answer during your school visits and through ongoing research.

Read MBA Student Blogs

An increasing number of current students publish unvarnished, real-time impressions of their b-school school experience. Even the student blogs posted on admissions websites can be surprisingly candid and offer you insights into the school’s culture and what a “day in an MBA student’s life” is really like.

Visit the School or Attend Sponsored Events

Visiting schools is beneficial and will help you to ascertain things like culture and campus dynamics. Moreover, first-hand impressions and observations you weave into your MBA application essays and interview answers are appreciated by admissions officers.

If a visit is not possible, see if the school is holding an event in your city. If all else fails, many schools offer virtual events or online chat sessions to allow prospective students to ask questions. As an aside, some schools track attendance at their events, so tuning in sends a signal to the MBA admissions committee that you are genuinely interested in their program.

Complete Informational Interviews with Current MBA Students and/or Recent Grads

The most up-to-date and relevant information to help you choose an MBA program comes directly from current students and recent graduates. Many will be happy to give you the “inside scoop” on the school, the curriculum, the faculty, life on campus, and many other details that will help you choose the MBA program that matches your top criteria.

Contact Student Clubs

Student organizations will be a major facet of your business school experience. Reach out to officers and members of clubs that you plan to get involved in if accepted to the MBA program. Officers can inform you about club activities and other targeted resources the business school has that align with your academic and professional goals.

Meet with Alumni and Leaders of Alumni Clubs

The strength of a school’s alumni network is an essential factor when choosing an MBA program. Contact the local chapter of the alumni association and try to speak with some of its members. You will pick up invaluable impressions and insights to aid you in school selection.

Now that you know where to gather information to help you choose an MBA program let’s discuss the questions you will need to answer to narrow your school list down.

Select Schools That Fit Your Post-MBA Career Goals

Defining your post-MBA career aspirations will help you narrow your list of target b-schools to the programs you believe will best prepare you to fulfill your career aspirations. We have developed a list of questions that will help you create a target list of MBA programs that will best prepare you to execute your Career Action Plan.

To choose business schools that are the best match with your career goals, ask yourself the following questions. Which schools…

  • Are closest to the city where you want to live and work after graduating?
  • Are located nearest to the industry hub(s) for your field?
  • Have the most resources specifically targeted to students with your career goals?
  • Have the strongest brand in your field?
  • Have the most extensive alumni presence in your field?
  • Offer the best career placement support and placement results in your field?

Which schools are closest to where you want to work after graduating?

Geography is the first factor to consider when choosing an MBA program. Assuming you have some degree of flexibility about where you can go to school, you should be thinking about where you intend to build your career once you graduate. Location matters because recruiting opportunities tend to be the best in the region where the MBA program is located.

If you plan to work in the United States upon graduation, then a US business school is probably your best choice. By the same token, if your goal is to work in Europe or Asia, you should be considering the best MBA programs in those regions. There are, of course, business schools that have such a strong international reputation that you’ll have the credentials to go wherever your career takes you.

Which schools are located nearest to the industry hub(s) for your field?

Proximity to the industry hub for your field of interest is another crucial factor in selecting the right MBA program for you. Attending a school close to the hub of your future industry means it will be easier to build meaningful industry connections during your MBA, participate in relevant field studies and masterclasses, and attend a keynote address by the CEO of an industry forerunner. Moreover, MBA programs tend to develop a symbiotic relationship with the companies closest to them. That kinship will be an advantage to you when recruiting season rolls around.

Which schools have the most resources specifically targeted for a student with your career goals?

A vital step in mapping out your career goals is completing a Capabilities Inventory to identify the skills and knowledge necessary for success in your desired career. Zeroing in on the skills and knowledge you’ll need to succeed in your future career will help you pick the MBA program that will best equip you to succeed.

Once you have completed your career capabilities inventory, aim to determine which schools have the deepest resources specifically targeted to your career goals. Business schools cannot be all things to all students; therefore, they tend to specialize in certain areas – entrepreneurship, marketing, or finance, for example.

Where do the thought leaders in your future field teach? Which schools offer courses that appear tailor-made for your career? Which ones have dedicated research centers, clubs, conferences, and field study opportunities specifically targeting your career goals?

Which MBA programs have the strongest brand in your target career field?

Talk to as many people in your future field as possible and ask them what they perceive to be the best business schools. While we caution MBA Prep School clients about over-reliance on school rankings, it’s worth reading which schools ranked at the top of the industry in which you want to work. Even so, do your research to figure out why those business schools topped the charts in your field.

Which schools have the most extensive alumni presence in your field?

Another excellent way to determine a school’s match with your career goals is to determine which MBA programs have the most extensive alumni presence in your field. A strong alumni showing proves that the degree is valued and that graduates’ skills and knowledge correlate to long-term success. From a more practical standpoint, a strong alumni presence in the executive ranks can translate into job opportunities for you post-MBA.

Which schools offer the best career placement support and placement results?

When choosing an MBA program, it is essential to consider which business schools will offer you the best career placement support. A proactive placement office that provides career planning resources and has cultivated relationships with recruiters in your field can be invaluable. On a related note, you want to determine which programs have the best placement results in your field. None of the other factors we’ve discussed matter much if you can’t get a job when you graduate.

The Ultimate MBA Application Handbook

You only need one guide to getting into the world’s top business schools, and this is it!

Grab your copy of the ultimate MBA Application Handbook and receive 30 days of free access to our premium digital content for MBA applicants.

Select the Best Academic Environment for You

Having considered which schools will best prepare you for your future career, you can turn your focus to a more immediate concern – the years you will actually spend in school. The questions in this section will help you identify the schools with the best academic environment for you. Your goal is to find the schools that are the best match for what you want to learn and the way you learn best.

The questions to answer at this next stage of choosing and MBA program are:

  • Which schools have an academic philosophy that matches your own?
  • Which schools’ degree design best fits your needs?
  • Which school is the optimal size for you?

Which schools have an academic philosophy that matches your own?

To select the schools that fit your academic needs, start by learning about the educational philosophy of the schools on your target list. The school’s academic philosophy is a mission statement that influences how the program is designed and operates. Harvard Business School, for example, is wholly committed to the case study based on the belief that this mode of learning is the best way to educate future leaders. By contrast, Chicago Booth believes in a “discipline-based approach” that mixes cases and lectures.

Ask yourself which schools have an academic philosophy that will best meet your learning needs. If you were an undergraduate accounting major and feel reasonably fluent in the language of business, then a case-based program might be a plus. On the other hand, if you were a liberal arts major who’s been working in politics for four years, you might be better off at a graduate school that will first teach you the ABCs of business.

Which schools’ degree design best fits your needs?

Each school puts a great deal of time and care into designing its program. It’s helpful again to compare Harvard Business School and the University of Chicago. At the time of this writing, Harvard Business School requires all students to take every class in the first-year core curriculum. In contrast, Chicago has a flexible curriculum that allows you to skip subjects you’ve already mastered. In other words, at HBS, certified public accountants take the first-year accounting course together right alongside the liberal arts majors.

Another difference in degree design is whether or not you are expected to choose a major. At schools like HBS, you don’t, which means you can take any variety of elective courses you like while still allowing you to concentrate on a specific subject if you prefer.

When choosing an MBA program, you should weigh the pros and cons of each program’s degree design relative to your academic development needs.

Which school is the optimal size for you?

The size of the program is another consideration. Harvard Business School admits around 900 students a year; for some prospective students, that might be too large of a cohort. Smaller programs have their advantages: you’ll probably get to know everyone in your MBA class, and the culture tends to be more closely knit. On the other hand, bigger schools can offer a broader number of electives than smaller ones and generally have more resources. Keep in mind that a smaller class also means a smaller alumni base. UVA Darden, which admits 320 students per year, has 17,000 living alumni. HBS has around 48,000.

Select the Best Business School Culture for You

Curriculums change, reputations wax and wane, professors come and go, but one thing that rarely changes in any significant way is a business school’s culture. How you fit or don’t fit with an MBA school’s culture is one of the most critical aspects of deciding which MBA programs will be right for you.

When we talk about an MBA program’s culture, we’re talking about the school’s personality. That personality shapes everything from how a single classroom is run to what kinds of professors are hired and – most relevant to you – what types of students fit in best.

Many MBA Prep School clients ask whether or not they need to visit a school. We highly encourage it because things like culture and campus dynamics are almost impossible to ascertain from a distance.

Your objective at this stage of choosing an MBA program is to identify a fit between your personality and the personality of the schools you will apply to. To help you better understand what you are looking for in your search for cultural fit, we will discuss five standard dimensions of business school culture:

  1. Competitive vs. Collaborative
  2. One-Size Fits All vs. Tailor-Made
  3. Local vs. Global
  4. Country Club vs. Boot-Camp
  5. Traditional vs. Bleeding Edge

Competitive vs. Collaborative

The dimension that most people think of when it comes to business school culture is competitive versus collaborative. Will my classmates go out of their way to promote my success, or out of their way to promote their own? The cultural difference between MBA programs isn’t that stark.

You need to decide what degree of competition feels right to you. Everyone is different when it comes to this cultural dimension; some people thrive on healthy competition, whereas others learn best in more supportive settings.

One-Size Fits All vs. Tailor-Made

Some programs offer a high degree of personalized attention and grant you the flexibility to tailor your learning experience. Other MBA programs believe that all students should go through the same experience. While there are some obvious advantages to tailor-made programs, you may be disappointed when the investment banking guru in your class places out of the introductory Finance course and isn’t around to teach you how to build a financial model. Paradoxically, schools that require everyone to stick with the same programs can engineer more diverse classroom experiences. By design, students interact with classmates who have backgrounds and career goals different from their own.

Local vs. Global

Business schools can be a fantastic international melting pot. If this is important to you, you certainly want to look at the multinational composition of the student body and faculty. Some MBA programs have even established campuses in other countries and may offer you an opportunity to spend a semester studying abroad. Also, consider whether or not the cases and course materials have an international perspective.

For some students, a school with a local focus might be preferable. While it can be exciting to go to school with MBA students from 40 different countries, remember that many of those students will head home upon graduation. Schools where most graduates stay in the region after graduating will have a more geographically concentrated alumni network.

Country Club vs. Boot Camp

There is always a debate brewing about whether MBA students should be treated as customers or cadets. Some students want business school to be a struggle that will toughen them up; others take an equally valid stance that they are paying a king’s ransom for their MBA and should have their needs catered to. You should decide what your expectation is on this dimension and find a school that matches it because you’ll be miserable if you think you have joined a country club and instead find yourself in a boot camp!

Traditional vs. Bleeding Edge

Is the business school married to tradition or always on the bleeding edge? Of course, you want the business schools on your shortlist to prepare you for the kinds of challenges you’ll be facing ten years from now. On the other hand, there are drawbacks to being the guinea pig for version 1.0 of a curriculum designed 10 minutes ago.

Do the school’s curriculum, course offerings, and degree design feel like they were shaped during the Industrial Revolution or the Information Age? Is the course catalog chiseled in stone or still warm from the laser printer? To choose the MBA program that is the best fit for you in this dimension, consider whether you are an early-adopter who is comfortable on the bleeding edge or if you prefer the stability and predictability that comes from tradition.

Exercise: Select the Best Culture for You

You may have heard rumors about the culture of certain MBA programs: “this school is competitive, that school is collaborative, etc.” We want to encourage you to look beyond stereotypes. The best way to decide where you fit culturally is to experience a school firsthand. Visit campus, sit in on a class, and pay careful attention to how people interact. Meeting with students and alumni and asking them to describe the culture is helpful; better yet, pay close attention to the personalities of the people you meet and the vibe you get from them.

Building a “personality profile” of the schools on your shortlist is difficult. We have developed an exercise that you can use once most of your school visits and meetings are complete to decide which school’s culture is the best fit for you.

The “Party Exercise,” adapted from a book called What Color is Your Parachute? (Bolles, 2003), may help you to choose the MBA program with the best culture for you. This exercise works best once you’ve spoken to several students and alumni for your shortlist of MBA programs.

Imagine that you walk into a party consisting of all the people you have met from each school over the years and especially throughout your school selection research: students, alums, professors, admissions officers, and so on.

At the party, people have congregated with people from their school. In your imagination, fill your party with people from as many schools as you have on your shortlist. The question you need to answer is: “If you could only choose one group to spend the entire evening with, which would you join?”

After deciding which group you’d join first, think about why you made your selection and write down some of the reasons. What is it about this group of people that makes you feel at home with them?

Next, imagine that your favorite school congregation exits the party, and you have to choose another school’s group. Where do you go next?

Continue this exercise until you’d rather leave the party than join any of the remaining groups. Clearly, you should remove those MBA programs from your target list.

Apply to MBA Programs that Match Your Qualifications

Thus far, we have focused on helping you choose the MBA programs that are the best match for you. However, before you begin the hard work of applying, you need to be realistic about whether you will be a great match for them. The last step in choosing your MBA programs is to consider the competitiveness of your candidacy versus the acceptance rates of the schools on your shortlist.

While you do need to be realistic about your MBA candidacy, be careful not to become your own admissions officer. Some schools may be a reach for you but, with effort and little luck, are still within reach. There is only one way to find out for sure, and that is to send them your application.

To select schools that match your qualifications, you should read our article on how to strengthen your candidacy. The number and severity of the “dings” in your candidacy are directly proportional to the acceptance rates of the schools you should apply to. If you have many potential “dings” in your application that you cannot correct, you need to target MBA programs with higher acceptance rates.

If you have some significant “dings” in your profile, you will want to balance each “reach” school in your portfolio by applying to schools with less stringent entrance requirements. If possible, apply to three or four business schools per round to increase your chances of being accepted.

Final Thoughts

Choosing an MBA program is a blend of art and science. You must balance the criteria you desire in a program (its location, career resources, academic offerings, and community) with the strength of your qualifications. However, ensuring you have a school list with achievable targets doesn’t mean ignoring “reach” schools or applying to programs you wouldn’t be excited to attend. At MBA Prep School, we advise our clients to apply to at least one “dream” business school and not bother applying to schools that don’t excite them even if the programs check some of their boxes.

Remember that you will be investing a significant amount of time and money pursuing your MBA, so you want to be absolutely certain that your investment will pay off during your time in business school and well into the future.

The Ultimate MBA Application Handbook

You only need one guide to getting into the world’s top business schools, and this is it!

Grab your copy of the ultimate MBA Application Handbook and receive 30 days of free access to our premium digital content for MBA applicants.