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How to Choose the Right MBA Programs for You

Follow these Four Steps to Find the Right Business Schools

Which MBA

“The most frustrating part I have found is the vast amount of information about schools, applications, and chances that is out there. It’s been hard to sift through all the noise and really figure out what schools are good for you and what your actual chances are.”
– Margaret, USA

Feel the same way?

Trust me, you’re not alone.

We’ve helped over 1,000 MBA applicants from 50 countries shortlist MBA programs, and hear comments like this all the time.

What if you could figure out MBA programs you’re excited about AND competitive at, that would be a great investment in your future? And do this with the least time and effort?

I’m a former MBA Admissions Director who has thought about this problem – how to make school selection easier – for the past 5 years.

I’ve also observed where applicants end up applying and attending. Why? So I could cut out any part of the research and selection process that has no utility. In other words, to save you time.

I would like to share with you the 4-step method that I believe is most effective for shortlisting best-fit MBA programs.

The best part of this method? It will give you the best chance of getting in, too.

But first, let’s talk about rankings.

Rankings – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The quickest way to choose business schools is to use MBA rankings.

The philosophy is simple: apply to the highest ranked MBA programs you’re competitive at.

This takes the least time as #1, #2, #3, etc are already determined.

The Good

Applying to top-ranked schools offers a safe-proxy for value, from quality of education to network to career opportunities.

Top-ranked schools get the most applicants each year, and tend to be the most selective – your peers are likely to have attended top schools, worked for top companies, and achieved top marks in whatever they do.

You’re guaranteed a distinguished alumni network – most top-ranked schools have long histories – as well as recruiters in traditional MBA industries. Brand-names like Harvard, Stanford and Wharton are known in business circles worldwide.

And long-term return-on-investment is strong as graduates from the top schools command the highest average salaries.

The Bad

You’re using someone else’s criteria of “what makes a top business school” to make a huge life decision.

If those external criteria don’t match yours, you could end up in the wrong place.

As rankings are the default method to choose schools, you’re competing with more applicants so it’s harder to stand out – and win scholarships.

For example, the “M7” schools – Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia, Chicago, Northwestern and MIT – received around 40,000 applications last year, while next 18 top US business schools received 42,000 applications. Harvard and Stanford alone got 17,500 applications for 1,400 seats.

The Ugly?

Most applicants relying on rankings say stuff like:

Stage

Considering MBA

Applying

Getting In

Graduating

Burning Question

Which schools are top-ranked???

Which top-ranked schools can I get into???

Got into School X and School Y, where should I go??? Help!

As someone who had an alternative career path the career center was pretty much worthless. I highly recommend looking beyond the name and the prestige to the actual experience.


I see comments like this all the time, especially on popular MBA forums like GMATClub.

Do you see the problem with blindly using rankings?

First, it limits your MBA school universe.

Second, instead of starting with “what’s important to me?” your mindset is “how can I jump over the fence?” Ranking-motivated applicants generally do less self-reflection, which results in less research and weaker, generic applications.

Finally, even if you do get in, chances are higher that you’ll be caught off guard by your MBA experience, whether because you lack clear direction or had different expectations for what a top-ranked school should be…

That’s why I recommend the following process to set your compass. It requires more time, but the benefits are more options, stronger applications, and a better chance of making the right MBA investment.

Step 1: Reflect on Your A, B and C

Think of your journey as: A + B = C

Find a quiet place. And reflect on: A (where you are) and C (where you want to go).

Meditate on this for 1 hour or even 1 week if you have to (yes, this is hard).

I encourage you to think about this both professionally and personally.

Professionally, what industry, function, and geography are you in now? What industries, functions and geographies do you want to work in? For your long-term career vision, what causes or groups of people matter most to you? What people, places, things fascinate you?

Personally, what do you want to be, do and have? Or be more of, do more of, and have more of?

Then you must think about B (what do you need to do) to get from A to C.

B usually is some combination of skills, knowledge, contacts and experiences.

Self Reflection – On Paper is Best!

ABC

You may realize there are other ways – besides an MBA – that can get you from A to C.

Or that getting an MBA is the only way.

Step 2: Determine Your “Must Haves”

You’ve determined an MBA could really help you. You have personal and professional reasons for making the investment.

Now, what are your MUST HAVES for your MBA program?

Not “that would be nice to have” or “that would be cool to have.”

But your absolute, non-negotiable, deal-breaking MUST HAVES.

Does this sound like you’re looking for a life-partner? You are.

Below you can find the most common decision-making criteria for MBA applicants. Pick the 3-5 most important to you, and list in order of priority.

– Program Location
– Program Ranking
– Program Completion Time
– Class Profile (i.e. average GMAT, GPA, work experience)
– Class Composition (i.e. no. of students, percentage international)
– Quality of Faculty
– Specific Curriculum Offered
– Academic Specializations Offered
– Program Accreditation
– Return on Investment
– Availability of Scholarships
– Total Tuition
– Average Starting Base Salary and Other Compensation
– Percent of Graduating Class with Job Offers
– School’s Job Placement Reputation
– Alumni Network

This will be different for everyone, and explains why MBA graduates from top-ranked schools still gripe about their experience. Their criteria did not match their ranking’s criteria.

Our team uses ranking data (Financial Times, US News and World Report, Economist, Forbes, Bloomberg Businessweek) and web research for the 20 criteria we offer applicants.

(sidenote: thank you ranking publications for gathering data to compare schools ♥)

Even if you think only 1-2 schools fit, look into at least 7 programs. It’s important at this stage to widen your options. While researching you’ll uncover information and discover other interesting schools.

Now rate your schools from 1 (weak) to 10 (strong) across your must have criteria.

Give your most important criteria the most weight and vice versa. So if you use 5 must haves, your #1 criteria could have a weight of 5. Your #5 criteria could have a weight of 1.

Multiply your scores by weight and add up each school’s total.

Sample MBA Decision Matrix

FACTORS (weight)MBA 1MBA 2MBA 3MBA 4MBA 5MBA 6MBA 7
Location (5)10 [50]4 [20]8 [40]
Ranking (4)5 [20]10 [40]7 [28]
ROI (3)6 [18]8 [24]8 [24]
Faculty (2)5 [10]8 [16]7 [14]
Starting Salary (1)5 [5]8 [8]7 [8]
TOTAL SCORE103108114
(best)

Which schools scored the highest?

While your assessment of schools may be subjective, you’re using cold, hard logic to see which schools score highest for your most important criteria. The results may surprise you.

Step 3: Evaluate Your Competitiveness

Now, after all that hard work – figuring out your direction, must haves, and widening your school list – you can consider your competitiveness.

Here’s a simple framework to think about your competitiveness.

Think of your profile along 3 dimensions:

  1. Academic – evidence of your academic aptitude
  2. Career – evidence of your career impact, progress and direction
  3. Ambassadorial – evidence of your leadership, teamwork and interests

Then imagine a scale from [oustanding – strong – solid – average – weak] for each dimension.

For example, if your GMAT falls below a school’s 80% range, you are weak for that sub dimension. If your GPA is a lot higher than a school’s average GPA, you are outstanding for that sub dimension. If you went to a university with a solid reputation, your academic profile in totality would probably be solid.

You need to be “outstanding” on all 3 dimensions to get into the most competitive schools.

You need to average a “solid” across all 3 dimensions to get into top 100 programs.

If you’re weaker in 1 dimension (academics), you can make up for it by being stronger in another dimension (career) – this works for the vast majority of business schools.

This is what admissions officers mean when they say they evaluate applicants holistically.

We score your competitiveness on a 15-point scale across these 3 dimensions at Touch MBA, and let you know whether your target schools are stretches, targets or safeties. We also put you in touch with top schools for feedback before you apply to save you time.

Otherwise, I’d encourage you to get your profile reviewed by admissions consultants, colleagues and friends who are familiar with the MBA application process.

Step 4: Interact to Find Fit

By now you’ve found 5-10 MBA programs that fit your goals and that you’re competitive at. Now which ones get you giddy with excitement?

There’s only one way to determine this: contact with the actual people and place.

Through your reflection, you have (authentic) reasons for applying to each school, career direction, and well-researched questions that signal true interest.

This is when you should speak with 2-3 students from each target program. Even better if you can connect with students with similar “must haves” and career goals. Hearing your story, students will share their experience and introduce you to people and parts of the school you never knew about.

Meet admissions and career staff. They know you’ve done the legwork and that you’re qualified – this is not a waste of their time. In fact, hopefully all involved want you as part of the family.

Visit campuses if you can. This is your chance to “sample” the MBA experience before making the jump. Some schools will just feel right.

Keep notes of your conversations, impressions and flashes of insight – they will make your application even better.

Soon your intuition will scream which 3-6 MBA programs and communities “fit” you best.

In Summary

Here’s the short version:

  • Where do you want to go? Can an MBA get you there?
  • What are the critical few traits your MBA program must have?
  • Which MBA programs score highest for your criteria?
  • What schools are within range?
  • Which schools feel right?

If you take action on these questions, you’ll find your best-fit business schools.

Not only that, you can apply with confidence and with loads of powerful application material.

How are you choosing schools? Have questions? Comment below.

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