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Deciding to go to business school is perhaps the simplest part of what can be a complicated process. With close to 1,000 accredited MBA programmes on offer around the world, the choice of where to study can be overwhelming.
“Probably the majority of people applying to business school are at a point in their careers where they know they want to shake things up, but they don’t know exactly what they want to do with their professional lives,” says Stacy Blackman, an MBA admissions consultant based in Los Angeles. “If that’s the case with you, look at other criteria: culture, teaching method and location, and then pick a place that’s a good fit for you with a strong general management programme. Super-defined career goals don’t have to be a part of this process.”
A good place to start your research is the rankings, says Michael Cohan, head of MBAPrepAdvantage, an admissions consultancy based in Miami. “The rankings put all the schools in one place and signal which programmes have the best reputation,” he says. “They also help you get a feel for a school’s selectivity: the median Graduate Management Admissions Test scores that a school requires, the grade point average of students and years of work experience.”
At the outset, says Cohan, you should have a list of a dozen or so establishments that excite you and which cover all the bases – reach, target and safety schools – and then narrow your search from there. Ultimately, most students apply to between four and six schools. “Remember: you’re not just applying to the school you want to go to; it’s understanding where you have a shot at getting in,” he says. “You need to be realistic.”
Before you begin the research phase in earnest, some personal reflection is required. Why do you want to get an MBA? What kind of learning style best suits you? Do you want to live in a big city? What are your future professional plans? After you have answered those questions, look at the schools that have programmes to match your needs. Read the MBA guidebooks, study the schools’ websites, consume their in-house blogs, investigate their application process, attend an information session and go to a school-sponsored event.
If you have a good idea of what you want to do after business school, think about which school will help you achieve that. While programmes vary, most business school curricula marry core courses on marketing, finance, accounting and organisational behaviour with electives on more specialised topics such as operations strategy, property development or investment management. Many schools offer programmes focused on a theme, such as health management or social responsibility.
“Begin with the end in mind,” advises Scott Shrum, director of MBA admissions research at Veritas Prep in California. “Where have other students landed jobs? Call the careers office to find out which companies recruit at the school. If you’re an international student, find out how many of the recruiters are generally willing to sponsor work visas.”
As you research the schools that most interest you, consider their teaching styles and what kind of classroom experience most resonates with you. Some schools use case studies: as homework, students work in teams to dissect “cases” that focus on a particular problem or issue faced by a company, and in the classroom, a professor cold-calls individual students using the Socratic method, a style of debate based on discussing opposing viewpoints, in order to improve skills of argument and analysis.
Some schools offer a lecture-based programme while others present a hands-on, experience-based learning environment; some schools offer a blend of all three. What resonates with you will depend entirely on what kind of learner you are.
As you whittle down your list of prospective schools, be sure to leave time for campus visits. Take a tour, sit in on a class, eat lunch in the dining hall, meet the professors and talk to students and alumni. “The best way to figure out whether a school is a good fit is to visit it,” says Shrum. “Most people know within the first hour whether they love a school or whether it’s just not clicking for them. The culture of the school is going to dictate how happy you are.”
Cohan agrees: “You want to make sure the school’s vibe meshes with you, and that this is a programme with which you feel comfortable. You want the right fit with the people in the programme because they are your network.”