How to Pick a Business School: Narrowing it Down

So you've decided to do an MBA. But where? Asking a few key questions can help you choose from the thousands of b-schools out there.

As the saying goes, the hardest thing about running a mile is putting on your shoes. 

Okay, so that might not be always be true. But the point is that first steps can be difficult.

This article is for those who have decided to pursue an MBA, but now have to choose which of the thousands of business schools to apply to. But faced with the barrage of information in the form of school rankings, MBA fairs, brochures, chats, blogs, tweets, and YouTube promos, your head is probably spinning - not an ideal condition to take one's first steps.

For some MBA hopefuls, the choice of where to go might already be clear: Harvard or bust. For others, perhaps it's just a matter of picking a local school to do a part-time program. 

But for most of us, the question of where to apply is more complicated. All kinds of factors come into play. Do you need an elite school on your resume? Can you afford that? Do you want to go abroad? Do you want a school with a strong reputation in a particular area, like finance or marketing?

A good first step, therefore, is asking yourself these questions; or even taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture.

"I wouldn't start with picking the school," says Sherry Wallace, admissions manager at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler School of Business. "Start with 'why am I doing an MBA?'"

Wallace says that strong applicants have typically experienced challenges at work, and recognize that they have holes in their knowledge and skillset.

?Really good applicants are able to describe that feeling that 'I could have handled a project better if I only had some more tools,'? says Wallace. Filling these gaps is just one of several compelling motives for pursuing an MBA.

"The best thing to do is to put pen to paper, and write down the things that have encouraged you to do an MBA," suggests Oliver Matthews, head of MBA admissions at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

"If it's the fact that people at your company have been getting MBAs and getting promoted ahead of you, okay, that's a motive," he says. "Now you know the reason for getting an MBA - promotion within the same industry."

From there, you can focus on schools that offer relevant concentrations or have close links to that industry. Will you, for example, have the opportunity to do internships or projects with companies in the industry during the MBA program? Is the business school accredited, and will the degree be well-regarded by employers?

"Then ask yourself, are you happy in the country you're in," says Matthews. "Or is part of the MBA the fact that you just want to go overseas, and start a new career somewhere else? You kind of have to narrow it down by whether you are happy in the industry and company and just want to get promoted."

Don't waste my time

If this all sounds like touchy-feely, soul searching, most MBA applicants will probably have to answer these questions in some form when it comes time to write essays and do interviews anyway. Better to start early, before you finalize your favorite schools.

"It can be a waste of the candidate's time if they don't go through those steps, because it will be apparent to the person reading their application," says Jodi Schafer, admissions manager at the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business.

"It's going to be in their best interest to take the time up front to look into these things so they can present a better case for themselves to join the program they want to be a part of," she adds.

Sherry Wallace at UNC Kenan-Flagler says it's important for applicants to have done their "homework" about how schools match their career aims. If an applicant hasn't, it can be a red flag during admissions interviews.

"When you recognize that someone's interest in the program is that casual, it's very hard for you to get really excited about the prospect of enrolling them," says Wallace.

"It's so expensive now to do the MBA, and I feel it is irresponsible for us to allow someone to come in and make a $100,000-plus investment if they don't have a really good and feasible plan."

Photo: Joe Thorn / Flickr

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