Tuesday, May 12, 2015 at 7am

Choosing Between Top Business Schools: 6 Factors

choosing an MBA

Getting started is often the most difficult part of anything – be it your first job, launching an entrepreneurial venture or applying to top business schools. Step one of your MBA application is deciding which schools to apply to – this alone can be daunting.

If you are currently stuck at this stage, the following six factors should help you narrow down your choices.

Alignment with career goals

No single school can cater for everyone’s career goals. Even among top business schools, there is a difference in perception among recruiters, and fortunately or unfortunately, this perceptions sticks. The result is that business schools often get a reputation as a ‘finance school’ or a ‘consulting school’. Although most schools have a spread of students entering varied professions, it certainly helps to study at school known for marketing if your career goals involve working in marketing.

Timing

If you’ve decided to submit an MBA application to top business schools because your colleagues’ friends’ cousins’ neighbor has been accepted into a top MBA program, hold your horses. The ‘right’ time to apply varies from person to person, and this should be a carefully thought out decision, instead of a random burst of enthusiasm. Almost counterintuitively (for some), this decision should not be solely driven by your age. There are 24-year olds who have gained enough experience to be ready for business school, and there are 30-year olds who would be better advised to wait another year to strengthen their MBA application. You are the person who’s best placed to know when the right time is. Bear some things in mind – do you have the right recommenders? Do you have an amazing project you can flaunt? Does it make sense to retake the GMAT to gain that extra 30 points?

Format and location

The primary decision you need to make in terms of format is between a one-year and a two-year MBA. One-year MBAs are more intense and might suit someone with a bit more work experience. They’ll also save you some money.  Of course, there are some drawbacks as well – you may not get sufficient time to introspect and everything can seem hurried. You also need to decide which geography you prefer to study (and work) in. This is critical – international students need to look into visa requirements for both study and post-study work.

MBA Rankings

I’m not a big fan of business school and MBA rankings, but they are still critical. Allow me to explain this contradiction, since this is not meant to be a ‘bashing’ of MBA rankings. There are a few well-known MBA rankings and all have their own strengths and weaknesses. I’m sure they do rigorous analysis, and utilize foolproof methodologies to arrive at the final results, but it’s important to realize that the rankings are generic, and may not apply directly to you. ‘Generic’ is the operative word here; if we were to take the average profile of all MBA applications, and develop a ‘typical’ MBA applicant, MBA rankings would be the most relevant thing for choosing a business school. But the reality is that your story, career goals and preferences are different from other people’s, so you cannot use generic rankings to make one of the most important decisions of your career. Moreover, it’s alright to differentiate between a top-10 school and a school ranked between 20 and 30. However, if you find yourself believing that the school ranked 12th is better than the school ranked 14th you are getting carried away.

The right dose of ‘realism’

Yes, of course, you want to attend Harvard Business School. But so does everyone else (it might not even make you happy). It’s important to realize that the competition is intense – people with amazing backgrounds apply to top business schools. This is not to deter you from aiming high, but it’s important to realize where you stand. If you have a stellar background, go ahead and apply only to the elite colleges; at the same time, I would encourage you to take an honest look at your profile and choose your colleges accordingly.

What lies beyond the data?

It’s important to research relevant statistics, but at the end of the day, you need to trust your gut. Not very helpful, right? But you cannot know everything there is to know from skimming through articles. The best approach is to talk to alumni and current students and ask yourself whether you see yourself belonging to this community. There is only so much you can do through online research – there is no substitute to communicating with a person who’s been there and done that. 

Abhishek Sahay is currently pursuing his MBA at INSEAD. He was accepted into Wharton (with scholarship), Kellogg and INSEAD. He is now working on a unique, new approach to help applicants fulfil their MBA dreams.