Friday, September 11, 2015 at 4pm

Choosing Your Top Business School

EssaySnark on choosing a top business school

Everyone knows that Harvard Business School is great, and many people who've decided to go for an MBA add HBS to their list of application targets without giving it a second thought. And what of other top business schools: the likes of Stanford, Wharton, Kellogg and Chicago Booth? Who could ever argue against applying to schools of this ilk? These MBA programs are all considered ‘the best’ – why wouldn't you want to apply to them?

Those top business schools may in fact end up on your short list of targets. However, despite the fact that they tend to top the MBA rankings, those schools are all quite different. Do you know what they're about? You need to have a REASON to apply to each school on your list – and that reason should not simply be based on the school's reputation. The best way to select your MBA target schools, and to actually increase your chances of being accepted by them, is to start with yourself.

Before applying to business school, spend some time determining your own priorities and goals:

  • Why are you interested in getting an MBA?
  • What kind of experience do you want to have during the year(s) that you pursue it?
  • Who do you want to be surrounded with as you study?
  • What kind of learning environment is right for you?

Figuring out the answers to these questions will take you a long way in finding MBA programs that are right for you.

HBS case study method might not be your best fit

Sure, everyone wants to go to Harvard. Harvard is perhaps the most famous business school of them all and it dominates almost all of the MBA rankings around. However, the school's famous name is not a reason for you to apply. Harvard's strong reputation doesn't guarantee that you'll be happy there. Are you familiar with the case study method? That's almost exclusively how HBS classes are taught. The case study method requires something of an outgoing personality as well as a willingness to deal with ambiguity and to put yourself out there even when you aren't sure of the answers. An introvert may find it to be a challenging environment – which may be exactly what you want, as a way to spur personal growth, or it could be quite overwhelming. Before applying to Harvard Business School, you need to understand the classroom dynamics and what the experience of studying there might be like. Yes, it's a great school and most people would be absolutely thrilled to get in. Not everyone realizes what Harvard is really about, though, and this is an important factor to consider before applying.

Almost all top MBA programs use the case study method in at least some of their classes. Harvard Business School and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business are two that use it almost exclusively. In Europe, you'll find the same model at the University of Navarra’s IESE Business School. As part of your selection criteria, you may want to identify schools that focus extensively on the case study method, or less so, based on your own personal preferences and learning style.

MBA rankings cannot replace a campus visit

This is just one example of the ways in which top business schools can differ. Many other such factors of individual school dynamics and culture will affect your experience of studying there. The very best way to understand these dynamics and determine if a school is right for you is to visit. Do this when the semester is underway and classes are in session. That way, you can sit in on a class and see what it's like. Talk to students and get a feel for the community. Explore the campus and the surrounding neighborhoods, to see how you like it. It's totally different to pursue studies in the middle of a big city like at London Business School or Columbia or NYU, compared to an insulated – though some may say isolated – rural environment like Tuck or Cornell. Do you want to maximize the opportunity for networking with big companies? Top business schools located in cities are great for that. Do you want to carve out a unique space for yourself where you can really focus on your education as well as build relationships with your MBA peers? A small-town or rural setting could be ideal. Knowing what you want out of the MBA experience can eliminate certain schools from your list and make others rise to the top.

What do you want from these MBA programs?

Another important criterion for selecting schools comes down to the obvious question: Why do you want an MBA? Determining your career goals before starting your MBA research can help you identify a short list of programs that are exceptional in your particular area of interest. Do you want to focus on real estate, for example? Schools as varied as Wharton and UCLA Anderson might be a good choice for you here. Are you looking to dive deeper into healthcare? Kellogg, UC-Berkeley Haas and Vanderbilt Owen are some choices to consider. Identifying your career interests first can narrow your list of targets considerably and help you focus your efforts when applying. This also gives you more to talk about in those all-important admissions essays.

Using MBA rankings and reputation to choose MBA programs is of course valid; after all, you want to go to the best school you can get into. But these should not be the only criteria you use.  Start with the MBA rankings, but also explore your own personal preferences for pursuing the MBA. This increases your chances of joy on a day-to-day basis as you pursue the degree, and equally important, increases the chances you'll be accepted in the first place. The top schools value candidate fit. Knowing what they're about – and knowing your own priorities – is the best way to express that fit when you present yourself in your MBA application.

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