Friday, October 30, 2015 at 1pm

MBA Search: 5 Ways it Differs from the Undergrad Search

Choosing a school

MBA graduates are spooked. A 2014 Fortune magazine article reports that a full 25% of graduate-level degrees are in business – meaning MBA programs and others churn out around 200,000 graduates per year.

With that kind of glut in the market – and as business majors, I’m sure this is obvious – the status of the degree doesn’t hold the same luster. That is to say, an MBA is no longer the guaranteed path to a career that it was once purported to be. So how do you protect your investment in this education? The answer is simple: Find the right school for you.

But how? Don’t be tempted to fall back on how you applied to undergrad programs. While there are some similarities between applying to undergrad and MBA programs, there are distinct differences as well. You will need to map these out in order to get the ROI you deserve.

Drill down.

When applying to undergrad, you probably weren’t as specific when it came to describing what you wanted to do professionally. You may have been looking toward a business track, but the details were likely still murky...were you interested in marketing, accounting, human resources? Probably you weren’t ready to make that choice. However, when beginning your MBA search, it is essential that you have a very clear path in mind. The major questions you have to answer when approaching an MBA search are: “Why now?” and “Why here?”

Find the best option for you.

“So, I just apply for Harvard and Wharton and cross my fingers, right?” Not so much. Notice that earlier I said you want to find the right school for you – not just the best school in general. According to various metrics, lists of the best MBA programs can be found online. However, now that you have a better idea of your career choice, do some research into the top business schools in your chosen field and focus on those. Obviously, a degree from Harvard will always be impressive, but (for example) Harvard isn’t even listed in the 10 top business schools (here) when it comes to a degree in HR. Do your research, narrow down your best options, and always make sure your program is accredited by at least one of the three main international bodies: AACSB, EQUIS or AMBA.

Teacher, teacher!

Chances are that the merits of specific professors were not on your radar when it came to your undergraduate studies. However, for your MBA search, it’s imperative that you discover where the most active professors are in your desired area of expertise. Not only will these faculty members hold golden tickets to your best internships and relationships in the professional world, they will also draw likeminded peers from around the world. And remember that 50% of this degree is in the networking.

Be careful in this area of your MBA search. Some of the biggest luminaries in the field may be de facto professors at your top business schools, but because of book tours, sabbaticals and the time they have to spend invested in their innovative research, they may not be able to hobnob with you. Talk to students at your top business schools and make sure that the professors are accessible.

Don’t think of extracurricular activity as extra.

Undergrad meant dipping into many activities and experimentation – maybe marching band one day and volleyball the next. I’m not saying that you still can’t enjoy or achieve in areas that seem far afield from business. After all, being well-rounded makes you a better professional. However, I am saying, when looking at an MBA program, you want to focus on finding leadership opportunities.

The number one qualification that hiring managers are looking for is leadership. Within your extracurriculars, find a way to take some specific responsibility. Research extracurriculars at a potential program that have a history of success. Somewhere with a strong MBA case competition team, for example, might be a good place to look. Alumni-related positions at places with healthy networks are also desirable for obvious reasons – they show your commitment to the school and help you connect recent grads and luminaries.

Who are you?

You probably didn’t realize that you like to work in collaboration, or that the thrill of competition is what drives you, until you were already through your undergraduate years. But how you jibe with the overall culture of your chosen MBA program should not be overlooked. The culture of the school can also mean size (do you prefer a large program with more resources or an intimate one where you get more hands-on time?) or a focus on diversity (is it important for you to get a global perspective or is that not as crucial?).

Ultimately the search for the MBA program that is right for you is about your dedication to specific goals. The more you can hone in on your ideal career path and what this MBA will do for you, the easier the choice will become. It’s a little tougher than looking for the best party school (as you may have done for undergrad), but the rewards are greater. 

Ryan Hickey is the managing editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants.

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