When I began applying to Business Schools in America, I believed that the application process was the most stressful part, and after that was complete – I could sit back and relax. But I soon learned otherwise. As I started sorting out the acceptance letters from the rejects, I realized that making the final selection of the perfect school for me was far more complex than the application process itself. All the schools flaunted fantastic brochures with top-notch faculty, a culturally and professionally diverse student body, resourceful alumni, cutting-edge research and a challenging learning environment. This decision was not going to be easy. I solicited advice from counselors, colleagues, friends, professors and family, and learned a lot from those never-ending discussions. Like most other applicants, the cost of the program was of prime importance. And the possibility of job opportunities thereafter was crucial. While these criteria were no doubt very significant, today, after having recently completed my MBA, I have come to realize the importance of other non-traditional and supplementary factors that we often overlook when making our final B-School selection. I would like to share some of those factors with you.
Beyond Business School Rankings
The first thing to keep in mind is that different publications use different criteria to rank B-schools. The Wall Street Journal, for example, strictly uses feedback from recruiters, while US News assesses the quality of the program, and the placement success and selectivity of the students to reach an overall rank. These league tables no doubt give you a first general idea of the top Business Schools, but that is all that you should take away from it – a general idea. Be wary of choosing a B-School solely on the basis of its ranking. A top-10 school does not guarantee that it will attract all the best companies in the specific industry you are interested in. It is more important to be sure of the career you want to pursue after your MBA, and pick a school that is well-known in that field.
There are a number of schools that are not very highly ranked, and yet seem to attract the best companies in select industries. This could be due to a number of reasons: the school might have a very strong academic base in the relevant department, it might have good relations with companies in that industry, a faculty member might be serving on the company’s board, or the school might be located in the vicinity of the company’s operations. For example, if you are interested in banking/consulting you might want to consider a school on the East Coast; for manufacturing, look at the Mid-West; and for Technology, the West Coast.
I am not saying that the brand name of the school is not important. I am just raising a red flag so that you don’t ignore a school simply because it does not rank high. It could turn out to be the best choice for the career you want to pursue.
Some B-Schools boast of an incoming class of 500-600 students, while others are proud of a class of only 200 students. Deciding between a big and small school involves a few tradeoffs. Larger schools mean a larger number of students graduating every year, which translates into a larger body of alumni network that you can eventually tap into. Smaller schools usually mean a more intimate class setting, and stronger bonds between the students and professors. So although the alumni network might not be as large as in the case of a big school, it is usually more tight-knit.
Another factor to consider when determining the size of the alumni network, is the age of the program: the older the B-School, the larger the alumni network. Apart from considering the alumni association of the B-School, also look into the alumni association of the entire university. For example, factor in the alumni body of Harvard University in addition to considering the alumni network of the Harvard Business School.
Commitment of the alumni
The size of the alumni network is not the only thing that matters – you need to determine how involved they are with their alma mater. Do they re-visit the school often to give guest lectures? Are they active with career workshops? Do they help with mock interviews? Do they encourage their companies to recruit on campus? Are they responsive if you write to them? All these are questions that you should find answers to. And the best way to learn about the commitment of the alumni is by talking to current students of the program.
Diversity of the student body
Judging from my experiences in class, I learned almost as much from my classmates, as from my professors. And the more diverse the student body, the steeper the learning curve. By diversity, I don’t just mean demographically, I also mean diversity in work experiences and interests. It is very interesting to see how professional hockey players apply the same strategy concepts to their game that investment bankers apply to mergers and acquisitions. In order to judge the diversity of the student body, you should research the school’s website extensively. It is also a good idea to preview some of the resumes of current students in that school. (If they are not available on the school’s website, you may specifically make a request for them from the school.)
Two-year versus one-year program
A two-year program is highly recommended for students who are either not sure of the career they want to pursue after their MBA, or for those who are interested in switching careers after their MBA. This is because a two-year program gives the student the flexibility to take maximum number of courses, so that he can finally make a better informed decision about his career. And most importantly, a student gets an opportunity to experiment with a new career during the three-month internship period, which might eventually lead to a full time job offer. However, if at the end of the internship, he decides that the career is not for him, he can pursue another track after he graduates. In my class, there were ex-musicians testing the waters of venture capital, and ex-teachers experimenting with investment banking during their internships.
In the case of a one-year program, the prime benefits are the savings in cost and time.
It is an accelerated and intensive program, which generally does not involve an internship period. It is well-suited to a professional who perhaps already has a master’s degree, and is not interested in changing his career after his MBA. This type of student is usually not interested in exploring additional courses, nor does he gain too much value from the internship period.
Most schools in America have a distinct culture that they are proud of, and are always trying to determine if you will fit into their culture. There are schools that are highly competitive, and then there are schools that are highly collaborative. The school builds everything – right from its grading system to its student interaction – around this culture. Take for example the Yale School of Management, which emphasizes its collaborative culture. Among the many initiatives taken by the school to create a team-building atmosphere, it maintains a system of non-disclosure of a student’s grades to his potential employer. This ensures that the competition between students is not antagonistic, but instead fosters an in-built cooperative culture. Then again, there are students who prefer a more aggressive environment, where they have to constantly fight to stay at the top. In that case, they should opt for a more competitive school.
Typically, you should determine the kind of environment in which you will thrive, and select your school accordingly. The way to learn about a school’s culture is not by browsing the website, nor by analyzing the brochure. You should instead talk to current students, faculty, and alumni and try to personally visit the school if possible.
Ability to take classes across different schools
A university runs many different schools – one of which is the Business school. Some B-schools allow you to take classes for credit across the university: the Law School, the School of Architecture, the School of Environmental Studies etc. You can even choose to study a foreign language for credit. This is great opportunity to broaden your horizons, and develop specific skills to target niche recruiters.
The list of factors that I have provided above is not exhaustive – but instead they complement the usual factors that you should consider when reviewing a Business School. I hope that you are now better prepared to make your final decision.