How Life and Career Impact the Choice and Number of Potential B-Schools

how and when to get the MBA

“How many schools should I apply to? Which schools should I apply to?”

These are key questions aspiring MBAs ponder during the summer before the busy application-writing season in fall and winter. The answers are different depending on where the applicant is within his or her “window” of applying to business school.

The vast majority of MBA students are in their mid-20s to early 30s. Only a small portion come directly from college and only a few attend full-time business school in their late-30s and into their 40s. But even within the, say, eight-year “window”—from 24-32 years of age—applicants have a variety of inputs to consider when deciding the portfolio of MBA programs they should apply to.

Age: Many applicants in their mid-20s decide they will only apply to their first two choices this year, figuring they can reapply a couple years down the line when they have a bit more experience. We can understand this approach for some younger candidates, but applicants who are a bit older should strongly consider a different approach.

They should apply to a wider array of schools to ensure that they will at least have the option of attending business school in the fall of ’18. Of course, the best scenario involves an intelligent mix of top schools and “safer” schools that will yield a choice of MBA programs for the applicant. Some candidates get on an “Harvard or Stanford or nothing!” kick that doesn’t serve anyone’s interests.

Next career alternative: Some MBA aspirants are in positions in which they could continue on for many more years. Others hold roles at places like consulting firms or top investment banks where policy and/or tradition encourage young employees to get further education. In environments where one can continue to advance unfettered, a candidate might consider applying solely to his or her top choice programs. However, candidates coming from companies with 2-3 year analyst programs that don’t allow for much upward progression should probably cast their nets a bit wider, assembling a bigger portfolio of schools.

Career track satisfaction: We’ve talked to several MBA aspirants who feel they are “locked” in roles that are too technical or too narrowly defined. Yet, some still want apply to just a couple of very highly ranked programs. When people desire to make a career transition to an entirely new role or industry, we highly encourage them to apply to a broader array of business schools. There are incredible programs throughout the top 20 in the b-school rankings (and even beyond) that can provide the classes, career programs and alumni networks that aid this kind of transition.

First timer or re-applicant?: A candidate who is going through his or her second round of business school applications should almost always apply to more schools. If the candidate is applying a couple of years down the line after dramatically improving her experience base, then she might add a couple of new schools to the mix but still target her top programs from a few years before.

However, if the candidate is applying the very next year without significant changes in role, experience or extracurriculars,  it makes a lot of sense to pursue a different base of schools, with perhaps one or two holdovers from the year before.

Family considerations:
Taking two years to get an MBA is not just a business decision, it’s a life decision. Sometimes, the interests of boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives and children are critical factors in making the decision of if, when and where to apply. These considerations are much more complex and varied than the factors listed above, so it’s difficult to work through them in depth here.

For instance, we’ve met some students who wanted to get through business school quickly so that they could start a family afterward, but have also known of others who thought that business school (with day-care, low travel requirements, etc.) was a great environment to begin to build up their brood.

Candidates should talk with family, friends and mentors (and potentially an MBA application advisor) early in the application process to determine where they are in this “window” for business school. It’s an absolutely critical step in managing this multi-month application process thoughtfully.

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