This post originally appeared on Stacy’s ‘Strictly Business’ MBA blog on U.S. News
While the majority of business school applicants we’ve surveyed in recent years say reputation is the most important factor they consider when choosing which MBA programs to target, prospective students should consider other equally – or perhaps more – important things as well.
Round one application deadlines are just around the corner, and you’ll need to finalize your shortlist of programs ASAP. Look beyond rankings and reputation to weigh these other aspects that will help you narrow your choices to the MBA programs that will truly meet your professional and personal needs.
1. Flexible or fixed curriculum: There are two common approaches to coursework at the world’s top business schools: one is a first year of foundational classes followed by second-year elective coursework tailored to your specific objectives and the other is a flexible curriculum from the outset.
Which option is right for you depends entirely on your professional background, career goals, personal preference and, often, skill areas that need strengthening. A required core curriculum provides all students with a broad understanding of business fundamentals and is a format common to schools such as Harvard Business School, Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business and University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
A flexible curriculum – like that found at London Business School, Stanford University Graduate School of Business, the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and the University of California—Los Angeles’ Anderson School of Management – allows students to design their MBA program in a way that best accommodates their career objectives.
There’s an upside and downside to having a required core curriculum. For students who already have a deep background in, say, finance or marketing, the first-year experience may be somewhat boring academically. The considerable benefit of having all students take the same core classes early on is that the shared experience fosters strong social connections among classmates.
A final thought on MBA courses and their importance where school selection is concerned: Only apply to programs where you can clearly see how its core and elective courses over the next two years will thoroughly prepare you to reach your post-MBA professional goals.
2. Career services: When you’re researching potential business schools, one of the most important and often overlooked things to consider is the career center. After all, a primary reason for going for an MBA is to land a much better job upon graduation, and business schools know that a major selling point for MBA programs is their alumni’s career success rate.
Several programs involve the career center in the admissions process to make sure the applicant’s professional goals can be reached using the school’s resources. Having well-defined career goals is crucial to determining the best MBA program for you, so find out whether the career services office specializes in specific industries or sectors or has dedicated consultants for each industry. And if you are interested in working for specific companies after you graduate, don’t forget to call those companies directly and ask them where they recruit.
Some career services departments also include personal and leadership coaching, knowing that tomorrow’s MBAs will change jobs more often than previous generations and, therefore, need transferable tools and skills for long-term career success. You are ultimately the one in charge of your professional growth, so once admitted, stay proactive and start working with the career services department as soon as you hit campus.
3. Community culture: In SBC’s 2016 survey of MBA applicants, a mere 12.7 percent of respondents said that the MBA program’s culture was the most important factor influencing their decision to attend a particular business school. This is surprising, since we believe that finding that good fit with the MBA programs you’re targeting is one of the best predictors of your overall enjoyment of the b-school experience.
If you’re an applicant for whom getting into the best-ranked school takes precedence over all other considerations, the vibe of the school’s MBA community won’t matter. If that’s not you, talk to current and former students, visit the campus and evaluate your interactions with the admissions team to find out how comfortable you would be attending the program.
Are there clubs you can’t wait to join? Trips abroad that sound fascinating? Experiential learning opportunities that are completely in synch with your personal or career goals? A friendly or more competitive energy on campus? There are so many factors that shape the MBA experience – try not to focus too heavily on rankings and prestige over finding a program where you will truly be able to thrive.
For some applicants, there may be a clear winner after studying all of the quantitative and qualitative data. Or after researching all of these elements, you may still feel pulled in different directions. But at least you have a head start in finding the programs that fit you best.