Building an MBA Program Short List

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com

When the idea of pursuing an MBA degree first germinates, many prospective applicants begin picturing themselves roaming the hallowed halls of Harvard Business School or Stanford Graduate School of Business.

But getting hung up on one or two dream schools isn’t a smart strategy. Most applicants need to submit four to six applications in order to maximize chances of success.

In the early stages of research, stay open-minded about business school options. Applicants may discover an interesting program that previously wasn’t even on their radar. Putting together a school list is a very personal process, but these are some of the question prospective students can ask to start thinking about to guide their selection strategy.

1. Where are you in the window for applying? The overwhelming majority of MBA applicants range in age from their mid-20s to early 30s. Younger applicants often decide to apply to one or two choices the first time, figuring that they can always reapply a few years down the line with more work and life experiences under their belt.

This is a fine strategy for that younger age group. However, older candidates should apply to a wide array of schools to make sure they have the option of going to business school next fall.

No matter which end of the age spectrum you fall, it’s important to still present yourself as a “work in progress,” and demonstrate how the program you’re applying to will transform you.

2. What industry do you want to work in? Many applicants have very specific career goals, and may even know which companies they aspire to work for post-MBA. If that’s the case, call up that company and ask what they think about business schools you may be targeting.

I once had a client with her heart set on attending Columbia Business School, and she also had a short list of companies she wanted to target for a summer internship. When she called one of her top companies, she learned they recruited at five schools, but Columbia was not one of them.

They also told her it was virtually impossible to secure an internship if she didn’t come from one of those schools. This five-minute phone call had a huge impact on her school list.

3. What kind of community feeling do you prefer? These characteristics are highly subjective, and figuring out what environment they would flourish in will help applicants determine whether a particular program is a good overall fit.

Big cities provide unparalleled access to business and recreation, but rural programs offer more of an immersive environment and are typically more close knit and family friendly?.

Cost savings can also be a huge factor for many applicants in this situation. The cost of living for a family at Duke Fuqua School of Business in North Carolina, will be lower than for an MBA candidate and family at a school like New York University Stern School of Business or the Anderson School of Management at the University of California—Los Angeles.

Geographic location also matters a great deal for certain industries, such as New York for finance, the Bay Area for entrepreneurship, Los Angeles for entertainment and Texas for energy.

The location of your school will also likely determine where your post-MBA job is. Even if you intend to target companies with offices around the globe, you’ll have the highest exposure to jobs in your immediate geographic area.

4. How do you learn best? Unfortunately, this question typically doesn’t receive as much consideration as it should. Not everyone excels in the same learning environment, and it’s important for students to find out where they’d be most comfortable.

Students may prefer the case method approach to learning, a highly experiential environment; a traditional, lecture-based style; or some mixture of these. Business schools are very specific about their teaching methods, and this information is easily gleaned on their websites.

Teaching method affects not only students’ enjoyment of the program, it also affects the quality of the knowledge they walk away with, so students should only consider MBA programs where they can thrive, not merely survive. Learn as well how rigorous the workload is, which varies by school. After all, the MBA is about much more than academics.

Even students who have a pretty good idea of the MBA programs they plan to target should= know that the most well-thought-out school list is still a work in progress, with new programs added in and others dropping off as they further clarify your goals. Students only have one chance to study an MBA, and weighing all of these different elements at the outset will help them find the right fit.

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