This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.
One piece of advice you’ll hear often as an MBA applicant is to consider fit when deciding which business schools to target. Many factors go into determining fit, and many candidates focus too heavily on rankings and brand over finding the business school where they will truly thrive.
But what exactly is this elusive fit? Basically, fit means feeling like you belong as soon as you set foot on campus, feeling comfortable in the learning environment when you sit in on a class, and knowing this is the program that is going to help you reach your career goals.
Whether you’re a prospective applicant starting to pull together a list of programs or you’re in the enviable position of choosing between two or more admissions offers, start determining the best fit for you by considering the three C’s – curriculum, communication and culture.
• Curriculum: Business schools periodically revamp their course offerings to keep up with trends in management education, leadership research and innovations in the business world at large. Lately, common additions or changes include more required and elective experiential courses, as well as new opportunities for students to customize their learning experience.
All general management MBA programs will provide you with the fundamentals of core management skills. The next step to determining fit requires you to find out just how well the programs align with your post-MBA career goals.
Top business schools are often known for their strengths in specific fields – finance, entrepreneurship, marketing, health care, real estate development, etc. – so start by narrowing your list based on how well the program meets your needs and can prepare you for that industry.
If you have laser-focused career goals, you may want to consider business schools that offer a concentration in your area of interest. Also, you might prefer a school with a more versatile curriculum from the beginning that you can really tailor to your needs.
For example, the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business offers a flexible curriculum that allows students to choose which courses to take and when based on their experience and career goals.
Students at Harvard Business School meanwhile spend the entire first year in core classes and have the second year to customize their learning focus. Choose a program with a curriculum that suits you and your learning style best.
• Communication: MBA hopefuls spend a lot of time creating an application that allows the admissions committee to get a feel for who they are beyond test scores, a resume and transcripts.
You may also want to consider whether the admissions team seems genuinely interested in getting to know applicants, too. A great way to gauge this – in addition to evaluating your own communications with the school – is by seeing how often and how much engagement the admissions committee offers you.
Take, for example, the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor’s Ross School of Business, where the director of MBA admissions and financial aid Soojin Kwon updates her blog every few weeks, offering application tips, deadline and interview news, school events and other thoughts. She or someone in her department also answer each post’s comments. It may just be that famous Midwestern hospitality, but Ross candidates seem to feel a genuine connection that starts during their admissions experience.
Another excellent source of communication comes from the school-sponsored student blogs. You can read first- or second-year students’ blogs that cover everything from their social environment and career musings to travel highlights and student life for international MBA students. These blogs a great way to connect with current students and learn more about the daily experience at your target schools.
• Culture: Getting a feel for the prevailing culture at a school is an important part of deciding whether the program is a good fit for your personality. You can begin your assessment by determining whether the culture is predominantly competitive or collaborative.
Size and location often play an important role in this regard – larger programs in urban centers, such as Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Chicago Booth typically feel much more competitive and intense.
Smaller business schools and those located in rural settings usually foster a close-knit community feeling, with many students living on campus and socializing with fellow students and faculty on a regular basis. MBA programs with smaller cohorts, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, Stanford Graduate School of Business and Yale School of Management take pride in their down-to-earth, collaborative cultures.
There’s no right or wrong when it comes to a school’s culture – it’s simply a matter of choosing the environment where you think you’ll thrive.
Choosing where to pursue an MBA is a huge decision, so do your homework and understand the strengths and potential drawbacks of each option. Knowing yourself and how a particular school suits your professional goals and needs is the essence of making the right choice about fit.