This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com
Focusing on fit is one of the most important elements of finding the right business school. This can seem like an abstract thing to determine at first glance. After all, many students assume they’d be just as happy at Harvard Business School as they would at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business or MIT Sloan School of Management.
This might be true, but these top business schools really aren’t one-size-fits-all.
Your job, then, is to find out what is unique about each program, determine what about the program will most benefit your career goals, and persuade the admissions committee to take a chance that you will be a vibrant addition to its community. Many schools ask a version of the essay question, “Why Us?” – so here are some do’s and don’ts for addressing that prompt either in your application essay, or later on during the admissions interview.
Don’t: Regurgitate the well-known characteristics of the program as a way of explaining your interest. I’ve read countless first drafts of essays that cite the “unmatched student body, world-class faculty, and committed alumni network” as the reasons the applicant has chosen a certain MBA program. The admissions committee knows what the program’s strengths are and doesn’t want to read essay after essay of its own marketing messages.
Do: Show what you’ve learned about the program, beyond what you’ve read in the brochures and website, that makes it stand out for you. Your first point of entry will often be by participating in information sessions online or in your area, but the best way to really get to know the school is by visiting the campus and sitting in on a class. There’s no replacement for spending time in that environment to soak up the energy and get an authentic feel for the student experience.
Other ways to obtain a deeper understanding of the program include contacting the student clubs you are interested in, becoming a regular reader of the MBA student blogs many programs have and speaking to alumni. The feeling you walk away with after having personal contact with students past and present will speak volumes about whether the choice is a good fit for you.
[Follow these exercises to help MBA applicants develop a personal brand.]
If you can you already see yourself learning alongside the students at the MBA program you’re considering, or if your coffee chat with an alum gave you a great impression about the strength of the alumni network, make sure you say so in your application.
Don’t: Make the common mistake of extolling the superiority of the program you’re targeting over all other schools. The admissions committee isn’t interested in declarations of eternal love and will likely suspect that you’re professing the same adoration for every school to which you’re applying.
Do: Focus on how your career goals, interests and educational needs are a good match for the program. Whether the school is known for its emphasis on the case method, experiential learning or lecture-based learning, explain why you too favor that format. Discuss which specific courses would help you develop some of the skills that are missing from your toolbox.
Applicants usually have a clear picture of where they want to work after graduation, so let the admissions committee know if you think the program’s geographic location is an ideal place to launch your post-MBA career.
If you love the fact that the program provides ample opportunities for working and studying abroad, explain how having that experience ties in to your plans. Also, if you discover there is a club on campus dedicated to one of your hobbies or passions, show how you would participate and contribute to that side of the student experience.
Don’t: Assume the admissions committee will immediately understand why you want to do an MBA based on your previous career experience.
Do: Explain in great detail why the degree is the next logical step in your career trajectory, and provide concrete examples of how a particular program will help you reach those goals. Perhaps the program is known for its strengths in an area you wish to specialize in, or offers an intriguing dual degree program.
If there’s a particular industry you want to break into, or a company you really want to work for, research placement stats through the career services office to find out if they recruit heavily at your target program. After all, the school wants to make sure they can help you find work after you graduate.
As you can see, there are many ways to determine a genuine interest in a program that goes far beyond the latest MBA rankings. Going to business school is an expensive yet rewarding experience, and arming yourself with as much information as possible will go a long way toward making an informed decision.