What do I need to know about these schools?

By Jeremy Dann

All of my clients ask me this question as they prepare to write the “Why MBA?” essay that most applications require.  Adding school-specific details is certainly a must”¦but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

First, and most importantly, you need to know enough about these schools to know if you even want to apply.  Don’t leave it to the Business Week rankings to decide for you.  A lot of people forget this: you are the customer!  They are tweaking their programs, printing cutting edge brochures and traveling from city to city to convince you””the prospective MBA””to consider their schools.  Each MBA application will cost you a couple of hundred bucks and dozens of hours, so make sure the programs have most of the big and the little things you want from a school.  Go to the info sessions and ask real questions (many candidates try to use these sessions as a forum for impressing an admissions officer, which I don’t believe to be a very fruitful strategy).  Call the admissions department and ask for the names of recent alums in your area.  Get in touch with one or more of those folks and take them out for a coffee.  Talk to your firm’s alums at several business schools.

So, on to what you need to include in your essays.  I can’t tell you how many first drafts I’ve read that cite the “unmatched student body, world class faculty and committed alumni network” as the reasons this particular applicant has chosen a certain MBA program.  This person has said nothing.  You need to get specific to demonstrate that you’ve taken time out to research the school and that you have some legitimate reasons why you think their program fits with your needs.  But don’t hold yourself to too high a standard here; you’re not going to blow the committee away with some statement that shows you are the figurative “soul mate” of their MBA program (“My God, when she mentioned our emphasis on entrepreneurship, I just knew she had to be a part of our Columbia Business School community,” said the director of admissions as he wiped a tear of joy away from his cheek.  “I knew it”¦I knew it!”).

You can effectively research schools in just a few minutes (of course, you’ll have to dive in deeper in preparation for interviews, but that’s a topic for another day).  Check out the following offerings/traits the school of the school to see in what ways they mesh with your professional goals, learning agenda, personality and preferences:
”¢    Program format: case vs. lecture, traditional vs. accelerated, opportunities for study abroad, opportunities for “hands on learning”
”¢    Academic offerings: specific classes in your areas of interest (don’t make a laundry list; find a couple and show how they might impact you)
”¢    Faculty: certain specific profs that you might want meet with, help with research, etc.
”¢    Initiatives: often schools will emphasize certain disciplines or issues for several years, hosting events, developing new classes, etc. These are dubbed names like “The Entrepreneurship Program,” “The Healthcare Initiative” or “The Technology Roundtable”.
”¢    Field studies: faculty support for independent research, business plan development, etc.
”¢    Cross registration opportunities: what other resources does this university have to offer?
”¢    Clubs

Four to six sentences of solid material on “Why our program?” should set you up nicely.  Remember, you usually will have tons of other material to cover about your career progress and other topics.  Good luck.

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