Every year, media outlets such as U.S. News & World Report, Fortune, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Financial Times publish lists of top MBA programs. Not surprisingly, this year’s top ten schools are basically the same ones as in previous rankings. You can dig into the methodologies to understand why the lists don’t change dramatically year over year.
Business school applicants often tell me that they want to go to a “top ten” school. However, when we look deeper, we discover that fewer than a handful of business school programs in the U.S. News top ten would meet their needs. As you consider the programs to which you might apply, I encourage you to use the following framework to focus your efforts on business schools that will help you achieve your goals—regardless of their ranking.
Before you start compiling your own top ten list of business schools, consider where you are trying to go in your career. What position(s) do you see yourself taking after you complete an MBA program? Your response should include industry, function, and geography as well as a short list of two or three target companies. The position should be ambitious yet achievable.
Take the time to find job postings for these positions so you can determine what skills and knowledge you need to be a viable candidate, and then identify the development areas that you need to address through an MBA. If you already have most of the required skills, perhaps you don’t need to go to business school. Alternatively, you might want to set your sights a bit higher!
You need to understand whether you are a competitive candidate for the programs you are considering. There is nothing you can do now to change your undergraduate GPA or where you went to college. Once you have your GMAT or GRE score (see “GMAT, GRE, or Even EA—Which Test Should I Take?”), take a look at class profiles from your schools of interest to see how your stats stack up.
The M7 (or “Magnificent 7”) business schools are a “stretch” for just about everyone. If your test score and GPA (if it is on a 4.0 scale) are around a program’s averages, then it might be a “target” for you. A business school could be considered “likely” if you are solidly above its averages. Your own top ten list should contain three to four stretch schools, three to four target schools, and two or three likely schools. If you absolutely want (or perhaps even need) to be in business school next year, then you should plan to apply to a mix of stretch and target schools in Round 1. If you don’t have an acceptance in hand by December, you could submit applications to your likely schools in Round 2.
Not all business school curriculums are the same! Keep your previous experience and career goals in mind as you research course offerings. Many programs offer a general management degree, while some allow students to focus on specific areas through majors, concentrations, certificates, or pathways. For example, if your goals are in health care, be on the lookout for health care–specific course offerings.
Typically, business schools have core or required courses and electives. At some schools, like Harvard Business School, everyone takes the same courses (Required Curriculum) during the first year. Even if you have a CPA, you will be taking the same intro accounting class as peers who have never heard of LIFO or FIFO. At other programs, you can place out of core courses or take a higher-level course if you have a background in a subject. At Chicago Booth, there is only ONE required course, “LEAD,” giving students ultimate flexibility to choose their own academic adventure.
Finally, think about how you learn best. Some programs use primarily the case method, while others offer a mix of teaching styles such as lectures, cases, and experiential learning. Dartmouth Tuck, Michigan Ross, and UCLA Anderson have required experiential learning courses (“First-Year Project,” “Multidisciplinary Action Projects,” and “Capstone Project,” respectively) through which students apply what they have learned in their first-year courses while addressing a real-world problem for a company or organization. Make sure the programs on your list offer the learning opportunities you need to develop the skills and knowledge that will put you on track to achieve your goals.
In business school, a lot of learning happens outside of the classroom. Clubs, conferences, case competitions, career treks, speaker series, and consulting projects offer fantastic opportunities for students to test their classroom learning in a safe space. Many clubs are student led and provide aspiring business leaders the chance to lead others while managing teams and budgets.
If you are interested in technology, you might look for programs that organize a fall break “Tech Trek” to a geography with a lot of tech companies. If your goals are in consulting, perhaps you can represent your business school in case competitions. Think beyond just the professional clubs; you can also develop your skills by taking a leadership role in a fun group such as a wine club or rugby club. Similarly, diversity clubs offer opportunities to engage with peers who have a shared identity.
You will only get one MBA, so you should choose your school wisely. Your classmates (and the alumni who came before you and will come after you) will be your people and network for the rest of your career. This is not just a two-year decision, but a 20-, 30-, or 40-year decision. You want to surround yourself with people who value you and around whom you can be yourself.
Do you want to be on a campus or in a city? Do you want to live on a residential campus, or would you prefer not to live and learn with your classmates? Are you looking for a competitive environment or one that’s more supportive and collaborative? Are you comfortable wearing khakis and a button-down shirt, or would you prefer to be wearing flip-flops and jeans? Take a look at each program’s mission statement and values. What resonates with you?
To learn about a school’s curriculum, clubs, and culture, you need to engage with those who are most familiar with the program—students and alumni. After you have explored websites and attended webinars for business schools of interest, reach out to their students to learn more. Ask targeted questions about a school’s curriculum and clubs as they relate to your career goals. Most MBA programs have student ambassadors who are available to answer such questions for prospective students. Also consider reaching out to alumni from your undergrad institution or former employees from your company if they attended business schools on your top ten list. Send an email to leaders of clubs of interest to learn about their initiatives. Engaging with students will give you a nuanced understanding of a school’s resources and your fit.
Getting an MBA is likely the biggest investment that you will make other than purchasing a house. If you are considering a typical full-time MBA, you will be giving up your salary for two years while paying ~$70,000 per year in tuition. Think about your willingness to pay sticker price or take out loans to cover the costs. Merit scholarships are rare at the very top business schools. Many MBA programs offer generous scholarships to attract students who will improve their profile (read: strong stats) or whose experience and goals align with the program offerings. Would you turn down a full ride at a top 15 program to attend a business school that is slightly higher in media rankings?
Business school offers so many wonderful opportunities for personal and professional transformation. For two years, you will engage with like-minded peers as you learn and grow to set yourself on a new or accelerated career trajectory. Invest the time up front to think about where you want an MBA to take you so you can identify the programs that will be the best fit for YOU. Don’t rely on U.S. News or Bloomberg Businessweek to rank the schools—create your own top ten list!
Need a bit of inspiration? Check out “Doppelgänger MBA Programs: If You Like X, You May Like Y.”
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