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In the millions of words of advice proffered each year on all aspects of the MBA experience, the very first step of the business school admissions process—the research—is virtually ignored. Yet choosing the right school is vital, and you can't do that without first popping a few hoods and taking a look inside.
From bloggers to business school associates themselves, people have a lot to say about the admissions process, including which schools should be on an applicant's radar, how to write a decent application essay, and where to get recommendation letters. Wading through all the material and so-called help to get the right list of potential schools can be overwhelming. Many do not know where to start.
Researching business schools is akin to trying to find oneself. Reflecting on what one wants to get out of a degree and the type of business school experience desired is key. Admissions directors say it's not too different from gazing into a crystal ball.
"Determine your priorities," says Kathleen Edwards, associate director of MBA admissions at Emory's Goizueta Business School (Goizueta Full-Time MBA Profile). "Think about how the degree will advance your career, the job you'd like to have, and your lifestyle. Then consider your preferences of location, personality of the school, the kind of alumni it produces."
After some introspection, an applicant can start talking to others. Informational interviews with those who have the jobs you're seeking is a great way to confirm choices and find out about schools that specialize in those areas, says Edwards.
"Really explore your career goals," she says. "It will help you in the application process, but also down the road in the job search."
One mistake many applicants make is failing to look at the list of recruiters and job placement statistics of particular schools before applying. Then, when they enroll in the business school, they are disappointed by the job opportunities presented to them, says Scott Shrum, director of MBA admissions research at Veritas Prep, a Malibu (Calif.)-based provider of GMAT test prep and admissions consulting services. This is particularly hard on international applicants, who attend U.S. business schools in the hopes that the MBA program will help them land a job stateside and are disappointed when they wind up back home.
To get a handle on recruiting and job placement, applicants can consult the detailed information on many schools available at sites like MBA.com or the schools' profiles on Businessweek.com, where a comparator tool allows applicants to compare placement stats, and even top recruiters, at various schools.Many schools also post placement data online, including Harvard Business School, but not everyone is as forthcoming.
"Schools don't go out of their way to share this [job placement] information," says Shrum. "Applicants should be asking these questions more."
Another great source of information about prospective MBA programs is the program's alumni. Most schools will connect applicants with alumni in their chosen fields, but there are other sources, including LinkedIn and similar social networks, that allow for sophisticated searches by industry, company, even job title.
When talking with MBA alumni, applicants should ask them about the recruiters they met on campus and how the school helped with the job search. These initial encounters with respected professionals will help applicants develop a network and could lead them to potential recommenders, says Sara E. Neher, assistant dean for MBA admissions at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business (Darden Full-Time MBA Profile).
Once applicants have spoken with alumni and have a clearer sense of what they'd like their post-MBA life to look like, they should head to the Internet. Distinguishing between legitimate sources and garbage is more difficult than it seems, if for no other reason than the sheer amount of content.
Brand names are usually a safe bet. For example, organizations such as the National Society of Hispanic MBAs, the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the GMAT, internationally recognized publications, and the business schools themselves have built up their expertise and reputation.
Early in the process, applicants are confronted with user-generated content, often in the form of social networking pages on Facebook or Twitter, blogs, or forums. This content comes with its own perils, warns Shrum.
"There is no shortage of opinions," he says. "It's potentially dangerous, but you're also never more than two steps away from a firsthand source."
Asking sources for qualifications to determine if they are sharing informed opinions is important, says Shrum. Getting multiple perspectives is necessary to separate fact from fiction. Be somewhat skeptical of all your sources, says Neher.
"Don't just trust admissions officers," she says. "But if what we say, what students say, and what alumni say is consistent, then you can feel good about it."
Keep in mind that admissions officers have a specific job to do.
"Admissions officers are a great source of information for the admissions process, but not necessarily for the experience of the school," says Shrum. "They'll give you O.K. answers, but students and recent alumni are better for those questions."
Still, students and alumni are sometimes trained by the school on what to say or write, says Neher. That is why, she says, it is best to ask sources if the business school is limiting what they share with prospective students in any way. It doesn't hurt to ask pointed questions designed to elicit a negative answer—such as "What's the biggest problem with the career services department?"—and to pursue alumni contacts who may be off the school's radar and willing to offer another perspective, such as an unemployed graduate.
One of the biggest and most influential sources of business school information are the various business school rankings, such as those published by the Financial Times, The Economist, and Bloomberg Businessweek's Best Business Schools. Although most admissions experts agree that the rankings are a good starting point, they want applicants to keep these lists in perspective.
"People tend to cling to rankings too tightly," says DelMonico. "They get caught up in the minutiae and reputation of different programs."
Wise applicants, says DelMonico, use the rankings as one tool to get them started in making a broad list of attractive business schools and to determine what their chances are at each. As they continue their research, they should use the funnel approach to whittle down their list until they have the four to six programs to which they will apply.
What applicants never want to do is limit their options or be close-minded to all the possibilities. Considering a wider set of schools, at least to start, is the best way to find the right business school.
"We tend to have confirmation bias," says Shrum. "You've decided on Wharton (Wharton Full-Time MBA Profile) and see information out there as confirming that.So you put on blinders and don't realize that, let's say, MIT Sloan School of Management (Sloan Full-Time MBA Profile) might be a better fit for you."
The whittling-down process generally begins—and sometimes ends—with GMAT scores. For example, if you've taken the GMAT twice and your highest score is 610, then Harvard, Wharton, and MIT, where median GMAT scores are well north of 700, are probably not realistic goals. Information on the GMAT scores for successful applicants is widely available online. Other information that can be used to assess your chances for landing a spot at a top school includes the class profile information most schools make available online, which can tell you if the MBA program skews toward applicants with six years of work experience or three, and of course the program's selectivity. Even comparing your own salary with the pre-MBA pay of the incoming class can help determine if the program draws mainly from applicants in entry-level jobs or higher.
Face-to-face meetings and school-sponsored events can help applicants better understand the nuances of each program. Most business schools host events in various regions and provide online videos and photos. These are suitable ways to bolster your business school research to make informed decisions about admissions, says Neher.
A campus visit allows for more opportunities to talk with students and administrators, to get a firsthand look at what everyday life would be, and to sit in on a class.Even though no school requires a visit, Shrum says admissions committees are impressed when applicants make the extra effort and incorporate in their application essays and interview answers specifics about the school's culture or offerings that they gleaned from a visit.
"It's crazy not to visit your top three choices," he says. "Not only does it tell you whether you'll fit in with the culture, but it will make you a better applicant."