Decisions, Decisions

Applicant's Dilemma: Choosing Among Top B-Schools


Plenty of potential snarls await applicants to top business schools: a horrible GMAT score, an incoherent essay, a bad interview performance. One problem they gladly embrace is having to choose among MBA programs that have accepted them. Gil Eyal lived that dream. Despite getting rejected by Harvard Business School and University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, he was accepted at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

Left to decide between Kellogg and Booth—top-tier programs geographically near one another—Eyal put a strategy in motion. He visited both schools to learn about their unique cultures, spoke to the admissions deans at each program, and sought advice from his brother, a Booth alumnus, he writes in an e-mail.

Ultimately, Eyal chose Kellogg. While the school’s location (Kellogg is in the Chicago suburb of Evanston while Booth is in the city) and the connection he felt with people played a role in his decision, it was the help Kellogg could give him to achieve his career goals that served as the deciding factor, he writes.

“To me, business school was a ‘catapult,’” Eyal adds. “I needed to find the place that would shoot me as far ahead as possible. Therefore, when you’re picking schools, find the one that will open the most doors and help you progress in your career as far as possible.”

That is just one of the items—albeit a pretty important one—that applicants should consider when choosing among business schools that have accepted them. Here is an outline of all the considerations applicants should weigh when deciding which program to attend:

The Campus Visit

If applicants have not already visited the campuses of programs they are considering, they should try to get firsthand knowledge of the location and feel of the campus, its professors and curriculum, and the people. Going there is the sole way to be sure one understands the culture of the program, which differs from school to school, says Rod Garcia, senior director of admissions at MIT Sloan School of Management.

“Talk to people on campus to get both sides—what the school is saying and what students are experiencing—to see if there’s a gap between expectations and reality,” he adds.

In fact, once applicants have been admitted, they have the privilege of asking tougher questions—the kind they might not have asked when their fate was still in the hands of the admissions committee, says Graham Richmond, chief executive officer of Philadelphia-based admissions consultancy Clear Admit. For example, accepted applicants might request a meeting with career services and ask for a list of alumni working in an industry where they hope to seek post-MBA employment. Richmond adds that applicants who have been accepted have additional opportunities to better assess a school, such as admitted-students weekend or alumni-club meetings in their area.

Rankings Amnesia

Although most experts suggest that applicants look at business school rankings as part of their initial research when deciding where to apply, they agree that once applicants have been accepted, they should forget the surveys. “The biggest mistake applicants commit is making their decision based on the rankings,” says Chirag Saraiya, principal of New York-based Training the Street (TTS), which provides seminars to top business schools on corporate valuation and financial modeling. “There’s more to business schools than a number.”

Instead of worrying about rankings, Garcia adds, they should be verifying things they learned about the programs and determining if schools live up to their promises.

While Richmond at Clear Admit says rankings still can be used to help determine if a program is up-and-coming, he agrees they should not influence the ultimate decision. “It takes a lot of courage to fly in the face of the rankings and go to the school that would be best for you,” says Richmond, who adds that many applicants are certain of their first choice until they get accepted at a higher-ranked school—and then mistakenly start reconsidering everything.

Money Matters

There’s no denying that business school is a large investment and that one must consider money when choosing among programs. Financial aid and scholarships are necessary factors in the decisionmaking process. Still, none of the experts consulted for this article think the availability of financial aid and scholarships should be the deciding factor. One’s happiness and how well the school’s offerings match an applicant’s needs should take precedence, says Garcia.

The Future

To decide which school to attend, applicants have to look further into the crystal ball. Ideally, this process began when they first applied and had to express their career goals in application essays. The best choice as to which school to attend becomes clear to those with a specific understanding of what they hope to achieve, says Trevor Nelson, an instructor for TTS. Once applicants know what they want to do after graduation, they can try to match the school’s specialties and network with their needs. Which program will help them meet recruiters and alumni in their industry of choice? Which program has the most success in placing people in the kinds of jobs they would like?

Besides gathering data from the career-services office, applicants can also ask for informational interviews with their dream employers to find out what they think of programs to which they have been accepted, suggests Richmond. In addition, applicants should consider where alumni end up living. If most MBAs tend to dwell in the school’s city after graduating and the applicant prefers to live elsewhere, he or she might reconsider joining the program.

Personal Fit

Ultimately, in deciding where to enroll, applicants must determine which school offers the best fit. Applicants must feel comfortable with the human beings and their own likely niche at the program.

Timothy Hanlon, a senior manager of innovation and design and applied innovation at Royal Bank of Canada (RY), chose the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, from which he graduated in 2007, over University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business. Personal fit was of the utmost importance, he writes in an e-mail. “Really, really understand what you want to get out of your time at business school,” Hanlon writes. “A lot of schools offer a lot of things, but only you know what you want and need. If you don’t pick a school based on your best shot at those, you may as well not go.”

Garcia reminds applicants that they should not be swayed by brand names or what others think. They should focus on their thoughts and feelings. “There’s no such thing as the best business school in the world,” he adds. “The best school is the best one for you.”

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Francesca_dimeglio
Di Meglio is a reporter for Businessweek.com in Fort Lee, N.J.

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