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Answering the $150,000 Question


So you've decided to get a Master's of Business Administration--the coveted degree that often serves as an entr?e into the upper echelons of management. You've figured it's worth the $150,000 or more investment--in tuition, expenses, and two years of lost pay. And you've spent late nights boning up for the Graduate Management Admission Test, earning a score that should put you in the running for a spot on the "admitted" list at a highly rated school.

Now what? Before you slog through those lengthy applications, take a step back. You need to consider more than just a brand name when it comes to choosing the right program. Every applicant has different needs and goals, and not every school will meet them.

It's not too late to apply for the fall semester. Most business schools will take applications until early April, although your chance of acceptance is less than if you had applied in December. You improve your odds of getting in if you target your search, says Brad Pearson, director of admissions at Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis. Find the program suited to you, suggests Pearson, who says admissions officers can spot applicants trying too hard to fit in.

The first step: Decide what your needs are. If you thrive in a less structured learning environment, think about the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, where you can choose most of your own course work. The Chicago experience is quite different from what's offered at its North Shore neighbor, Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management, where your teamwork-filled classes are predetermined. Aiming for a job on Wall Street? You could try the finance-savvy Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania or Columbia Business School, which has strong ties to investment firms in its hometown of New York. Both send up to 50% of their grads to the financial industries and, along with Chicago, are ranked the top three schools for finance by recruiters in the biannual BusinessWeek MBA survey.

Of course, geography plays a role, too. Maybe you're restricted to the region where you live, or you've always dreamed of moving to a certain part of the country. If you want to be in the center of a buzzing city, think New York, Chicago, Atlanta, or Los Angeles--with nearly two dozen B-schools among them. If you prefer a secluded, woodsy atmosphere, there's Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., population 10,850. Once you decide where you want to be for the next two years, you can search for the program that meets your goals.

Are you set on a particular career? The key is to match your interest and goals with a school's offerings. Consider the experience of Doug Alder, a former mechanical engineer at ExxonMobil. Knowing he wanted to work for an asset management firm after graduating, he chose the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin because of its student-managed investment fund. Alder applied with the hope of joining the fund's management team and later earned a spot as one of its managers. After he gets his degree this spring, the 28-year-old Alder will start a job with Fayez Sarofim & Co., a Houston investment firm.

There are many ways to get vital information about MBA programs. You can start by visiting the Web sites of those you're interested in. For an overview of the field, check BusinessWeek's B-school ranking of the top 50 schools, and read profiles of hundreds of others at businessweek.com/bschools. There, you'll find statistics on class size, curriculum, and tuition--along with insightful comments from graduates about each school's strengths and weaknesses. You can also click on links to each school's Web site, and read helpful tips on how to finance your education.

Take the time to visit the schools, meet with admissions officers, and sit in on a class. "These visits are key to determining the quality of teaching," says Dawna Clarke, admissions director at the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia.

Be sure to speak with students, faculty, and alumni who are doing the kind of work you plan to seek. (You can usually get the names from the admissions and alumni offices.) Take special note of how they react to your inquiries. Are professors gregarious and open, or are they stern and dismissive? Are alumni upbeat, or do you get the feeling they would rather not discuss their alma mater? "Trust your senses. If you get a bad feeling, it's most likely going to be the same or worse when you show up in the fall," says Brian Sowinski, a second-year MBA student at Washington University, who says the school was the right choice for him.

Once you've narrowed your search to schools with the right curriculum, location, and learning environment, it's time to be realistic. These days, top programs turn away three or four times as many applicants as they admit. At most schools, the number of MBA hopefuls applying is up more than 30% for the class entering this fall, a typical uptick in a down economy. That makes the odds you'll be admitted to your first choice pretty slim, especially if you've got your sights set on, say, Stanford University Graduate School of Business, where only 8% of applicants get in.

Check the BusinessWeek profiles to find the composition of the student body, from test scores to work experience, and see how you fit in. If you've got a less-than-stellar GMAT score--say below 620--and a college grade-point average below about 3.5, along with only average work and extracurricular experience, you'll likely end up with few acceptance letters if you're aiming at one of BusinessWeek's top 30 schools. You can't change your college grades, but GMAT books, software, and prep classes may help you boost your score. One strategy would be to put your plans on hold until you get your numbers up.

Think back to your undergraduate applications and try the same strategy: one dream school, a few where you have a good chance at acceptance, and one safety school where you'll likely be a shoo-in. Once you've lined up four or five schools, be prepared to spend 20 or 30 hours writing essays and gathering recommendations. Take your time. Seasoned admissions directors can sense a rushed essay, says Clarke. After you've mailed your applications, you'll get to sit back and wait--and see if you made the cut. By Jennifer Merritt


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