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MBA Admissions Edge Step 2: How to come up with a list of target schools

Fortuna Admissions  - February 06, 2017

MBA Admissions Edge Step 2: How to come up with a
list of target schools

It’s important to think carefully about your list of target schools before leaping into the MBA application process. Your shortlist should reflect your priorities and needs.

As in the research phase (Step 1: Top Tips for Researching Schools), this requires introspection and self-awareness from the outset—a process that continues throughout the long application season.

It’s tempting to rely too much upon the various MBA rankings when deciding where to apply. They can be useful; but without a firm grasp of methodologies and algorithms, it’s easy to be misled by subjective definitions of “best schools.”

As a starting point, weigh the following considerations, which will imply different things based on your motivations, personality and ambitions. Then consider the relevant rankings.

1. Program length: The length of your MBA program sets the intensity of your studies and the speed of job-market re-entry. It also determines the time spent in the classroom—a traditional two-year, full-time program tends to average two-to-three hours a day, while you may spend six hours a day in front of a professor during intensive programmes. 

Accelerated programmes at top schools like INSEAD, Oxford Saïd, and Cambridge Judge run between 12 and 18 months. A fast-track program is increasingly attractive to those with focused career goals who are looking to beef up their skills before quickly returning to the workforce. Others prefer an opportunity to delve deeper over an extended period, as found at the full-time MBA programmes at the M7; these are a two-year commitment.

2. School location: Geography influences school strengths and ties to recruiters. It’s not surprising that NYU Stern, Chicago Booth, and LBS have excellent reputations in finance. Schools in California similarly benefit from ties to technology and startup scenes in Silicon Valley. Europe provides a gateway to fields such as aerospace, luxury brand management, and biotech, while schools in Latin America and Asia are on the doorstep of the globe’s most dynamic, growing economies.

Don’t forget programmes outside of large cities. Johnson Cornell, located in upstate New York, with a scenic environment is just a short train ride away from its tech campus in New York City. Dartmouth Tuck promotes a similar living experience. Not everyone thrives in Manhattan or Singapore and this is an opportunity to escape ultra-urban environments (for a year or two). MBA programmes in small towns tend to nurture very tight knit, supportive communities.

3. Specialisation and strengths: Many schools have reputations in areas such as technology, entrepreneurship, non-profit, finance, marketing, real estate, or luxury goods. They might have an incubator luring venture capital for startups, or offer immersion-learning internships with NGO experience. Some schools have a flexible curriculum that allows exploration of elective or experiential opportunities. LBS, for example, offers flexible exit points, as well as more than 70 electives and applied learning options.

Consider whether a school’s strengths are in alignment with your areas of interest, as well as their curriculum and teaching style.

4. Prestige and recognition: While prestige is inherently subjective, a school’s brand recognition can be a major differentiator in terms of opening doors. But it’s not just about rankings. How might a school’s reputation and strengths, as well as the experiences and networks it provides, distinguish you from the pack? Sure, HBS and Wharton may have the most resounding name recognition, but a world-class engineering school like MIT Sloan offers MBAs a benefit in that field.

If your aspirations are international, make sure to weigh the benefits of programmes like LBS, INSEAD, or IE, whose highly international student bodies and globally focused curriculum are catalytic for working abroad. US-based programs have traditionally dominated rankings, enjoying unrivalled levels of prestige and donor support, but predictions forecast a shift given changing economic and political forces.

5. Network: The success of alumni offers a resounding endorsement for a program’s strength and career opportunities. Some alumni networks are more geographically concentrated than others. Stanford GSB will give you a fantastic Silicon Valley network; INSEAD will give you an unmatched international breadth.

Other barometers of alumni strength are a program’s ratio of alumni to current MBA students, how students rank their alumni network, and the number of chapters overseas. The Economist weights these three categories in its annual rankings report to produce a “Potential to Network” attribute, (which is 10% of a school’s ratings). Dartmouth Tuck tends to top the list, by virtue of its close-knit, student-centric and club-driven community, yet European schools like IMD are increasingly breaking into the Economist’s top 10 for alumni strength.

6. Culture and personality: What’s the overall ‘vibe’ of the school? What kind of environment does it nurture, and who does it attract? When you speak with current students and alumni, do you get the sense of a collaborative and supportive environment, or a more competitive classroom? Are your personal interactions consistent with the school’s stated values?

First-hand experience is invaluable; nothing provides a better sense of a school’s personality and culture than a visit to campus. But a lot can be gleaned by networking with students and alumni in your areas of interest, or participating in MBA fairs or webinars. It’s not just a question of whether you fit with a school’s character, but also whether a school fits with yours.

7. Future career opportunities: Be confident that your favoured schools are well positioned to help advance your career goals and aspirations. Study career statistics and recruiter data, and look beyond the starting salaries and list of employers.

Talk to alumni and ask about their experiences with the career services team. Which companies came to campus regularly, and what recruitment events were organised? Were there opportunities to participate in career treks?

Consider how schools have fared in “down economies.” Are students getting offers in times of turmoil? While the number of offers may decrease, is the career services team proactive in reaching out to alumni networks and personal contacts?

8. Cost and ROI: Return on investment (ROI) is inherently individual and goes beyond those coveted starting salaries. Forbes rankings are based exclusively on ROI, drawn from pre- and post-MBA compensation, career choice and location. Forbes tends to examine the five-year gain for MBAs across a host of factors, while others, like the Economist rankings, measure ROI in terms of one-year gain to determine early value from first-year salaries against tuition.

Candidates tempted to go to lower ranked schools because of the lower tuition fees, should consider that ROI is also likely to be lower. At Fortuna Admissions, we generally encourage candidates to go to the best school that they are admitted to. In the long term, better programmes usually pay greater dividends.

At the end of the day, it’s not just about prestige, post-grad salaries, or number of job offers. It’s about determining the attributes that matter most to you and envisioning the professional you want to become. With this in mind, you’ll be well equipped to devise a shortlist of schools best poised to get you there.

This is the second in a 12-part series for Prodigy Finance by Fortuna Admissions on how to boost your chances of getting into a top business school. Stay tuned for more.

The Fortuna team are former admissions gatekeepers from top-tier institutions including Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Chicago Booth, NYU Stern, IE Business School, Johnson Cornell, Northwestern Kellogg, and UC Berkeley Haas. 

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