You’ve defined your goals and assessed your qualifications. Now it’s time to move on to the program research stage of the MBA admissions process. There is a sea of information out there: rankings, books, MBA program websites, MBA fairs, Poets & Quants, student and adcom blogs, school open houses, your neighbor’s sister’s boyfriend’s dad – the list goes on and on.
Where do the rankings fit in?
If you’ve read our blog, attended our webinars, read our admissions guides, etc., you know we caution against relying exclusively and uncritically on rankings to decide where to apply (so that means no “I’m just going to apply to the top 5”).
Well, here we’re going to suggest the opposite: use the rankings…at the beginning of this research phase, because they are helpful at the start. But don’t stop with the rankings.
6 steps to using the rankings to your advantage
Below you’ll find 6 key steps for doing MBA program research in a way that a) yields meaningful info for decision-making and list-making, and b) is efficient and focused – conserving and respecting your precious time.
- Step 1: Look at rankings
With your competitive profile in mind, look at several broad MBA rankings. Determine what levels/ranges of programs for which you’re competitive generally (taking into account reasonable reaches, on-pars, and maybe safeties). Note the plural – rankings – as each has its idiosyncrasies (U.S. News, Financial Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, etc.). Sometimes a program will be below or above your target competitive range, but it still might make sense to apply for some reason. (In the following steps you’ll gain the additional info needed to make this decision.)
- Step 2: Talk to people
At this point it’s good to start talking to people with MBA experience – colleagues, friends, mentors, etc. – and add a qualitative dimension to the above step. Ask about their impressions and experiences, and assess how their views align (or not) with what you gleaned from the rankings vis-à-vis competitive fit.
- Step 3: Search industry/function-specific rankings
Research industry- and/or function-specific rankings in your area(s) of interest. Identify programs from these rankings that overlap with those from Step 1 (and factoring in any learning from Step 2).
There may be programs in your competitive range that do meet your academic needs but don’t show up on specialization rankings (e.g., Kellogg isn’t known as a finance school but offers much in this area and might be great for someone in PE who will be doing a lot of managing; Columbia doesn’t often appear on entrepreneurship rankings but is quite strong in it). So indulge in some unstructured exploring, to “see what you might see.”
- Step 4: Start digging deeper
Go to the source – the websites of programs that interest you. Look for specifics that you care about (structure of curriculum, flexibility, appealing concentrations, students from a given industry or geographic region, placement strengths, etc.). Listen to your gut as well as your objective response; does it feel like a good fit? Remember, you can keep the rankings info in mind as you look deeper into your target programs. For example, check the schools’ average GMAT and GRE scores – are your scores within range?
- Step 5: Go to MBA fairs and visit schools
What better way to understand your fit with a school than to see the students, professors, and administrators in action? You will get the most out of MBA fairs and school information sessions at this point in your research, after you already have a good idea of what each program offers and how you’d fit in competitively.
If you can swing it, a school visit will really help you get the vibe of the schools you’re considering. A school may seem perfect to you on paper, but if you step on campus and feel like a fish out of water, you may disqualify the program (though, be sure you’re giving it a fair chance). On the other hand, if you visit a school that you were iffy about and immediately “click” with the school, that’s a great sign that a program that may not have seemed like “the one” should become a top contender.
- Step 6: Put the puzzle pieces together
You’re narrowing and refining a list. Now it’s time to focus more on adcom and student blog posts, searching the web for articles and information, and attending school information sessions, and of course, continuing to talk to people with MBA program experience and insight. You should now have a finalized or near-finalized list of programs to apply to. You can continue refining the list and deciding on other programs to add later.
NOTE: This is a guideline, not a rigid process. Always stay open to discovery – maybe you’ll come across a school in a blog or a respected colleague suggests a program you hadn’t considered. Maybe you thought you wanted to stay in the U.S. but were seduced by INSEAD… Who doesn’t love a pleasant surprise?
4 ways you should NOT use the MBA rankings
The most important thing you need to remember is that while the rankings are useful, they do not offer you a complete picture.
So now I’d like to present you with the other side of the story – the rankings’ limitations. Blinding yourself to the rankings’ flaws could lead to an expensive, time-consuming mistake: choosing the wrong MBA program for you.
- They don’t measure your priorities. The rankings are general reports usually based on some data and survey responses from students, alumni, and faculty…none of which include you (yet). You can gain valuable information from the rankings, as we’ve discussed above, but when it comes down to it, they measure the responses and priorities of others; take them with a grain of salt and realize that everyone’s situation and experiences are different…yours included!
- General rankings hide strengths (and weaknesses) in specific areas. There are numerous “gem” programs that thrive outside the top ten or top twenty. Many MBA students have a great chance of gaining acceptance PLUS receiving financial aid at these gem schools. Sure, getting into Wharton would be a huge accomplishment. But what if you got accepted to Washington Foster, got a full scholarship, and found that when you visited the campus, you felt right at home? Then the fact that Foster doesn’t sit in the top 10 may not matter nearly as much.
- Averages are exactly that. Average. They aren’t a cut-off and don’t reflect extenuating circumstances or the interplay between myriad factors in an admissions decision. At every school there will always be applicants who are accepted with below-average stats and who are rejected with above-average stats.
- Surveys, especially surveys of students and alumni, can be gamed. Students and alumni know that higher rankings increase the value of their degrees and have an incentive to think kindly of their schools.
In short, don’t give the rankings too much importance. Don’t replace school research and self-reflection with rankings to determine where you should apply or attend.
Do you need help discovering the MBA programs that are the best fit for you, or assistance on any other element of the application process? Review our MBA Admissions Services and work one-on-one with an expert advisor who will help you get ACCEPTED.