Phase 1 done! You’ve defined your goals, assessed your qualifications. Now, how do you organize your research of MBA programs? There is a sea of information out there: rankings, books, MBA program websites, MBA fairs, poetsandquants.com, newspaper and magazine articles on MBA programs, consultant websites (including ours), student and adcom blogs, school open houses, etc.
Time to dive in! But do impose some structure to the process so you’re not swimming in circles after you dive.
If you’ve read our blog posts, ebooks, etc., you know we at Accepted.com caution against relying on rankings to decide where to go (“I’m just gonna apply to the top-5”). Well, here’s a contrarian suggestion: use the rankings. They’re helpful at the start (see Step 1 below).
I’ve developed a macro process for doing MBA program research in a way that (a) yields meaningful info for decision-making and list-making, and simultaneously (b) is efficient and focused – conserving and respecting your precious time.
Step 1 – With your competitive profile in mind, look at several broad MBA rankings. Determine what levels/ranges of programs you’re competitive generally. Note plural – rankings – as each has its idiosyncrasies (US News, Financial Times, Business Week, etc.). Takeaway: a general understanding of what competitive range to focus on (including “reasonable reach” programs, “on-par” programs, and maybe “safeties”).
Step 1A – 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 takeaway. Ask about their impressions and experiences, how it aligns or not with what you gleaned from the rankings vis-à-vis competitive fit.
Step 2 – Search 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 1A). Takeaway: a group of MBA programs that are strong in your field and where you also are competitive.
Step 3 – Start digging deeper. Go to the source – the websites of programs in the Step 2 takeaway. Look for specifics that you care about (structure of curriculum? flexibility? strong concentrations? students from a given industry or geographic region? etc.). Listen to your gut as well as objective response; does it feel like a good fit? Takeaway: a “first pass” list of potential programs to apply to.
Step 3A – From here on you can also get the most out of MBA fairs, school information sessions, and school visits, by directing your energies to feasible programs.
Step 4 – You’re narrowing and refining a list. Now you can spend time meaningfully (i.e., with informed focus) 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. Takeaway: A finalized or near-finalized list of programs to apply to, prioritized (note: while you should decide the first 2-4 programs at this point, you can continue refining the list and deciding on other programs later).
• This is a guideline, not rigid process.
• For purposes of process, this list assumes a blank-slate starting point. This is something you are not! Of course you’ll come to it with some ideas, plans, assumptions, and impressions.
• Sometimes a program will be below or above your target competitive range, but it still might make sense to apply for some reason. (Step 1A is particularly helpful in this regard.)
• There may well 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.”
• Similar to above point, 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 US but got seduced by ESADE… Who doesn’t love a pleasant surprise?
By Cindy Tokumitsu, co-author and author of numerous ebooks, articles, and special reports. Cindy has advised hundreds of successful applicants in her last fourteen years with Accepted.