In 20+ years of MBA admissions consulting, I have found that otherwise highly capable and focused people often flounder when creating their target list of business schools. I’ve heard things like: “I’m just applying to all the top ten.” Top ten according to what source? Or: “I realize now [after R2 deadlines have passed] I was overreaching. Are there any good schools I can still apply to?” Probably. What does “good” look like to you? And even: “I’m applying to H/S/W, with Duke as my safety.” Duke, your safety?
Where is all that rigorous decision-making?!
By starting to develop your list of prospective schools months before you apply, you can avoid these and similar problems.
Why it’s so important to choose the right MBA programs
By approaching school selection thoughtfully and systematically, you will save time, money, and effort in the long run. You will conserve precious energy for the nitty-gritty work of the applications. You will also be able to devote time to planning school visits (when possible) and recommendations, two things that are often compromised in the heat of the application season.
In this post you’ll learn about:
- Assessing your MBA admissions profile
- Determining your needs and wants in an MBA program
- Reaches, on-pars, and safeties
- Putting together your initial list of b-schools to apply to
- Two examples of how to choose which MBA programs to apply to
- Adapting your list of b-schools to apply to as the season progresses
Let’s jump right in and develop a strategy that will get you accepted to your top choice b-schools!
4 steps to jumpstarting the b-school selection process
Here are four steps you can and should take now to get started on the school selection process for next season:
- Take notes.
Capture those random thoughts that have been floating around in your head, for example, “top 10,” “friendly to older applicants,” “strong quant focus,” “need to be within an hour by plane from my ailing mother,” etc.
- Surf social.
Read blogs and scroll through newsfeeds on various social media of MBA students not just at schools you’re already interested in but from a wider array of schools – both the substance and the tone of those blog posts will give you a subjective feel for different programs and your responses to them.
- Talk to MBA students, current and alumni.
If possible, talk to MBA students and ask them about their school selection process, about what went well and what proved difficult or problematic. Also ask what they would do differently.
- Visit schools.
If not prevented by COVID restrictions, visit schools you know you are interested in (you can always revisit later), schools you might be interested in, and even schools of marginal interest. The best time to visit is when schools are still in session and when you’re not pressed by the application process yet, but when it’s still close enough to application time for your acquired insights to be relevant to discuss in essays. Take advantage of travel you may do for business or pleasure to schedule a visit, rather than trying to cram everything in the fall – when you’ll be even busier than usual with applications plus work. Moreover, visiting early (like in the spring) gives you time to digest and reflect on your campus experiences.
We’ll delve deeper into each of these topics in the upcoming sections of this post, so keep on reading!
Assessing your MBA admissions profile
Thinking about what you want and need in an MBA program is the fun part. Before you do that, though, you’ll need to tackle the less fun part: assessing your profile. Knowing a program has everything you’ve ever dreamed of is nice, but if it does not welcome applicants like you, it’s just a fantasy. Conversely, learning that a seemingly so-so program would likely value your candidacy might prompt you to take a closer and warmer look.
5 factors to consider when evaluating your profile
Break down your assessment into several basic areas, as follows.
- Work experience
There are many dimensions to the work experience element: your industry and company, your role overall, how you compare to accomplished peers, how fast you’ve advanced and/or how impressive your impact has been, and your leadership (formal and/or informal).
What are your strengths in this area, and what are the weaknesses or challenges? A challenge might be, for example, that you’ve increased responsibility significantly but because you work for a “flat” company you don’t have promotions. Another challenge: You work in the tech side, so you have to illustrate your business knowledge and exposure. One more: You’re a successful consultant or financial analyst, but how do you differentiate yourself in this group?
Strengths would be distinctive roles or industries, visibly rapid advancement, clear leadership. [For more information, check out How an Admissions Committee Views MBA Work Experience]
This part includes your undergrad GPA and transcript, grad GPA and transcript (if any), and GMAT or GRE score(s).
What are the strengths and weaknesses in each area, and how do they add up overall?
For example, a weak undergrad GPA and solid GMAT will not be great if your GPA trended down and the quant section of the GMAT was under 80%. However, if the GPA trended up and your GMAT quant was 90%, you’re in much better shape. A strong grad GPA won’t completely neutralize a low undergrad GPA but it can go a long way to doing so. (NOTE: If your GPA is low and you have time to take a class or two and earn A’s, this can help mitigate your lower GPA – I recommend doing this even if you have a high GMAT.)
- Post-MBA goals
Ask yourself these questions when evaluating this aspect of your profile:
• What industry and function are you currently in? What industry and function do you envision yourself in after you receive your MBA?
• What specific position(s) are you considering immediately post-MBA? Is it a major career change? A slight career shift?
• What is the link between your current work and your goals?
• If it’s a career change, how will you build the bridge between here and there?
At the least, extracurricular activities will round out your profile. At most, they will set you apart and give your application extra sparkle. They are more important to some programs than to others. And the weight they have in any individual application will vary depending on the other factors, as adcoms review the applications holistically.
- Other miscellaneous factors
On the negative side, these include things like honor code infraction, DUI, DWI, academic probation – but how negative will vary. Perhaps the worst is the honor code infraction. On the positive side: obstacles overcome, extraordinary level of achievement in almost any area, military experience, strong demonstrations of leadership and/or initiative.
With a clear understanding of your profile and your competitiveness, you can determine which schools are likely safeties, on-pars, and reaches.
Determining your needs and wants in an MBA program
Now it’s time to focus on the future: what you want and need in your MBA program.
If you are visiting schools now, the visits can help you sort through these points and see them in a new light. For example, you might have thought you could never spend two years outside a city, but stopping by Tuck on a ski trip opened your eyes to the abundant diversity and culture the campus and town offer, and you give the program a closer look.
How important are the following 7 factors to you?
Whether or not you get a chance to visit schools before compiling your school list, consider the following factors and decide what’s important to you in each category:
This category includes the curriculum structure and approach (for example, preset concentrations versus flexible), depth in particular disciplines, professors in your areas of interest, degree of analytic rigor, opportunity to take courses outside the b-school, opportunities for practical application, and study abroad options.
- Recruiting and career services
Recruiting for both internships and post-MBA positions should be relatively strong for your goals. But students’ actual need for this service varies depending on their existing contacts and resources. Similarly, some people have more need than others of career services’ support.
- Extracurricular opportunities
Most people will want schools that hosts clubs and activities in their areas of professional interest. Beyond that, do you want certain volunteer activities, arts or cultural activities, religious resources, or political opportunities? Are you looking for people who share your interests? If you don’t find something you need, would it be easy to initiate a club or activity?
This factor is critical to some, insignificant to others, and somewhere in between for most. There is brand in your own perspective, and brand in the eyes of your prospective employers. Probably the latter is more important and less open to compromise. Do not mistake “brand” for “ranking.” If you need a highly competitive program such as Columbia or Wharton, that’s fine. But the issue isn’t “top 5”; it’s the value of the specific school brands for your context.
- Environment and ambiance
Do you prefer a warm and fuzzy or a hard-driving learning environment? Everyone wants diversity, it seems, but what kind: geographic, professional, functional, ethnic, religious? Do you prefer a small, close-knit campus or a large, teeming one? Does it matter to you if the student body has a more conservative or more liberal orientation?
Where would you like to be? Start broad, like continent. Many non-US applicants think globally, considering programs in Asia, Europe, or the US. Many Americans however remain fairly US-centric almost reflexively. If you are an American traveling abroad, try to visit some of the overseas MBA programs. You will be pleasantly surprised.
- Other personal factors
Do you need quick access to an international airport? Special medical resources? Resources for a spouse or partner? Or maybe you’re really into bobsledding and want a track nearby….
Once you’ve established what you’re looking for, you’ll have an easier time narrowing down your choices and selecting the programs that are just right for you. But first, weigh those items that you’ve deemed important or unimportant.
Let’s break it down
Break down your likes into four levels:
- What are the things that you absolutely cannot live without?
- What is important to you, but you’d be willing to settle without?
- What would be nice to have but not necessary?
- What do you really not need or care about at all?
Let’s delve deeper into each of these.
What are the things that you absolutely cannot live without?
These are your Essentials. This category applies to things that you must have – without them, you can’t attend a program. If you are making a career change into marketing, you need a program with strong marketing curriculum and recruiting. Period.
What is important to you, but you’d be willing to settle without?
This category applies to the things that are important to you, but are not “must-haves” like those above. Things that you would consider compromising on if you had to, but don’t want to. For some people that might mean a geographic location, for others a warm and open community, for others the chance to take courses in the university’s law or public policy program.
What would be nice to have but not necessary?
These are things that would make a program more attractive to you but wouldn’t be a deciding factor.
What do you really not need or care about at all?
This category means simply not a factor. Some people would just as readily have curriculum flexibility or structure or would just as readily live in Palo Alto or Fontainebleau, strange as that may seem.
The importance of defining your priorities
The main purpose of this exercise is to think about and define your priorities. Some people may be comfortable keeping these rankings in their head as they go through the next steps; others will make a spreadsheet with them.
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Reaches, on-pars, and safeties
Now it’s time to determine what types and levels of MBA programs you’re competitive and qualified for, and what if any are out of reasonable reach.
I use the following categories:
- Reasonable reach: Acceptance is not likely, but with a great application, is within “reasonable” reach.
- On-par: With a great application you’ll have a solid chance of acceptance.
- Safety: You will likely be admitted if you present your case credibly.
There’s also a fourth category: out-of-reaches. Conceding the wisdom of “never say never” and “nothing’s impossible,” there are still much, much better ways to spend your energy and time than applying to such schools.
3 main factors to consider when determining your reaches, on-pars, and safeties
Keep in mind that these factors all work together holistically.
- GPA and GMAT/GRE/EA
How do your stats stack up versus the mid 75-80% of students in a given program? To be fundamentally qualified you’ll want to be in the higher two-thirds of that range at least. If you’re above or in the upper one-third of this range, you’re competitive in this area. If you’re in the middle third you’re qualified, and if you’re in the lower third or below, you’re reaching.
- Work experience
The more competitive the MBA program, the more important it is to have strong and demonstrable advancement, impact, and leadership relative to your accomplished peers, regardless of your function, industry, or organization. Quality of work experience is a key factor in determining the level of program you would be competitive in; top-tier programs turn down many applicants with near perfect stats who lack the requisite professional accomplishment.
Being in an overrepresented or underrepresented industry, demographic group, or global region/country will affect your competitiveness. Perhaps the largest overrepresented group is Indians in technical fields, a group that also has relatively high average stats. Schools that might be reasonable reaches for others will be almost out of reach for many in this group. On the other hand, no matter how underrepresented you are, if the adcom doubts you can handle the program, you won’t be admitted. As you can see, this factor influences what programs would be reasonable reaches, on-pars, and safeties.
Other factors to consider
A myriad of other factors will also affect your qualification and competitiveness. Having fewer than three or more than eight years of work experience or already holding an MBA from another program usually makes you less competitive.
If you have an unconventional background, such as teaching or airline pilot, you face extra burdens in making your case. However, if you successfully make the case for your qualifications and need for an MBA, your nontraditional background may become a plus in this competitive process.
As you research and visit MBA programs, determine how qualified and competitive you are for them.
How to research and choose the best MBA program for you
You may be researching schools already. Going through the steps we’ve mentioned will help you do so efficiently and objectively.
That means that you should eliminate from consideration:
- Programs that lack elements you consider essential
- Programs where you are not qualified
Some applicants will immediately run into a dilemma here: What if you need a globally recognized brand, yet you don’t qualify for schools that carry the desired panache? In some cases, it may make sense to apply to such schools’ part-time or EMBA programs. Or you may target programs recognized globally in your niche, but not for overall brand. Or you may decide it’s not worth it to pursue an MBA. Luckily, most people can find programs that offer their must-haves.
Let’s define terms
- “Qualified” means you meet the basic standards of a given program. You can be fully qualified but not competitive – this is exactly the problem that many excellent Indian IT applicants face.
- “Competitive” is more nuanced; it encompasses the preferences and character of the program, the commonality or distinctiveness of your background, and even sometimes political and/or economic trends and events. When you happily conclude that you are qualified for Columbia, don’t forget to consider how competitive you actually are there.
When you identify schools that meet your needs and important wants, determine whether they are reasonable reach, on-par, or safety schools. First examine the GMAT and GPA ranges, and analyze student profiles. How do you compare? The numbers are easier to compare; it might take some digging and some thoughtful self-critique to determine how you stack up in terms of quality of work experience and leadership. This aspect is at least as important, if not more important, than the numbers for competitive programs, so buckle down and do the qualitative evaluation of your work experience and compare it to the level of achievement of students in your desired schools. Otherwise you won’t know where you really stand.
Then look at qualitative factors that would make you a great fit or a challenging fit for the school. One main point is status in an underrepresented or overrepresented group. Then there are the individual qualitative factors. For example, you’re a finance professional and one program you’re considering has a great finance curriculum but is not reputed for it. Your finance status would be a plus for such a school, whereas you might not stand out from the army of finance applicants at a better known finance school.
Finally, combine all these factors – your scores, qualitative analysis of your work experience, and any other issues pro or con – to refine your determination of reasonable reach, on par, or safety for each school of interest.
It’s not ALL objective…
It’s important to be objective. Still, don’t ignore the subjective factor in your research. If you find yourself falling for a school that doesn’t seem like a great fit – you wanted an intimate campus and yet when you visited NYU while on a business trip to the Big Apple, you found its downtown vibe utterly scintillating – well, great! It’s possible you’re momentarily infatuated, and it’s also possible that there’s a side of you that this environment has opened up and brought to light.
Allow yourself to be enchanted and surprised in the process.
So, how many MBA programs should I apply to?
Now that you know what you’re looking for in an MBA program, what’s the magic number? How many is too many and how many is not enough?
Your specific situation and needs should drive your choice of how many schools to apply to – in each category: reasonable reach, on-par, and safety. Having a clear idea before you start your applications of how many schools you’ll be targeting will help you plan and allocate your resources. (By “number” I mean roughly; a short range such as “five or six” is fine.)
How many business schools to apply to: Let’s talk numbers
A “typical” applicant would apply to about five or six programs: 2-3 reasonable reaches, 2-3 on-pars, and 1-2 safeties. The rationale for this scenario is that it yields a decent possibility of acceptance at a reach, likelihood of acceptance at an on-par program, and certainty through the safety.
This typical case doesn’t apply to a lot of people though. Here are some common exceptions:
- You’re on the older side, so getting in this year is essential – next year you will be solidly in EMBA territory. Consider applying to more programs – as many as you can manage, possibly including more safeties.
- You’re fairly young, have a spectacular career and stats, and don’t think it makes sense to take off two years now if it’s not HBS or Stanford. You should apply to those two only, because you can reapply next year, if need be, without worrying about age.
- The brands you require are all reaches, some reasonable and some almost out of reach. It wouldn’t be worth it to attend other programs. Apply to as many as you can that fit your criteria and offer some realistic hope of acceptance to increase the possibility of a hit.
- You are applying with a handicap – a DUI or honor code infraction, were fired for cause, etc. If you write a frank and compelling essay about growing from the situation (and if it didn’t happen yesterday), you may have a shot. But because it’s such an unpredictable factor and adcoms often react defensively, apply to more schools than you otherwise would need to.
- You’re unsettled about geographic region and want to keep options open. Apply to more programs to keep options open.
- You’re pressed for time. Maybe you can’t devote more than two hours a week, or maybe you must have all your apps done by a given deadline. Select a number that will allow you to deliver the strongest quality applications, even if it’s fewer than you would normally do under other circumstances.
Last but not least, this number isn’t written in stone. The application process is dynamic, and you are not closing off opportunities by deciding on a number to target now.
Putting together your initial list of b-schools to apply to
As you have gone through the previous steps, a group of feasible and appealing programs most likely has evolved almost organically. It’s time to firm it up in preparation for the hands-on application process.
Break it down into categories
Establish your desired balance among our three categories: reach, on-par, and safety, remembering that these categories have variations within them. Whether you are applying to ten programs or two, you should be clear about where each falls on this continuum vis-à-vis your profile. Out of the total number of programs you’ll apply to, how many do you want in each category, and why? Answer this question based on your previous evaluations, and make your list accordingly. This allocation should be deliberate and informed, not accidental.
Mix and match with your wants and needs
Now take the list of schools that meet your needs and, ideally, fulfill your important wants, and that also are viable targets (meaning, they are not out of reach), and sort these schools by reach, on-par, and safety.
If your research yielded more programs than you want to apply to, you’ll need to further whittle down the list. Which programs in a given category meet the most of your wants and/or best meet your needs? You can also factor in where you have the better chance of admission, since the programs within a category will vary in competitiveness.
Balance your scales
What if this process results in an imbalance? You wanted two reaches, three on-pars, and one safety. You ended up with no safeties, one on-par, and an overabundance of reaches. It’s not uncommon. Remember, competitiveness will vary within category. So some reaches might be close enough to on-par to almost fit in that category or straddle the two. If not, you have some hard choices to make:
- You can proceed with this less than ideal balance, understanding and accepting the increased risk of rejection inherent in it it .
- You can research more programs: Re-examine some you previously rejected and/or broaden your scope; maybe consider other geographic regions or part-time programs.
Especially if you are applying to numerous programs, consider balance within categories as well, and try to widen your scope of programs. Say you’re a consultant. The majority of consultants will gravitate to the known consulting programs, but you’ll stand out more in programs renowned for other areas, e.g. finance, which may well be great for consulting as well. This balance within categories is especially helpful because the vicissitudes of the upcoming admissions season are still unknown. If a flood of consultants apply, your breadth of programs will be all the more important.
Now you should have your list of MBA programs. Or, I should say, your preliminary list. Since you continue to learn as you undertake the application process, it’s quite possible that you will modify this list. This list should be firm but not rigid; don’t veer from it on a whim (otherwise, what’s the point of all of that work?), but be open to something meaningful that changes your initial assumptions or preferences.
Two examples of how to choose which MBA programs to apply to
How can all of this information be practically applied? Here are two hypothetical, representative examples that illustrate how this school selection process works.
Example 1: Ted
Who is Ted?
- 25-year-old American male of Korean ethnic background
- Industry: finance
- Work experience: two years as an investment banking analyst followed by one year in private equity
- Stats: combined GMAT score of 720 and a GPA (from a strong but not elite college) of 3.45
- Post-MBA goal: to return to PE at a higher level
More about Ted
His career track record of impact and accomplishment is solid but not exceptional; similarly, he demonstrates clear but not outstanding leadership. His extracurricular activities are consistent but do not elicit a “wow.” MBA brand is important to him, but he accepts that (although qualified) he may not be competitive at Wharton or Columbia. Given his age, he would rather reapply (at least he knows where he can improve if needed – leadership, impact, and higher GMAT) than attend a program that does not excite him or that represents a steep compromise. Hence, he selects only reaches and on-pars. Still, he’d love to get in this year, so he decides to apply to eight programs over Rounds 1 and Round 2 to widen his chances.
Which MBA programs does Ted apply to?
During his research he was surprised to find a few on-pars that interested him, and he put all three on his list:
- Georgetown McDonough (when he visited, he was unexpectedly thrilled by the extensive campus resources and the high caliber of students)
- USC Marshall (a lot more intense than he’d thought, and he was invigorated by the Asia focus)
- Cornell Johnson (where his private equity experience will be a slight differentiating factor, and Cornell gives him an Ivy brand).
He also chose the following five reaches, which vary in competitiveness:
- Chicago Booth
- NYU Stern
- London Business School
Example 2: Joyce
Who is Joyce?
- 30-year-old female
- Work experience: a junior manager in manufacturing operations, with a record of solid advancement and leadership
- Stats: a GMAT score of 690; an undergrad GPA of 3.3 from a second-tier state school; and a graduate (supply chain and IT) GPA of 3.65 from the same school
- Extracurricular activities: significant leadership in her church
- Post-MBA goal: to acquire a mid-level management position in global operations at a top-tier manufacturer that will lead to senior management within several years
More about Joyce
Joyce needs to get in this year because of her age, since chances of acceptance decrease for each year after the age of 30. Her work experience is a strength, not just because of her strong record, but also because women in operations are relatively few, and core manufacturing-related experience isn’t highly represented in many programs. She doesn’t have the time, the resources, or the desire to apply to more than six schools, and she feels she should be able to gain acceptance to an appealing program if she approaches her list thoughtfully.
Which MBA programs does Joyce apply to?
Joyce targets two reaches:
- Michigan Ross
- MIT Sloan
- Indiana Kelley
- CMU Tepper
And two safeties:
- York Schulich (in Toronto)
- Purdue Krannert
For both of the above hypothetical applicants, objective assessment of their profiles, thoughtful examination of their needs and wants, extensive school research, and consideration of the number of schools to apply to yield promising lists of targeted MBA programs.
Adapting your list of b-schools as the season progresses
As noted earlier, your initial school list isn’t set in stone. It is a firm starting point that allows you to plan and to proceed efficiently and systematically.
As you progress through your applications, continuously assess and respond to any new developments that might warrant revising your list.
Examples of situations that may impact your school list:
- You receive evidence that your initial assessment of reaches, on-pars, and safeties was off.
If you applied to reaches and on-pars with competitive interviewing and you don’t receive interview invites even from the on-pars, it’s a sign that you may have miscalculated your competitiveness. On the other hand, if you receive an interview invite from a high reach that you really didn’t expect, a reassessment might reveal the advisability of adding another reach or two in the second or third round. In either of these cases, revisit your list. Changing it may involve replacing some programs, or simply adding some.
- Your plans or needs change.
As the application season progresses, life goes on. Personal needs change: geography, partner and family issues, personal interests. Professional needs and goals change – perhaps you feel less secure about your job; perhaps a new healthcare project intrigued you and you now want to consult in this area. Revisit your list, see what works and what doesn’t, and adapt it accordingly.
- You encounter a program that appeals to you that you didn’t initially consider.
Look at your list: Would this program replace another one on your list? Or would you want to add it? Either option is fine, depending on your needs and resources.
We’re here to help
By following the steps in this post, you will create a list of MBA programs that meet your needs and will yield admission to desirable programs. This systematic approach will also help you keep sane during the application process.
You can significantly increase your chances of getting accepted by applying to the programs that are the best fit for your unique qualifications, goals, and preferences. Our MBA Admissions Consulting Services will provide you with the one-on-one guidance you need to submit the best MBA applications to the best MBA programs for YOU! Are you ready to GET ACCEPTED?Cindy Tokumitsu has advised hundreds of successful applicants, helping them gain acceptance to top MBA and EMBA programs in her 20 years with Accepted. She would love to help you too. Want Cindy to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!
- 9 Secrets to Standing Out, an MBA Admissions Guide
- Interviews With Current MBA Students
- Harvard, Stanford, Wharton: What’s the Difference?, a short video