Choosing Schools – A primer for those new to the process

One of the first, and most important, decisions that you will have to make in your quest for business school is deciding what schools you will apply to. This decision really must be made in two parts. First, there are high-level factors to consider, such as how many schools will you apply to, and then you must drill down to the second level and actually pick the programs. Also, once you are well into the application process, you may find that your selections change again as you are crunched for time and the reality of writing all those essays really hits home. This document is intended for newbies to the application process who are looking for a first step in school selection.

High-level factors
There are three primary decisions to make before you even begin looking at individual programs. You must consider how many schools to apply to, what admissions difficulty level you will attempt, and whether you will attend full-time or part-time. The first two issues are closely related, a common practice is to apply to six programs; three programs that are a stretch, two programs that are aggressive but very possible, and one “safe” school. This is just an example, and there are several factors to consider:

Cost: Each application will run between $125-200 just for the application fees, so keep it in mind. This is peanuts compared to what you will be spending over the next two years, though.

• “Safe” schools: Many people reject the idea of a safe school because they plan on reapplying if they are not accepted to one of the tier 1 or 2 schools. These applicants would prefer to not attend a top business school now rather than attend a school that is less prestigious. I respect the commitment that this involves, and I certainly don’t recommend applying to a school that you would not attend. However, many have access to quality state schools that make excellent “safe” choices, particularly if you are a resident of the state.

Time Commitment: Everyone will take a different amount of time on their applications, but it was my experience that my average application took about a week and a half to complete (I did four apps in six weeks). However, the first application takes as long as the next 2-3 apps combined, so you must factor that in. The amount of overlap involved in application essays will also make a difference in your decision making. It took me at least three days to write a workable essay from scratch, but later essays that drew on earlier materials were completed much faster.

Full-time/Part-time: For many students, attending school full-time is simply not an option. Usually this is because there is no way they will be able to go two years without earning a paycheck, but there are other reasons, such as the close proximity of a high quality program. Although few of the tier 1 schools have part-time programs, many of the tier 2 & 3 schools have them. There are drawbacks to a part-time program as well. Between work and school you will have little time to spend with family, and it will be harder to get a large bump in salary after graduation since you will likely still be with the same employer.

The Details
Once you have a good idea of how many schools you will apply to and how aggressive you will be in choosing schools you can get down to selecting individual programs. There are a wide number of factors to consider here, and I will try to touch on all of the major ones. Just remember that not only will you be spending the next two years at your chosen institution, you will also rely on the reputation and alumni network of the school for the rest of your career (no pressure!).

Location: The two years you spend in b-school offer you a chance to go and live in a part of the country (or the world) you have never experienced before. It can also be an opportunity to get your foot in the door in a new region. Just remember that less prestigious schools will draw a higher percentage of their recruiters from the immediate area, so you may have difficulty moving back to NYC with a degree from Purdue, for example. For part-timers, a school within driving distance is a necessity. There are additional factors to keep in mind when evaluating a location, including the size of the city, the availability of jobs for your significant other, the proximity of summer internships, and the quantity and quality of extracurricular activities.

Atmosphere: Each school has a slightly different vibe, and attracts slightly different students. Kellogg has the Kellogg Spirit, Tuck is a small program out in the woods, Texas is entrepreneurial, Harvard is large and competitive. You will want to attend a program that meshes with your own personality and will help you do the best you can for your two years. From an admissions standpoint, you will have the best chance of being accepted at a school that is the right ‘fit’ for you. A word of caution: no school has a completely accurate reputation. For example, schools known to be cooperative can still be an intense academic environment while a school with a sterling reputation in one area may actually be having trouble there while another discipline is becoming the strength of the program. It is important to visit schools and speak with current students to get an accurate picture.

Concentrations: If you have a clear idea of what you want out of your b-school education, you will want to look for schools that will be able to accommodate you. Two valuable resources are BW Guide to the Top B-Schools and the U.S. News rankings. On the other hand, if you are looking for a general MBA those same resources can point you to a program that emphasizes the general path and does not require majors or specializations. Keep in mind that almost all top-25 schools do a good job in the major areas (finance, marketing, management, etc).

Recruiting: It is important to remember that when you graduate you will most likely judge the success of your b-school experience by whether or not you got a job you really wanted. With that in mind, you will want to choose a school where you will be prepared for your desired career and desired companies recruit on campus. If your dream company does not recruit on campus, make sure that the school has sufficient clout and name recognition with the company to get your foot in the door on your own job search. Salary and bonus statistics are very important as well, or special programs for non-profits (i.e. loan forgiveness or back-end fellowships) if that is your chosen line of work.

Prestige/Alumni Network: This will have a big impact on your choice of schools, since everyone pretty much wants to get into the best school they can. I think of the top 25 as consisting of three levels. The top 5 or so schools are tier 1, these programs are internationally well known (H/S/W/etc.). Tier 2 encompasses the next 10-15 schools that are known nationally but are more regional in reputation than the top tier (Duke, NYU, etc.). Tier 3 schools round out the rest of the top 25 and a few others, these schools are definitely regional but they still feature favorable return on investment (i.e. Texas, Carnegie Mellon). Beyond the top 25, and certainly beyond the top 50, it becomes very doubtful that a full-time program will have a positive ROI. As for alumni network, it is generally linearly related to school prestige. There are schools, though, who do a particularly good job leveraging their alumni. Larger schools usually have an advantage (more alumni), but each program has a different relationship with their graduates. Again, the more access you have to helpful and powerful alumni, the better.

After evaluating all of these factors and reducing the list of 50 or so programs out there that are worth your time down to a small group that meet your needs, there are a few more things to consider. I don’t think it is worth it to go through the pain of the admissions process for a school that you wouldn’t attend. So, try to eliminate schools from the front end. In my own case, I started at seven schools, but couldn’t justify attending two of them over my safe school, so I went down to five. Also, don’t sell yourself short. If you start early and work hard you can definitely get in schools that are a tier or two above your initial expectations