Deciding Between MBA Schools

Ok, you spent all those months on the GMAT, your applications, your recommendations, and then it comes down to a wait. A long one. Miserably long. How many times have I checked Business Week today, you ask yourself. Well, might as well go check your e-mail for the 23rd time instead. And then suddenly your decisions are in, and all that waiting is over. If you are fortunate, you will now be faced with your next application challenge, deciding which school to attend.

For many, it seems illogical that someone who spent all those months preparing applications could have any doubt of their relative preference for the schools they applied to. In reality, throughout the application process you are bound to change your mind multiple times about your preferred school, and that doesn’t end when you submit your apps. So, many admitted students will find themselves debating the relative merits of a Carnegie Mellon/Texas tradeoff, a Kellogg/Duke, a Harvard/Stanford, or any one of many other possible decisions. This article is aimed to provide some guidance for anyone facing such a decision.

There are four key sources of information that you can use to help make your decision. They are: people associated with the program, your application and research materials, cost of program and financial aid data, and admit weekends/school visits. I will discuss each in some detail below. It is important to keep in mind that you will be evaluating your choices using the same metrics you used to decide where to apply.  The really difficult choices, though, are when both (or all) schools you are choosing between measure up more or less equal in those metrics. In that case, it comes down to finding the school with the best ‘fit’ for you.

People – One of the first things a school will do after admitting you is to have one or more current students contact you. Often these students will share your background to maximize the help they can provide. You should take advantage of this opportunity to get first hand information about the program, especially with how well you think you “fit” with the atmosphere of the program.

You should also contact the admissions office and request to be put in contact with a local alumnus. Alumni can provide a couple of valuable viewpoints. First, recent alumni can speak to the overall program, since they have the benefit of hindsight and their experience is fresh. This is an important factor when considering your “fit.” Older alumni, on the other hand, can reflect back on what the program did for their career, which is likely to be the most important factor for you in the long term. I can’t stress enough how valuable it can be to speak with alumni, don’t pass up this opportunity.

Your Materials – It can also be very helpful to read back through your essays, research materials, and school guides in order to remind yourself why you applied where you did. When faced with a difficult decision many months after applying it is possible to lose sight of the unique facets of a program that had you so excited back in September. Remind yourself.

Program Costs/Financial Aid – After being accepted to a school, get your financial aid and FAFSA forms in as early as possible. Neither process is at all painful, so just get it over with and give yourself more time to weigh the results. Believe me, procrastinating on FinAid will only frustrate you later on when you are waiting on one final aid letter, or even worse, you are forced to make a decision with incomplete data.

Also try to evaluate the relative costs of different locations. For example, Duke and Kellogg may be similarly priced programs, but it could be 20% cheaper to live in Durham rather than Evanston. Over two years, that can really add up.

Campus Visits – Whether it is an admit weekend or just an informal visit, this is the most valuable way to learn about the program. Try to be well rested before hand, because odds are slim that you will get much sleep during an admit weekend. Also, don’t bring anyone with you who won’t be directly involved in the decision-making process. It doesn’t matter if your brother has never seen City X or School Y and really wants to go with you, having an outsider there will only complicate things. It’s much better to go it alone. If the school doesn’t already schedule for a class visit, arrange to sit in on one while you are there. Also try to attend every event, I guarantee that you will regret it otherwise.

During admit weekend, you should pay particular attention to your gut feel about the school. This is the place that you are going to spend the next two years, so it should really feel like home. If you feel out of place, it may not be the right school for you. (Although you will feel a certain amount of discomfort, since you are meeting hundreds of new people in a new location.)
Even after all this it still may not be easy to choose between schools. You have put in so much effort to be accepted into each one, it is a real shame to turn down any program. If all else fails, you can do the coin toss test. Assign one school to heads and the other to tails and flip the coin. If you find yourself saying “best two out of three” when it comes up heads, you’ve found your answer.

Good luck!