Choosing the Best Business School: Where to Start

Picking an MBA program can seem complicated and confusing, but it doesn’t have to be.

Choosing an MBA program

So you’ve decided to get an MBA… now comes the hard part!

There are hundreds of schools out there, each one bombarding candidates with huge quantities of surprisingly similar marketing material. The decision can feel complex and difficult, hinging on ambiguous factors like “fit,” “culture” and the school’s “network” in your chosen field.

The first question many clients ask us is, “What’s the ‘right’ school for me?” MBA programs make this question seem challenging, but it’s actually really easy:

Step 1: Go to the best school you can get into.

That’s it!!!

…reputation equals results…

Forget about fit; forget about culture; forget about scholarships. Go to the name-brand school everyone recognizes as the best—the school that everyone who will ever be in a position to hire you knows about and is impressed by. These schools attract the most prestigious, connected professors. They connect you with an alumni base running the most successful businesses. When it comes to getting a leg up in business, reputation equals results.

Here’s another way to think about it: Have you ever seen the look on the face of a child who’s just been served knockoff brand “Crazy-O’s” instead of the Cheerios with which she is familiar? Her mom might be able to convince her that “it’s the same thing,” but why risk it? You do not want to see that look on the face of someone handling your application in an HR department. There are many solid schools out there that will provide a quality education in your chosen field “just like” a name-brand Ivy, but they will not offer you the same career opportunities.

This is most obvious when there are clear differences of prestige between the schools. Got into HBS and NYU? That’s a no-brainer – Harvard every time! But what happens when the levels of prestige are similar? Do you go to Ross or to Duke? To Tepper or Johnson or UNC? Do you attend Sloan or Booth? Cheerios or Corn Pops?

This is where things get tricky. Here are a few tiebreakers, in order of importance :

Choose a B-School where your target employers recruit

Keep in mind that there is ONE reason for you to go to B-School: advancing your career. So, if the employers you are targeting recruit at one school more than another, it makes sense for you to go to the school where your target employers recruit. For example, say you’re targeting finance and got into Ross and Johnson. Given your goals, it makes more sense to go to Cornell, which has deep connections with the New York finance world. If you wanted to go into Healthcare, Ross would be the better option.

Choose a B-School located near the center of your industry

For some industries and functions (like HR or marketing) this won’t matter much, but many industries have a clear geographical bias. The finance business is in NYC; Columbia and Stern have an edge. The movie business is in Hollywood; go with Anderson or Marshall. Oil and Gas are strong in Texas; McCombs is a good choice.

Choose a place where you “fit”

Fit is a bit of a mystery, but if all else is equal, it can be an important factor. Choose the school where you feel you would be happier, keeping in mind that you’re probably going to have a great two years no matter what decision you make. This information is really hard to get from online sources. A good place to start is student blogs, which give more of an insider perspective, but really, the best thing to do BY FAR is to visit the campus. There’s nothing like meetings with students, professors and administration to give you an idea of what your experience might actually be like.

Compared to undergraduate applicants, MBA candidates have clear, straightforward, professionally oriented goals. Though less prestigious schools will work hard to convince you otherwise, the MBA decision process is simple: The better school is always the better choice.

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