How to Choose an MBA Program

Choose an MBA program using these best practices.

If you are fortunate enough to have finished round 1 with acceptances from multiple MBA programs in hand, congratulations! While you may have entered the application process with a mental ranking of your target programs, it’s often not that simple when it comes to making the final decision. Maybe you were waitlisted at your top choice program or have a compelling scholarship offer to consider.  There can be a lot of variables at play. So, how do you choose an MBA program when it comes time to pay your deposit?

Deciding where to enroll, which often means uprooting your life and moving to a new city, is of course an extremely personal decision. That said, in our experience, there are several best practices to ensure you make the most informed decision possible.

Attend Admitted Students’ Weekends (With an Open Mind)

Unless you have totally struck a school from your list, make your best effort to attend each admitted students’ weekend. There truly is no better way to immerse yourself in the school’s location and culture to see if you can envision yourself being there in the fall. Oftentimes you can even tour housing options and really think through the logistics of going to school in a particular place.

Additionally, you’ll have the opportunity to speak with a broad swath of current students while you’re there, lessening the chance that your view of a school will be swayed by a small sample set of opinions. And, on this point, feel free to ask these students the tough questions – you’ve already been accepted, and they’ve been in your shoes so they get that choosing an MBA program is a big deal.

Beyond the actual conversations you have with students, professors, and other prospectives, be a keen observer of the intangibles. Is the class discussion lively and engaging? Are students happily socializing in the halls or common areas?

Above all else, while on campus, do your best to keep an open mind and approach the weekend as if you truly may enroll, even if you are leaning in another direction. Especially if you haven’t attended the admitted students’ weekend for your ‘top contender’ yet, you never know, and it may turn out to not be as compelling as you expect. In other words, make sure you walk away feeling like you’ve truly vetted each school. 

One quick pro tip on this topic – if a deposit deadline for one school occurs before another school’s admitted students’ weekend, it never hurts to ask for an extension. Worst case they say no, best case you can fairly assess your options.  

With that Said, Play the Long Game

While much of the above advice centers on the experience you will have while at school, and that of course matters, remind yourself that you are going to business school to maximize your career prospects. When weighing the pros and cons of each program, give priority to criteria that will impact your life 5-10+ years from now over those that will define your experience for the next two years.

Notably, really dig into each school’s employment statistics and ask probing questions about the recruiting prospects for your target industry in your target location. Instead of relying on published statistics, reach out to students pursuing your same field (you can often find names and emails on club websites), particularly second years who have been through internship recruiting and have a sense for internship to full time conversion ratios. While this may change, the current job market is tough and where you land upon graduation is important for your overall career trajectory. 

Another component of playing the long game relates to scholarship offers.  And we’ll heavily caveat our advice by acknowledging that everyone’s financial situation is different so the following may or may not apply to you. But keep in mind that while scholarships certainly help defray the cost to attend business school and potentially the debt burden you will have after graduation, an extra $40,000 might not be all that material in the grand scheme of your working life. Especially if you are targeting a lucrative career path and a school that hasn’t offered you a scholarship will increase your chances of success in recruiting for that path. In other words, while you should certainly consider (and try to negotiate) scholarship offers, they might not be the end all be all when you ultimately choose an MBA program.  

Ultimately, it’s Ok to Use Intuition and Not Look Back

If you’re like many business school applicants, it can feel like you should choose an MBA program based on a data-driven, weighted analysis of pros and cons. In case you need to hear this, it is absolutely ok to choose an MBA program based on intuition! This is a highly personal, multifaceted decision and you can’t rely on logic alone to make it.

Further, research actually supports this approach:

‘Intuition is often seen as the opposite of reason. And when we cast things in this binary way, we often define intuition as a yardstick that has no place in the age of science and data. But recent research from Laura Huang, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, reveals that gut feelings can in fact be useful, especially in highly uncertain circumstances where further data gathering won’t sway the decision maker one way or the other.’

There is a reason most MBA alums look back positively on their experience in business school – while there are differences between programs, the top ones are generally great, and you will find your people at any of them. So, make your decision and don’t look back – look forward to the awesome experiences that await you. Congratulations again.

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