Once you have decided that obtaining an MBA is the right career move for you, the next step is to decide which business schools to apply to. This is quite a daunting prospect as the number of business schools worldwide offering MBAs is measured in thousands. They vary widely in cost, in reputation and in entry requirements. Your choice of business school is such a key decision that it is important that you adopt a methodical and professional approach to making your selection.
This short guide suggests how you might go about this. It provides sources of information on the business schools, suggests how to draw up criteria for selecting your short-list and lists questions to ask about each short-listed school. Although the brochures might suggest otherwise, there are considerable differences between business schools. It is important that you choose the school that is right for you.
2. Where to Start
Most good libraries will possess guides to business schools. A popular guide is 'Which MBA', by George Bickerstaff, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit. This provides valuable guidance on choosing the right business school and tips on maximising your chances of being accepted. The guide includes profiles on all major business schools worldwide with ratings on a range of factors based on surveys of past students. These ratings need to be interpreted with care. The students completing the survey have no basis for comparing their MBA with others and have a vested interest in their school being highly rated. However, if a schools' own students give it a low rating then this is a cause for concern.
These days the natural starting point for research of any kind is the Internet. Which MBA has an on-line site (www.eiu.com), which enables you to search for and compare MBA courses that meet your selection criteria. One of the most popular on-line MBA guides is www.businessweek.com. This includes advice on applying to business schools, discussion fora and a searchable database of business school profiles.
3. Selection Criteria
With such a large number of business schools available you need some way of preparing a short-list. Here are some criteria that many people use to narrow down their search:
In order to provide independent validation of MBA courses a number of accreditation bodies exist. In order to ensure that the course content, facilities and teaching quality meet certain minimum standards a team of assessors visits each school and decides whether the school should be accredited. The accreditation body in the USA is the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International). In Europe it is EQUIS. In the UK it is the Association of MBAs (AMBA). Most reputable schools will have been accredited by at least one external body. A small, select group of international business schools are accredited by all three of the bodies mentioned. Lists of accredited schools can be found on the website of the relevant accreditation body:
In recent years there has been an explosion in the number of rankings and league tables of business schools and MBA programmes. These rankings need to be interpreted with care as they tend to reflect the preconceptions of the compilers and are based on the premise that all MBAs should be the same. However, as only accredited schools are normally included in this list, the fact that a school is included in these rankings is an indication that it is worth considering. Some of the better-known rankings are listed below;
3.2.1 Financial Times
The Financial Times publishes three rankings each year; the Full-time MBA rankings, the Executive MBA rankings and the executive Education rankings. These rankings have the merit that all parts of the world are included in a single ranking. However the FT exclude 'subjective' measures and so no account is taken of course content, teaching quality or the quality of the student body. Instead a set of 20 'objective' measures are used with most of the weighting being based on salary 2 years after graduating and the percentage increase in salary in comparison with pre-MBA salary.
3.2.2 Economist Intelligence Unit
The EIU through its publication 'Which MBA' has been publishing ratings of various features of MBA courses for many years based on questionnaires completed by samples of students. This year it used this information in combination with questionnaires completed by the business schools to produce an international ranking similar to that produced by the Financial Times. However, here the students were asked which factors were important to them in assessing an MBA programme. These factors were then incorporated into a quality index for each school. The main difference between this survey and the FT survey is that here student perceptions of the quality of course content and teaching are taken into account. Consequently there are some interesting differences between the FT and EIU rankings.
3.2.3 Business Week
This is the longest established and most prestigious of all of the business school rankings. If you are interested in studying in the USA this is the place to start. The rankings are based on a combination of information provided by students, recruiters and the business schools themselves. The Business Week rankings are so important to US business schools that there have been concerns that some business schools and their students have been presenting a rosier picture than can be justified.
Business Week is less good if you are interested in schools outside the USA. They do produce a separate ranked list of the top 10 non-US schools and a further undifferentiated list of other good non-US schools. However, so far they have been unwilling to combine all schools into a single ranked table.
As a separate exercise Business Week produce a ranking based on pay-back time, the number of years it takes to recoup the total MBA investment through increased salary.
3.2.4 Forbes Magazine
The Forbes ranking is based on the simple premise that the best measure of a business school's effectiveness is the impact of its MBA on an individual's earnings. It uses a similar methodology to Business Week's payback ranking and produces similar results.
3.2.5 MBA Career Guide
The MBA career Guide is concerned solely with international recruiters' perceptions of the various MBA programmes. The guide surveys over 1000 international recruiters each year, asking them which schools they recruit MBAs from and how they rate these schools. The responses are used to produce a recruiter score for each business school. While the MBA Career Guide prefers not to talk about these scores in terms of rankings, all major schools that take the job placement of their students seriously know their position in the MBA Career Guide world rankings.
By all means use the rankings to identify your short-list of possible schools but keep a sense of proportion. Remember that they are produced by journalists in order to sell newspapers and the rankings are based on some fairly suspect data. Also remember what the Dean of one top-ranked school had to say about the rankings:
'Anyone who decides to apply to us solely based on our position in the rankings is unlikely to be suitable.'
4. Differences between Business Schools
When reading the brochures and web sites there seems to be little to choose between the various schools. They all have similar content, teaching methods ad course objectives. However, careful reading of the brochures combined with discussions with alumni will identify significant differences in emphasis between schools. Some of these are discussed below.
4.1 Teaching Excellence versus Research Excellence
5. Questions to ask about each Business School
Teaching and research are important to all business schools and so this is a matter of balance. Do senior faculty devote so much time to research that most of the teaching is delegated to junior staff? Is research output academic and theoretical or applicable and relevant to business? If a school emphasises teaching excellence at the expense of research does this mean that teaching is dated rather than leading edge? Schools that have the balance about right are likely to have a high output of research publications and a high output of textbooks and case studies.
4.2 Customisation and Standardisation
Some schools believe that there is a common set of skills and knowledge that all MBAs must possess. Such programmes have a high proportion of compulsory courses usually with a large, compulsory project in the latter part of the programme. Provided that your own requirements match well with what is on offer then standardisation is not a problem. However, if you feel that your personal requirements are unique and distinctive you might prefer a course that is easier to customise to meet your needs. If this is the case, look for a course with a large number of electives and flexibility of choice between projects and taught courses.
Many schools will agree that personal development is an important part of the learning process and should be integrated into the MBA Programme. Increasingly students also recognize that their own effectiveness will be enhanced by a personalized approach to their development. Some schools have a clear approach to providing opportunities for the individual to determine the next stage of their life and career.
4.3 Practical Skills versus Academic Theory
Some scholars view the MBA as an academic degree on a par with masters degrees in other academic disciplines such as physics or philosophy. Such courses will involve considerable academic depth and will usually require students to write an academic dissertation as part of the course. Such courses will appeal to individuals who particularly enjoyed being stretched intellectually during their first degree.
Other schools view the MBA as a vocational course which helps students to develop the practical skills that leaders and senior managers need in order to be effective. MBAs of this type include lots of role-play, group exercises and projects involving the solution of real problems in real organisations. This type of MBA will appeal to you if your objective by the end of the course is to be better at leading and managing rather than just to be expert in the theories on which management is based.
4.4 Teamwork versus Competition
Schools that emphasise teamwork believe that the modern leader and manager achieves results as part of a multi-disciplinary team (usually a board of directors or its equivalent). Such schools will usually organise students into learning teams and many of the assignments will be team-based. Other schools believe that it is still a very competitive world and that most successful managers will be those that compete most effectively. Such schools will emphasise individual achievement and will use methods of assessment where students are competing against each other.
5.1 Do you meet the minimum entry requirements?
6. Making Your Final Choice
Most schools specify the minimum requirements for entry to their programmes in terms of GMAT score, qualifications and work experience. If you clearly do not meet the requirements of a particular school then there is usually little point in putting in an application. For example, if you have just graduated there is little point in applying to schools that require a minimum of 3 years post-qualification experience. However, do not be afraid to put in an application if you feel that you have other strengths that compensate for your apparent short-comings. For example, if you have dropped out of college in order to set up a highly successful business and you have a GMAT of 750 most schools will overlook your lack of a first degree.
5.2 How long has the school been running its MBA?
Developing an effective MBA programme takes time and so there is some degree of correlation between the length of time that the MBA has been in existence and its quality.
Mature MBA programmes are more likely to have a well developed global network of alumni that can be an excellent source of job opportunities and the development of business relationships.
5.3 What is the Average GMAT Score?
If the average GMAT score is relatively modest this suggests that entry standards are relatively low and the school is not particularly popular. If the average GMAT score is exceptionally high this could mean that the school puts more emphasis on GMAT scores than other factors. If this is the case there is little point in applying unless you have a good GMAT score. It also means that some of the students on the course might be extremely able intellectually but lacking in managerial skills and experience.
5.4 Do Members of Faculty have Business Experience?
Unless members of Faculty have themselves had experience of managing an enterprise they are unlikely to be able to relate to the problems that you will face as a manager. Look at the biographies of faculty. If faculty have spent the whole of their working lives in universities then their approach is likely to be fairly theoretical. Look for faculty who are in demand as consultants and non-executive directors.
5.5 What is the Average Years of Experience of the Students?
In a well run MBA programme much of the learning is from the other students that you work with on projects and case studies. The greater the experience and diversity that other students have the better. Ask to see the yearbook of current students and decide whether they seem to be the kind of people you would enjoy working with.
5.6 Which Companies Recruit from the School?
The companies that recruit from a school give a good indication of the attractiveness of their students to recruiters. You can also check whether the school attracts the kind of recruiters that you will be interested in.
5.7 Can you talk to Students and Alumni?
Most schools will encourage you to talk to current students when you visit the school and will arrange for you to contact alumni from the same country or industry as you. Ask whether, with hindsight, they would choose the same business school again. Ask what they consider to be the schools main strengths and weaknesses.
5.8 What have been the most recent changes to the programme?
Management is a dynamic and evolving discipline. This should be reflected in changes to the programme. If there have been no major changes, this suggests complacency and an increasingly out of date programme. Where changes have been made this will give an indication of the direction of change. Is greater emphasis being placed on computer-based methods of learning? Is greater emphasis being placed on ethics and social responsibility, etc?
We suggest that you aim to cut down your final short-list to around three schools. Entry to the best schools is highly competitive and so you need an alternative if you should be turned down by your first-choice school (some schools have a rolling admissions policy and so you can apply to these schools early and then only make applications to other schools should you be turned down).
Do not apply to too many schools. Completing the application form and preparing for the interview can be very time consuming. It is better to prepare thoroughly for a few schools than to prepare less thoroughly for a large number of schools.
Should you be lucky enough to be accepted by all of the schools for which you have applied, how do you choose? First, try to visit each of your short-listed schools. Many schools offer preview days which give you a taste of what it would be like to attend that school. Second, talk to as many people as possible - students, alumni, recruiters. These people will give you a deeper understanding of what each school is really like than you sometimes get from the school's Admissions Office.
By Dr John Mapes
Cranfield University, UK