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How to Choose the Right MBA Program

ann richardsPerhaps you’re at the beginning stage of the important process to identify which MBA programs you’ll apply to. Maybe, with multiple acceptances in hand, you have the exciting and life-altering task of deciding where you ultimately want to enroll. In either case, Ann Richards, interim director of admissions at Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, has valuable insight to help you make the most informed decision possible.

“There are a handful of key elements that are essential when trying to choose the right MBA program for you,” Richards says. “Research, visit and conduct a self-assessment to understand what’s important to you,” she advises.

Just as important isavoiding emotional influencers that can detract from your ability to make a well-informed decision. Just because family members attended a particular school for generations does not make it the right school for you, for instance. “You really need to know yourself and not be influenced by emotional pulls,” says Richards.

Seek Advice from Recent MBA Graduates

Business schoolrankings can help you get a feel for what’s out there, but talking to colleagues who have MBAs can be even more valuable, Richards advises. Ask about their experience and what they would do differently if they were choosing an MBA today.

Look for more recent alums if possible, she recommends. “Most MBA programs have changed drastically over the last 10 years – they’ve overhauled their curriculums, constructed new buildings – and the nature of the career search has also changed dramatically.” Therefore, someone who graduated a long time ago can’t offer the most current insights.

Your own network will provide possibilities as well. “Think about people you attended college with who have gone on to get an MBA and reach out to them, or look within your company or professional networks,” Richards suggests.

Identify three to four alumni and ask for five or 10 minutes of their time, says Richards. Go to each one with a list of five to six questions that are important to you. Were you challenged at your MBA program? Were your classmates intellectually curious? Was it an active learning environment? What was the culture at the school? Was it super competitive, team focused, collaborative?

Of course, you might also want to ask about extra-curricular activities, club activities, trips or treks, leadership opportunities, and access to faculty. “Different characteristics may have different meaning for candidates,” she points out. Prospective applicants who are thinking about pursuing an MBA as part of a career change may want to ask about specific resources available to help with that process, whereas that won’t be as important to someone who plans to return to their employer or start their own business.

Don’t forget to inquire about a school’s community. “The ability to participate or engage and have an impact or leave a legacy is important,” Richards says.

Visit Schools If Possible

After talking with alumni, you should be able to narrow the list of schools that interest you. Richards encourages prospective applicants to visit schools whenever possible, ideally when classes are in session and you can sit in on one. “See what the engagement between faculty and students is like,” Richard recommends. How involved are the students? Are they participating and engaged? What are the facilities like? What resources are available to students? How happy do the students seem?

If you can’t visit, correspond with the school. “See what happens – do you get a response from the school, from the students? Candidates can get a sense of how important they are to a school based on how responsive the members of its community are.”

It’s not terribly important whether you visit before or after you apply, but definitely visit if you can before you make an enrollment decision, she stresses. “I often hear people say, ‘Cornell wasn’t on my radar until I visited,’ or ‘I was sure I wanted to attend X school, until I visited.’”

In terms of getting a feel for the culture of the school, your best bet is to meet with current students and ask about their activities and extracurricular interests. If you can, attend a cultural event, listen to a guest speaker or, even better, attend a class or drop by a school happy hour. Johnson recently hosted Super Saturday, when dozens of prospective students visited campus to interview. We happened that night to have our Diwali celebration going on, which gave participating prospectives a great opportunity to see for themselves the kind of events our students take part in,” Richards recalls. “Although Diwali is an Indian celebration, it certainly wasn’t just Indian students participating. It really gives candidates a sense of what it is like to be a student here.”

It usually doesn’t take long to figure out if you click with a school or not, Richards notes. “I don’t think a school should have to grow on you. You should know when you visit that it’s a place you can see yourself being happy,” she says.

Size and Location Matter

When it comes to MBA programs, size does matter since it can impact the network you develop. When you are considering schools, think about whether or not a class is segmented into cohorts, she advises. “If you get to know 30 people really, really well but don’t know anyone else – that might be a disadvantage to you. It might not, but it’s something worth thinking about.”

Do you want a city school or a school that is part of a smaller community? Richards links Johnson’s close-knit community to the fact that it is not in a large urban center. “Everyone is close to campus – a five-minute walk instead of a subway ride followed by two buses,” she notes. “That’s true not just for students but also faculty and staff,” she continues. “It’s not uncommon for faculty to say, ‘I’m going home to have dinner with my kids but I’ll come back and see you in the library at 8:30.’ That does not happen at all schools.”

Assessing a School’s Career Services

Recognizing that the success of a career services office can be influenced greatly by the economy, you can still get a feel for what kind of support you’ll receive in a given program, as well as how aligned their career services are with your own goals. A school may have tremendous success in placing students who want to go into consulting or finance but really struggle with candidates who want to pursue marketing, for example.

“As prospective applicants look at a school’s career services, they should look not only at the general placement rate but also at specifics in regard to their individual interests,” Richards says. “If a school has a lower overall placement rate than other schools, but 25 percent of students are interested in entrepreneurial studies and looking to start their own businesses upon graduation, suddenly that placement rate doesn’t look so bad. It is important that students look at the placement statistics through the lens of what they want to do.”

What Role Do Students Play on Campus?

“I think as a prospective applicant you want to look for leadership opportunities, potential to have an impact, orchestrating or facilitating change, spearheading an organization or a club, and how willing the school is to support that,” Richards continues.

If having an impact and getting involved as an MBA student is important to you, ask current students how easy it is to start a club or organize a conference and what kind of support the school provides if you do. “Those kinds of questions will be very valuable to students, particularly those that like to get involved and orchestrate change. They would be really frustrated if they landed in an environment where their voice wasn’t heard or valued.”

Know Thyself

As an MBA student you will have the best experience and get the most benefit out of the program that is the best fit for you. That makes knowing yourself and what you want a vital part of the decision-making process. Think about whether you want a big or small program, whether assuming a leadership role is one of your priorities, and what support you will need in your career search.

Try not to fixate on brand names, Richards offers. “You need to look not only at the brand but at what the school’s benefit is – how it will help you achieve your goals, grow, and develop your leadership skills,” she says.

So, there you have it. With targeted research, campus visits and a thorough self-assessment, you can be well on your way to selecting the perfect MBA program for you.

Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Business is an advertiser on the Clear Admit site. This piece appears as part of the school’s sponsorship package. For more information about sponsorship opportunities with Clear Admit, contact us here.