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5 Tips for Choosing your MBA program

The golden rule for choosing an MBA program – if you are fortunate enough to have multiple offers – is to simply select a school from the highest tier to which you were admitted.

The higher the tier, the better the overall program, so it makes sense to pick the program in the highest tier to which a candidate is admitted. That said, there are a number of caveats to this, which may mean a candidate deliberately selects a program from a lower tier, as long as it allows the candidate to meet their short- and long-term career goals.

1. Industry/region impacts decision

If the industry in which you plan to work in, post-MBA, is not one of the three big MBA feeder industries of consulting, finance and tech, and the program you are interested in has a strong niche focus in that industry you may not need to follow the golden rule. For example, Anderson and YYY both have a strong focus on the real estate industry, and may be compelling choices for those pursuing an MBA in real estate. Similarly, Anderson, Stern and Marshall have a strong focus on media and entertainment. Both industries have significant roles for MBA candidates, but they typically on represent less than 5% of any graduating school’s class.

The same arguments go for a regional focus. If you know you want to live and work in Atlanta for the rest of your career, then Emory is a very good option. If you want to be in the research triangle, then Duke or Kenan Flagler are obvious choices. In Texas, McCombs, Rice and Cox are great options. Again, it is important to think of your short and long term options, but these programs in smaller regions, outside the key business centers-of-gravity, will have a high concentration of alumni to help support a career.

2. Scholarships to sway decision

More and more, it appears that MBA programs are using scholarship money to attract their best candidates. While Harvard and Stanford typically distribute scholarship money on a needs basis, other programs use a mix of need and merit to determine scholarship offers. Those programs are using merit-based offers to attract candidates that might have offers from programs in the same tier, or higher tiers.

If a candidate is seeking a post-MBA career in the traditional MBA fields of finance and consulting, then the influence of scholarship money is less, than if a person is seeking a career in a non-traditional MBA field, where the post-MBA salary is less, and the MBA networks are smaller. Careers in Tech generally are becoming more traditional, with higher salaries and greater networks, making scholarship money less influential. Those seeking an entrepreneurial career could go either way. On the one hand, the better the MBA program, the more resources available to the entrepreneur, while graduating with less debt could help an entrepreneur pursue their path more quickly.

Finally, it’s important to factor in a candidate’s appetite for risk in light of their socio-economic background. For instance, those who are first in their family to graduate from college – with limited personal resources – may be more likely to take into account scholarship money when selecting their MBA option.

3. Mobility of candidate

Not all MBA candidates have the freedom to relocate to Silicon Valley, the North east or other parts of the world. This may simply be because of family ties to a specific area (spouse’s job, kids in school). For this reason, some programs will have MBA candidates that could have attended a program from a higher tier, but could not make that choice.

4. Scope of ambition

Not everybody wants to rule the world, or create the next tech unicorn, and that’s probably a good thing. If you don’t have Elon Musk’s levels of ambition, then selecting a program that can perfectly well get you to your short and long term goals is the right thing to do. Don’t aim for HBS, just because it is conventional wisdom to go to the very best, go to where you can best meet your own goals and ambition. That might be a more regionally-focused MBA, or it might be an MBA that offers you a significant scholarship, thus reducing your costs, in the short run.

5. Imperfect marketplace

Finally, the marketplace for MBA programs is not perfect. Media rankings offer candidates a means to frame the competitiveness of each of the leading MBA programs. Because those rankings differ from each other, and because no ranking ranks Harvard and Stanford as the top two MBA programs, it’s clear that these rankings distort reality.