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What to Look for in a Business School

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If you're thinking about pursuing an MBA, you'll need to decide which business school to attend—and there are hundreds to choose from in the U.S. alone. The choice can be overwhelming.

In this Article

You've probably heard of the top-ranking business schools and wondered whether you should apply. Of course, there are also smaller schools which may have less name recognition, but often offer a very high-quality education. Additionally, there's the option to complete your MBA online.

Clarify Your Objectives: What Do You Hope to Achieve?

Ask yourself why you want to earn an MBA. What are your immediate career goals? What about 10 years from now? What is the dream job you are working toward?

The answers to those questions can help narrow down the choices of business schools. And, clarifying your objectives is important for the application process. The admissions advisors of the schools you apply to will want to know your goals and why you believe the school is the right fit for you.

Prestige vs. Practicality: Is an "Elite" Business School Right for You?

If your ambition is to work in the highest level of Fortune 500 company, then the reputation of the business school could make a difference. Earning an MBA from an elite school can expose you to top recruiters and influential networking opportunities.

That said, there are many situations where the name and ranking of the school don't matter. You may be pursuing an MBA because you wish to change jobs, enter a new field, or specialize in one aspect of business. If that's the case, then your priority might be to find a business school that offers an MBA in your chosen field—allowing you to specialize in an area of particular interest.

"One big misconception is that the academics are more rigorous at a "top 10" school compared to lower-ranking ones," says Melody Jones, co-founder, Vantage Point MBA Admissions Counseling. "The curriculum is not really materially different. Once you're in the school, your ability to thrive is similar."

How Important are Rankings?

Each year, several well-known business magazines and organizations will release a list ranking business schools by quality. These rankings appear in the group's publications or on their website and are popularly reported in news media. Many business schools will use their rankings in their marketing communications to promote their MBA programs.

The criteria the rankers usually use include objective information such as acceptance rates, GMAT or GRE scores, graduation rates, GPA, and job placement, as well as subjective ratings from peer reviewers. The peer reviewers are usually deans and directors of business schools who are given a survey and asked to rate a list of schools on a scale of 1 to 5.

While rankings can give you some information about the school, keep in mind they are not official and the placement of any single school can vary from list to list.

There's also a component of subjectivity involved in the rankings, John Gibson, Purdue University Krannert School of Management's associate director of admissions, says. "Some are like popularity contests," he says.

While rankings can give you some information about the school, keep in mind they are not official and the placement of any single school can vary from list to list.

Moreover, a school's ranking will not give you any idea of whether it's a good fit for your individual goals. "Look beyond the rankings when considering an MBA program," advises Marco De Novellis, senior editor of BusinessBecause and GMAC Media. "Ask how the schools can deliver on your career goals."

While some employers may be impressed to see an MBA from a top-ranking school on your résumé, others won't care. Once again, consider your career goals and your purpose for earning an MBA. If the school's prestige isn't part of your plan, then the ranking may not matter.

If the school's prestige isn't part of your plan, then the ranking may not matter. 

"The best possible fit will lead to the best possible outcome," Gibson says.

Does Every MBA Program Require I Take the GMAT?

The GMAT, or the Graduate Management Admission Test, is a standardized test designed to measure your readiness for business school. More than 200,000 business schools worldwide use GMAT scores as part of their admissions process.

Some business schools are admitting students without requiring GMAT scores or with alternative test scores such as the GRE (Graduate Record Exam). Other schools will waive the GMAT requirement if you have sufficient work experience in business.

If your chosen school does require GMAT scores, this requirement applies to everyone, whether you're located in the U.S. or you're an international student seeking to earn an American MBA in the states.

Considering Your Circumstances: Location, Employment, and Instruction Format

You should also consider your current financial and employment situation as these factors impact the types of programs that are practical. For instance, in a traditional, two-year business school model, MBA candidates will quit their jobs, live on or near campus, and devote their full energies to studying for their degree. If you want to stay at your current job or your financial situation won't permit you to stop working, then you might prefer a business school that offers a variety of ways to complete your MBA: a weekend or part-time program, an Executive MBA, or an online MBA. 

The Importance of Location for On-Campus MBA Programs

Those who prefer to stay at home will choose a business school within commuting distance or one that offers an online program. Online MBA programs can be a good fit if you intend to stay working full time because they allow you to complete your schoolwork on your own schedule.

Conversely, a school in an urban area or specific city might be advantageous.

"For people interested in certain fields, like technology or finance, they want to be at schools in New York or on the West Coast," observes Kate Richardson, senior admissions consultant with mbaMission, an MBA admissions consulting firm. Such geographic locations may optimal for internships and post-graduate opportunities, she says.

For people interested in certain fields, like technology or finance, they want to be at schools in New York or on the West Coast.

Researching Business Schools: Academics, Extracurriculars, Cost, and More

The best way to begin your research on business schools is by examining their websites in detail. Gibson recommends making a pros and cons list for each school you are considering. Seeing the information in writing can be helpful in figuring out your priorities.

"There's a program out there for everybody," Gibson says. "You just have to figure out what you want."

Choosing the Best Business Field for You: Evaluate a School's Academic Opportunities and Concentrations

Start by focusing on academics. Does the school offer the type of MBA program you want? A general MBA focuses on leadership and management skills that may be applicable in a wide range of business fields. On the other hand, if you get an MBA with a concentration, you will also take a cluster of elective courses focused on a specific area.

A concentration allows you to gain a deeper level of knowledge in your chosen field. For example, if you want to go into investment banking, you might choose an MBA in Finance. If you're working in information technology and you're interested in moving into management, you could take an MBA with a concentration in IT.

It's wise to do thorough research of popular concentrations so you have a clear idea of what type of MBA program best suits your career goals. While there will be similarities from school to school, each one may have a slightly different emphasis, and that can affect the type of experience you have.

"It does help to have a pretty good idea of a concentration coming into your MBA because it could impact admissions," advises Richardson. But don't worry if you think you might change your mind after taking a few courses. "They want you to apply with a good plan in mind, but they understand that opportunities come up and you could change your mind." Some schools are more flexible than others, she adds.

Don't Know What Business Field to Choose?

What do you do if you don't know what transferable skills you have and/or you don't know where your passion lies?

This kind of introspection can clearly be difficult, but try this mental exercise:

  • Think about what you most enjoy doing in general and try to figure out which elements are constants throughout all or many of these things.
  • Once you have identified certain high-level concepts that consistently pique your interest, begin investigating different business fields and try to see where you would best fit.
  • Take some time to reflect on your past, since what has historically made you happy will most likely make you happy in the future.
  • Staying Relevant: Is the School Keeping Up with the Times?

Business is continually affected by changes in society, culture, technology, and domestic and global politics. Good business schools stay current in focus, materials, and methodologies.

For example, right now schools are responding to growing demands for technology by innovating concentrations in such fields as information technology, cybersecurity, and data analytics. They are also expanding programs that are becoming more popular, such as healthcare management, environmental management, and supply chain management.

The technology used in the classroom is another sign that a school is staying up-to-date with real-world needs. MBA graduates who can use financial technology (fintech) may be more competitive in the job market.

Schools that are accredited are periodically reviewed to make sure they are keeping current and continually improving, says Bryant. The AACSB's standards hold schools responsible for updating their curriculum and teaching methods, implementing new and emerging technologies, and reporting on their societal impact.

Consider Whether a Program's Method of Instruction Works Well for You

Some college professors will spend the entire class period lecturing, but that is becoming less common in higher education. This is especially true in an MBA-level class. No matter what type of program you're considering, you'll likely find a student-centered, interactive classroom experience.

Still, teaching styles aren't the same everywhere. Here are some common learning environments.

Case method: In one of the most popular MBA teaching methods, students are asked to analyze business situations, either hypothetical or from real incidents. They may be asked to identify stakeholders, analyze causes, describe contexts, and suggest solutions. The case method can be used for class discussions, group work, or independent assignments.

Collaborative: Teamwork is essential in most business environments, so many schools stress the importance of working together. Students may work on group projects for the class.

Simulations and labs: Computer-based simulations and labs are especially popular in finance, accounting, and investment courses. Students may learn to analyze portfolios, handle trading platforms, and assess risk variables.  

Community-based: Student teams may be partnered with local businesses or nonprofits to problem-solve or develop finance, business, or marketing plans. Some courses may also assign individual students to an intern-like experience for course credit.

You may find that some schools favor a single method over others, or it's possible to experience a combination of styles, depending on the class you take.

What Traits Should You Look for in a School's Instructors?

The faculty of a business school can affect your MBA experience more than you might think. In some schools, you will encounter professors who formerly held high-level positions with major corporations, organizations, or government.

Faculty research is emphasized in some business schools. Instructors might be authors of books or innovators of cutting-edge business theories. You may have opportunity to learn from some of today's business leaders and prize-winners.

Keep in mind, however, that some courses with high-profile professors might actually be taught by graduate teaching assistants. This is a good question to ask when researching schools.

Most business schools will list faculty biographies on their websites. You'll learn:

  • What degrees they hold
  • Where they attended school
  • What honors they might have received
  • What research or publications they have authored
  • How long they've been teaching
  • What their teaching philosophy is

You can look at a course catalog to see which instructors will teach the courses you're interested in.

Graduation and Job Placement Rates, Accreditation

Examining information like graduate rates and job placement rates can also help suss out whether a school is a good fit for you, according to Gibson.

"Students should also look at the outcomes of the program, such as the jobs people are getting and their salaries," he says.

Finally, make sure both the school and the MBA program you're interested in are accredited. This will ensure you are getting a high quality and up-to-date business education.

Justifying the Cost: How Much Should You Spend to Attend?

Earning an MBA will cost you, but the questions to ask are: "How much?" And "What is the return on my investment?"

It's no secret that the top-tier schools will charge the highest tuition. Fees, books, living expenses, and transportation can also add up. The latest BusinessBecause report on the cost of MBAs lists the average total cost at U.S. schools to be more than $200,000.

However, that average is for full-time residential MBA programs. That may be a good return on your investment if you desire to move up to the highest level of a major corporation.

On the other hand, if you goal is to become a higher-level manager in the company you're already working for, it might be more debt than you're willing to take on. If you commute from home, take an online program, or attend a state school or smaller regional college, the total cost could be much less. 

Business schools associated with state universities tend to charge lower tuition. These may place lower than the top 10 in the rankings, but they can deliver a great experience.

"You can get a high quality education at a fraction of the cost," Gibson says.

Whatever the cost, you don't necessarily have to give up on your dream school. You may find scholarships, discounts, and other financial assistance you could qualify for. These can be offered by the business school or by other organizations, so look around and ask questions.

Ensure You're a Cultural Fit

The school's vision and mission statements can also affect your educational experience. Stephanie Bryant, chief accreditation officer for the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), recommends that you look for schools that promote your concerns. She advises asking yourself two questions: "What do you care about?" and "Are you going to find a school that espouses the same values as you do?"

Schools may emphasize cultural values such as collaboration and community, concern for social issues or the environment, or creative thinking and innovation.

Narrowing Your Selections: Networking and Touring

When you have your short list of schools, try to find out inside information from people who are attending or have graduated.

How Networking Can Help You Choose a Program and Improve Your Chances of Admission

Networking is vital to a career in business, and you should start developing contacts even before you apply to business school. Try to meet business leaders in your community and develop relationships with managers in your company.

If one of your chosen schools holds an open house, do your best to attend. You'll be able to meet some of the professors, alumni, and current students. Admissions advisors may also be there, and showing an interest in the school and the MBA program could make a positive impression.

Don't neglect virtual networking. Connect with other MBA students, professors, and business professionals on LinkedIn and other business-oriented sites. You can also follow the schools you are interested in on social media. They often post photos and report on student achievements, projects, and special events.

Connect with other MBA students, professors, and business professionals on LinkedIn and other business-oriented sites.

Asking friends, relatives, coworkers, and others can be also helpful, but if you don't know anyone else who has earned an MBA, you can find other avenues for information. There are several MBA-focused online forums and social media groups where you can ask questions and ask about the schools and what the classes are like. You may find current students and alumni participating.

For your top choices, don't hesitate to make a phone call to the admissions of the schools. "We welcome those calls," says Gibson, who often uses online video conferencing to speak to prospective students. "You get to talk to somebody and get into the details that are important to you."

Consider Touring Your Top Choices

A school tour might be one of the last steps in your decision-making process. You might not have the time or money needed to visit all the schools you're interested in, but you should try to visit your top choice.

If you can't go in person, you can take advantage of online videos that give virtual school tours. You might also find videos that show a classroom experience or student reviews. Increasingly, schools are using video conferencing apps to hold live open houses or meet-and-greets for those interested in MBA programs.

How to Make the Most of a School Tour

An in-person tour is especially important if you plan to attend full-time or live on campus. You'll be able to get an idea of the campus atmosphere, the facilities and resources available, and the surrounding area.

During a typical school tour, you'll be shown around campus by a school representative or by a student ambassador. You may be able to sit in on a class and get a feel for what the experience will be like. You might be invited to have lunch with some current MBA students.

You should also do some exploring by yourself. Look at some of the textbooks in the bookstore, hang out in the library or computer lab, and strike up casual conversations with students.

What you learn can help you choose a business school and narrow the focus of your career goals.

karen hanson

Written and reported by:

Karen S. Hanson

Contributing Writer

kate richardson

With professional insight from:

Kate Richardson

Senior Admissions Consultant, mbaMission

stephanie bryant

Stephanie Bryant

Chief Accreditation Officer, Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)

john gibson

John Gibson

Associate Director of Admissions, Purdue University Krannert School of Management

marco denovellis

Marco DeNovellis

Senior Editor, BusinessBecause and GMAC Media

melody jones

Melody Jones

Co-founder, Vantage Point MBA Admissions Counseling

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