Until now, my advice to business school hopefuls looking to research MBA programs was to find a way to visit campus to get a gut feel for whether you can see yourself there or not.
Meeting the people and hanging out with the students – by attending a class, chatting with staff, and soaking up the environment is the best way to get a feeling of the culture and personality of a school. Because the Covid-19 pandemic eliminates most possibilities of in-person interactions, you need to adapt your research strategy accordingly.
But even when a campus visit is out of the question, your research process should be a deeply relational experience. Sure, there’s a vast array of material online from various sources, but it’s also too easy to go down a rabbit hole or get distracted by metrics that reflect someone else’s priorities. That’s why you’ll want to adopt a fit-centric mindset to optimize your time and effort when narrowing down your short list of target schools. Most Admission Committees are obsessed with fit, and you should be too.
Why? Too often, candidates assume that if they get into a top school, they are destined for a marvelous business school experience followed by a brilliant post-MBA career. Unfortunately, sometimes students realize too late that they didn’t make the optimal choice – even at a very top school – and the issue typically comes down to fit. It’s understandable to become so obsessed with whether a certain business school wants you that you can overlook just how much you really want it.
With fit in mind, here are four top tips on researching business schools:
1. Know thyself
I’ve reviewed thousands of applications during my career in MBA admissions, from serving as head of Admissions at INSEAD to my Director role at Fortuna Admissions, and I feel strongly that the single most important action you can take is this: spend substantive time on self-reflection. Pause to get introspective about your ambitions, strengths, passions and personal values. The time you invest in introspection will directly influence your ability to be discerning throughout the research process.
The upshot of all this self-awareness is that it will also make the process of writing your application more efficient – and your narrative more compelling to the admissions committee. Among the key questions the Admissions Committee will ask in assessing the thousands of applicants vying for just a few hundred spots are: “Why do you want an MBA? And why an MBA at our school?” Your unique motivations and vision for your post-MBA future are effectively the lens and filter for discerning what’s most useful, relevant and meaningful to you. (For more tips on initiating an outcomes-oriented process of self-reflection, view my Fortuna colleague’s related article in Forbes.)
2. Follow the hierarchy of good information
The programs themselves are the best sources of information. While you’ll want to digest each school’s website, it’s valuable to start with a look at its MBA Student Profile and employment report. Both reflect data about current and graduating students, which gives you a sense of where students are coming from and where they’re headed after graduation. Too often, candidates skip rich source material like the employment report, yet it’s a trove of useful data that can illuminate a lot about whether your post-MBA goals are feasible and if a school is best positioned to get you there. When evaluating schools, ask yourself: How can this program help me achieve my career goals? Can I picture myself thriving here?
School-hosted blogs are among the best sources of timely and accurate info – like the many Covid-19 updates our Fortuna team has been reporting. In addition to keeping applicants apprised of news, changes, and opportunities, a blog’s tone and content are revealing about its personality and priorities. Same for its social media channels, where you can follow the latest and often get the swiftest response to your queries.
These and other online resources are part of each school’s ‘MBA Cloud’—and everything that isn’t should be considered in context: Who’s giving the advice and what’s their agenda? Are they a student, alum or experienced consultant? How can you fact-check the information?
3. Weigh each program’s strengths & culture
At a glance, schools may seem similar, but each one possesses a distinctive management development approach and community culture. Tempting as it is, don’t rely overmuch on the MBA rankings to tell you what matters. The institutional values, curriculum strength, community vibe, connectedness of its alumni network, and opportunities for career advancement in the areas you care about are all more important. Remember to also consider program length, cost and location.
And when you do review rankings tables, keep in mind that each publication uses a different methodology. For example, the Forbes ranking is a fairly simple calculation of ROI while Bloomberg Businessweek favors satisfaction levels of students and recruiters and The Economist emphasizes the international make-up of the school and post-MBA career opportunities. Understand what’s being measured and then assess how relevant it is to you.
4. Double down on digital networking efforts
Since a visit is out of the question, be sure to invest a lot of time and effort in reaching out, networking online and trying to have discussions with people who’ve been there. Sleuth out students and alumni who share similar interests and initiate frank conversations that help you understand a school’s identity beyond its polished brand. By having those in-depth conversations, you’ll build up an impression over time about whether a program is the right place for you.
“Whether you send messages on LinkedIn or other social networks, ask for 15 minutes to glean advice and learn more about someone’s experience,” writes Fortuna’s Judith Silverman Hodara in her blog, Round 1 Strategies Amid Covid-19: MBA Application Tips & Advice. “When you’re sincere about asking for an alum’s insight and perspective, especially in demonstrating a point of connection or synergy, it’s very likely they’ll say yes.”
And, over the last three months, schools have done an impressive job accelerating the quality and dynamism of virtual offerings to help students get to know them and their communities. As Judith says, “The technology is getting ever more fluid, and there’s certainly a higher bar to create a valuable virtual experience as schools compete for the attention of top candidates.”
The competition for a spot in any top tier MBA program is fierce, and business schools are screening for fit as well as excellence. Your thoughtful research ensures you know what matters to your target programs, and that it’s aligned with what matters most to you.