How Many MBA Programs Should I Apply To?

MBA programs, MBA admissions

One of the most important decisions you’ll make as you approach the MBA admissions process is choosing where you’ll apply. In this blog I want to provide some of my best advice on selecting the programs you’ll be applying to.

Apply to 5-6 MBA Programs

I typically encourage most MBA candidates to apply to five or six schools. That way, you can apply to a range of schools with varying levels of selectivity: Apply to two “reach schools” (where your scores are below the schools’ averages), two “good chance schools” (where you have a solid chance of admission, given a high application quality), and one to two “safety schools.”

Apply as Early as Possible (While Ensuring Quality)

Strategically-speaking, applying earlier is better. Round 1 candidates have a slightly higher success rate at most top schools: There are more spots available in the class, and more scholarship money to award. But it’s always better to apply to three schools in Round 1, and have all of your applications be of top-notch quality, than squeezing to submit five for Round 1 and have your applications be of lower quality than they could be.

Don’t Pick Programs Solely Based on Rankings

I completely understand the appeal of applying to a top MBA program (heck, I applied to only top-15 schools myself), and I genuinely believe that the return of investment into a top program is absolutely worth it. So I don’t blame you – in fact I applaud you – if you’re determined to attend a top business school!

But pay attention to the differences between the top schools, as there are many differences between them. You’ll be much better off attending a school ranked ninth, if it’s a good fit for you, than you would be attending a school ranked second that’s not as good a fit.

So how do you discern the differences between the top programs and pick the best program for you, personally?

Choose Programs That Will Best Equip You for Success in Your Post-MBA Career

Before you start selecting which schools you want to apply to, think through what it is you plan to do AFTER business school, and as such, what you want to study. A school that is known for the quality of its finance training may not be the best option for entrepreneurs, and vice versa. So you need to do your research to determine which programs have the best courses, professors, and other opportunities to equip you with the knowledge you need to attain and succeed in you post-MBA career.

Along those same lines, the US News and World will post their “employment statistics” into various industries, by school. This means that you can literally look up a particular business school – say, MIT Sloan – and see the number of students who accepted jobs in particular areas, like consulting. You can also see what percentage of candidates that accepted jobs in a geographic area, like the Northeast. So when you see that more than 11x of students accepted jobs in the Northeast vs. the Midwest (which actually happened), you know that Sloan might be a great option for you if you intend to work in the Northeast after college.

Consider the School’s Teaching Method

Look, I get the appeal of going to Harvard for business school. Nobody doesn’t want Harvard on their resume. But I also don’t think that the case study method – Harvard’s teaching style of choice - is the best fit for everyone. To succeed in the case study method, you need to be confident articulating a point of view and then defending that point of view to the rest of the class for more than an hour! If you’re outspoken and love debate, the case study method may be a great fit for you. If you’re not, it might not be.

When choosing which programs you’ll apply, consider whether each program’s way of teaching is best suited to you and how you learn. HBS and Darden use the case study method exclusively, while most other schools use a mix of case study and non-case study instruction. Some programs are more collaborative, and their professors assign more group work. Some offer real-world application of classroom concepts by having students consult with or advise actual companies facing real-life problems.

Don’t Overlook Other Factors That Will Make You Happy

Remember that, when choosing a business school, you’re choosing where you’ll be spending two years of your life (if you go to a two-year program). You want to make sure that you’ll feel at home in the school (and the school’s location) that you choose. Some people may feel more at home – and enjoy their lives more – in a city setting than a rural one (so may opt for schools like NYU or Columbia over Tuck or Cornell), whereas others may see living in a big city distracting. Living in the Northeast, where you’re dealing with frigid temperatures and snow for a large portion of the year, may be more appealing to some people than others, who might prefer more temperate, or even warmer, temperatures. These may seem like minor points, but they may not be: If you’re someone who’s going to feel miserable in the freezing cold in Boston, or in the strong sun in Los Angeles, these types of factors can drive your general mood, and readiness to succeed, during business school.

Consider, too, the school’s culture. Do you tend to thrive in environments where competition is high and you’re surrounded by type-A personalities, or do you prefer a more laid back culture and an energy that is more collaborative than competitive? Do you want a culture where people seem like they’re solely focused on working hard, or one that better balances work and fun, social aspects? Do you like an environment where people are collaborating and working together in-person, on campus, or one where people tend to spread out and collaborate more online?

Related to that, is class size important to you? Some people may prefer a smaller class, where everybody knows everybody else, whereas other people may prefer to be meeting someone new every day because there are so many new people to meet! Smaller schools often offer more exposure to faculty, so you’re getting to know your professors more intimately, whereas larger schools tend to draw more recruiters (simply because there are more students looking for jobs).

Don’t be afraid to be picky and define your own standards. If you’re able to earn acceptance to any top-tier school, you’re going to realize major benefits in terms of your knowledge, skill level, the extent of your network, your leadership potential, and your earning potential. But choose the schools that are best suited to you personally - both who you are now and who you wish to become during and after business school.

If you’re having questions about the school selection process, or have questions about specific MBA programs, I’m here to help. Schedule a free consultation with me by booking time on my calendar directly.

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