Finding the Best Fit at Berkeley

During our annual MBA Expo, we discussed finding a "best-fit" business school with Berkeley Admissions Director Pete Johnson. Here's a transcript

BusinessWeek recently hosted its third online MBA Expo, an information-gathering session for potential business school applicants. Business Schools Editor Phil Mintz explored the Expo's theme of finding a "best-fit" business school with several admissions directors from top business schools, as well as with a private admissions consultant. Here's an edited transcript of BusinessWeek's discussion with Pete Johnson, director of admissions for the full-time MBA Program at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

The subject of today's discussion is finding the best-fit business school. What's the first thing you do at Haas to determine if a student is a good fit for the school?Well, one of the first things that we look at is the level of knowledge that an applicant has about our program. There are a number of characteristics that would make for a good fit, and one of the ones that I feel is most important is that the applicant knows about the program and what things it offers that fits their personal and career goals. So I would look for evidence that they had information about things like particular specialization areas that were consistent with their career goals and that they know something about our student culture.

What are the three or four main considerations someone should think about in determining which business school is the best fit for them?As I mentioned, the first thing that I think that they should be considering is how well does the particular MBA program fits their career goals. Does it offer the kinds of elective courses that they feel would help prepare them? Are the right types of extracurricular opportunities offered, for example, maybe an investment fund that's managed by students if someone has an interest in that area? What kinds of corporate connections does the business school have that would be relevant?

Then they would need to take a look at things like the student culture and the way in which the program is structured. Do they feel most comfortable in a smaller, more intimate program? Do they want a large program? Are they comfortable in a setting where they'll frequently be called on to answer questions in class? What kind of an environment do they feel most comfortable in? Are they looking for a student culture that tends to be more collaborative? That, in many ways I think, is something that's attractive to a lot of applicants, but it also requires that they come to business school ready to jump in and participate in a variety of things outside the classroom.

So I would look for that fit with the student culture, and then finally I think there is an element that some people overlook, which is simply the location. Location is important for two reasons. One, because of the particular corporate environment in the area around the business school. So for example, in our case, being in the San Francisco Bay area, some of the big industries here include technology-focused companies, biotechnology, venture capital, private equity, and those things. I think it's important for a student to think about where they want to be after business school and what kinds of ties the business school will have with the local business community. So I think all those things are considerations that an applicant should be looking at, which group of business schools might be best at their personal and professional goals.

And what about students who apply from abroad? Do they have different issues concerning fit than students who are applying from the U.S.?I'm not sure that I would say they have different issues, but I think it's sometimes a little more difficult at a distance to determine some of these things. Obviously a student applying from abroad can go online, look at the Web page and get information in that way. But it might be more difficult for them to take advantage of some of the other opportunities to find out about fit, for example, a campus visit or talking with someone from the admissions office or from the faculty. So I'd encourage people who are applying from abroad to make sure, if they don't have the opportunity to visit, that they do take advantage of information sessions that are presented locally, that they perhaps take advantage of talking with alumni that live in their area, because I think that's an important element of the process of selecting the right schools to which they would apply.

The other thing that I think is a little bit more difficult for applicants applying from abroad is that they might not be familiar with the type of student culture that exists at most of the leading MBA programs. So it's important for them to understand things like the importance of being involved in extracurricular activities, whether it's the soccer club or the biotechnology forum or whatever the organization is. A lot of the really strong benefits you can get from a leading MBA program are in fact in those activities that are outside the classroom. Business-planning competitions, student treks, those sorts of things, and I think that students applying from abroad who haven't had the experience of being in that type of program should look very closely at that as they're determining the right fit for them.

How can an applicant demonstrate fit in his or her application?Well, one of the key things that I look for in an application is evidence that a student has done their homework. So it's very easy for someone in the application to say, yes, the Berkeley MBA program is the perfect fit for me and so on, without backing it up with any details. I'll be looking for evidence that they know about opportunities in our program that would fit their goals and that they have some sense of the basics, that perhaps they've read some of the articles in BusinessWeek or one of the other publications about our school, and perhaps that they've taken advantage of the opportunity to talk to someone from my staff or to some of our alumni, to get their perspective on that experience.

So I look for evidence in the application that someone has taken these steps. In fact, we have a short-answer question on our application where we specifically ask them how they went about gathering information about our business school, and that's primarily what we're looking for—it doesn't really matter what methods they used to gather the information. It's more important that they've taken the time to get some of that information and that they demonstrate a sufficient level of knowledge about our program.

If an applicant comes in for a face-to-face interview, how does that applicant demonstrate that they're a good fit in an interview?In the same way, I think it would be important in the interview setting for an applicant to tie together their personal, professional goals, and the things that we offer in our business school. So that the interviewer knows that yes, this person really does have a solid understanding of what the Berkeley MBA program is all about, and how they would not only benefit from that experience but what they would add to the experience for their classmates. If someone can speak to that within the interview context, that's a very positive thing.

How do a person's career goals and fit intersect for an applicant?I think this is actually critically important because many of the leading business schools in the U.S. are strong in a number of different discipline areas. But every business school to some degree is informed by the geographic location in which they exist, and so I think it's important for students as they're considering their career goals, to look for a fit that's going to give them opportunities to network in the industry area that they're looking for, and that they will have the opportunity to take advantage of things that will support their development. For example, if someone is interested in entertainment, they would want to look for things like whether or not the curriculum includes courses in subjects such as intellectual property law or specific media topics.

Now it doesn't necessarily mean that the business school has to be located [where the industry is]. For example, we are relatively distant from Wall Street, but we have a very strong alumni network, and in fact, we have a full-time career services staff member who is based in New York specifically to work with students who are going in that direction career-wise.

So I think the important thing is that students know what the school offers that's going to help them career-wise. At the end of the day, everyone who's looking at a leading MBA program is doing so not only for the learning experience, but for the boost in their career potential, and I think that has to be at the top of the list in terms of things that they're looking at each school.

Is there such a thing as a "perfect" fit?That's a tough question. I think there are very good fits—I'm not sure there's a perfect fit, because I think that I would say with most of the students that I've worked with over the years, I think there are two or three schools that would be a very good fit and each of them offers slightly different opportunities. So I'm not sure that I believe that there's a perfect fit.

Archives of this year's MBA Expo are available online through Jan. 4, 2008.

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