B-School: Finding the Perfect Fit

The admissions director at Michigan's Ross School advises thinking beyond rankings by e-mailing alums and researching the school's culture

BusinessWeek recently hosted its third online MBA Expo, an information-gathering session for potential business school applicants. BusinessWeek 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 Soojin Kwon Koh, director of admissions for the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

What's the first thing you do at Ross to determine if a student is a good fit for the school?

Well, if we meet a student on the road, we gauge their interpersonal communications skills. Are they personable? Are they articulate? And have they done some homework on the school? Are they asking good questions, do they seem to know what we're about, are they enthusiastic about the school? And if we're "meeting" for the first time through their application, then we look at their essays, their recommendation letters, to get a sense of their teamwork and leadership skills and their goals, their aspirations, and what they want out of the MBA program.

Speaking of asking good questions, what are the three or four main considerations that someone considering business school should think about in determining which school is the best fit?

The first thing they should think about is the type of learning approach that they want. Do they want all case studies? Do they want all lecture? Do they want a hands-on experience? Also, they should think about what discipline or function they're interested in—do they want a general management school or a school that focuses on one area, like finance or marketing. And then the final piece that's probably a little bit more elusive is the kind of culture that the student will thrive in. Do you need an ultra-competitive environment to motivate you, or are you seeking a more collaborative culture? Or could you see yourself fitting in at a particular school based on the current students that you've interacted with, and we hope you do take that time to interact with current students, whether it's by e-mail or visiting on campus or going to an event.

Now those are the things that you, as an admissions counselor, think they should be looking at. From the applicants' point of view, what are the main issues about fit that they're coming in with? Are students sometimes obsessing about the wrong thing?

I think a lot of students start their school search using the rankings, which is fine, but then many of them don't go on to do their due diligence by visiting the school or talking to students and alumni. So not fully understanding what the school is about beyond the rankings can be a mistake.

And then some students often let location drive their decision. They choose schools that are located in or near cities in which they want to work after business school. I'd recommend that students do research on which companies recruit at a particular school, or what other non-corporate paths…MBA graduates take, so they get a sense of, 'Can I get there from a particular school?' At any top business school, chances are that top recruiters will be there, so they should not let location limit them to a certain set of schools.

And speaking of location, what about students applying from abroad? Do they have different issues concerning fit from students who are applying from the U.S.?

Well, students applying from abroad want to know whether there are other students from their country at the school, are there people who look and talk like me? They also want to know whether the school's community embraces and integrates international students, or if they're a separate community unto themselves.

Also, a lot of these students can't travel to check out schools, correct?

Surprisingly a lot of them do actually come visit. But for the ones who don't, they should definitely reach out to current students via e-mail or try to meet up with or talk to alumni in their countries to get a sense for what the experience is like being from that country and going to school in that particular location.

Right. What about the differences between a public university and a private institution? Are there issues of fit there?

I don't think public vs. private makes the difference in terms of fit. Any top business school is going to offer a top-notch education, access to top recruiters, and a valuable alumni network. So I don't think there's a meaningful difference in the experience that a student would have between a top-ranked public institution and a top-ranked private institution. The differences would be more evident, I think, across school cultures and that's not something that's driven by whether a school is public or private.

How can an applicant demonstrate fit in his or her application?

The part that they can control, obviously, is their essays, so their choice of topics and examples gives us a sense of what they consider to be important. And then their insights about their experiences and choices tells us a lot about their values and their priorities and their ability to reflect and learn. Their goals essay, where they talk about what they want to do, is very important. If someone says that they're only interested in finance and they're applying to a general management school, then it's hard to make that fit piece work.

The recommendation letters are another way to demonstrate fit. The recommender is generally asked to write about the applicant's teamwork and leadership skills and potential, so that gives us another perspective on whether that student will fit.

How can an applicant demonstrate fit in an interview?

Well, it should be based on their goals and what they want out of the MBA program. So it should reflect a match between the school and what they want. There's really no way to try to force fit. Applicants should just be themselves, and they should know why they want an MBA and why from that particular school. In order to do that, they should really do their homework on what is a school good at and how do they approach management education, so that they can tell a compelling story about why what they want can be best served by a particular school.

And how do one's career goals and fit intersect for an applicant?

As I previously mentioned, some schools are general management schools, and others are known for being very strong in a particular area. So applicants should be aware of the school's approach and curriculum beforehand. If there's a mismatch between the applicant's schools and what the school offers, it would be hard to make the case for a good fit.

And is there such a thing as a perfect fit? Should people be going around looking for that? Is there a perfect fit when it comes to Ross or any other B-school for that matter?

I'd say there isn't one single perfect fit for Ross or probably for any other school. We're not looking for one type of student or one type of background or one set of goals. We're looking to put together a great class so that they can have a great learning experience. So it takes a wide variety of backgrounds and goals and experiences and perspectives to foster that great learning experience.

That said, there are certain personal qualities about an applicant that will make someone a better fit at Ross than at others. For example, do they work well on teams, do they work well with others? Because our curriculum is so team-based, if someone is more independent and does not like to work with other people or depend on other people, they'll have a hard time here.

Or things like: Do they get involved in activities outside of work? If they're strictly focused on work or they strictly want to be focused on classes, Ross is probably not going to be the best fit for them because we want students to immerse themselves in the whole MBA experience, to get involved in activities and clubs and leading conferences and other things. It's a very student-driven school.

And we also want to know whether they approach things with passion and curiosity. We want people who are going to be excited about their two years here and so we want them to take advantage of all of the opportunities and not wait for things to happen to them, but to make things happen while they're here.

Archives of this year's MBA Expo (BusinessWeek.com, 10/3/07) are available online through Jan. 4, 2008.

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