Finding the Right Business School

Graham Richmond, co-founder of MBA admissions consultant Clear Admit, offers tips on how to find the "best fit" business school

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 Graham Richmond, co-founder of Clear Admit, an MBA admissions consulting firm.

We're talking today about finding the "best fit" business school. I guess, as with clothing, there are plenty of styles of business school to choose from, but not everything fits everyone equally. What's the first thing you ask someone when you're trying to help them pick a business school that's right for them?

We ask our clients dozens of questions to help them identify the best set of target schools, but I think a really great starting point is just to ask someone what it is that they hope to do after business school and perhaps where they envision doing it. The reason for this is programs are tailored in many cases to specific fields, as well as to regions of the world when it comes to career placement.

Beyond that, obviously I always want to talk with applicants about the learning environments that schools offer as well as teaching methods, location. In fact, location is something that's often overlooked. Applicants can get hyper-focused on things like rankings or prestige instead of actually thinking about how they would go through the MBA curriculum and which school is going to be the best fit.

And what are some of the wrong reasons for picking a business school? What makes a bad fit?

I guess I hinted at this in my last response, but I think sometimes people focus too much on just the rankings or their desire to spend a couple of years in a certain city. I've had people say they'd love to go to Los Angeles for a couple of years, and they haven't really thought about, well, which programs are there and are those programs appropriate?

The other thing is sometimes people say, well, this person next to me at work attended that school and seems like it was good for them, so it must be good for me. Even little things, like once someone has their offers from a set of schools, they might choose a school because School X gave them $10,000 more in scholarship money than School Y, and that's obviously a consideration, but sometimes you don't want to let that be the driving force in a major life decision.

I also think that a lot of applicants fail to get beneath the surface of the school-produced marketing materials or rankings and sometimes those don't offer applicants a full picture, and so I think I would be wrong to base selection solely on those criteria.

I always encourage applicants to engage with current students, review independent data, and try to get beneath the surface. So just to give you an example, someone considering Harvard Business School, I think it's really important that they get a sense for what the case method is all about, since that's the predominant method of instruction in that program.

Similarly, if you're going to apply to at Tuck Dartmouth, you may want to go to Hanover and see what it's like to be a member of a really small MBA community that's close-knit. Just seeing these things firsthand can be really helpful.

So definitely, digging beneath the surface is a critical factor in making the right choice for business school.

You've been an admissions counselor and advising people on admissions for a long time. Over the past decade what sort of changes have you seen in what students are looking for in terms of the right fit for them in a business school program?

I think students are probably better-informed today than they've ever been, and there seems to be more of a focus around career planning. More and more students are recognizing that the MBA is in many respects a means to an end, and so they're looking at where they want to be post-business school, and then looking carefully at the schools and trying to determine which ones are going to be best equipped to educate them in the areas they're looking to learn about and also to place them in the field they're targeting.

It seems like there has been more of a focus on student life and the facilities that a program has. And that sounds kind of odd, but I guess the best metaphor is thinking of baseball parks. A lot of the MBA programs—like baseball teams—have built new facilities over the last few years. Wharton has Huntsman Hall, Chicago has its own new facility, and so a lot of the schools are actually doing ground-breakings and getting ready to unveil state-of-the-art facilities, and it's definitely something that candidates seem to be taking more and more into account.

So there are a number of things that have changed, but I think if anything, if I had to pick one, it's career focus. People are definitely looking at the career they want and then trying to match that to the right program in ways that probably were not happening before.

When deciding on the right fit, should the potential applicant opt for a "reach" school where he might be one of the lesser students in a pretty stellar class or go for a less selective school where he has a better chance of being in the top of the class or being a standout student?

That's a great question. I think applicants should apply to programs that have the right fit. Whether they're a safety school or reach. And then they should attend the best program that they get into, and the reason for that is that I don't think that I would advise someone to make a life decision based around something like their future class rank, especially when you consider there are other key factors, such as who's recruiting at the program, what the alumni network is like.

In fact, I guess I'd rather see someone in the middle of their class at a top-tier MBA program rather than acing their way through a second- or third-tier option. Part of the reason that we founded Clear Admit was to help MBA applicants realize their potential and really stretch themselves. It always makes sense to look at a balanced selection of programs when you apply, but I'm an advocate of pushing people to stretch themselves, and go after those reach options.

You mentioned that location is important. What sort of considerations are there in location? What kind of job opportunities are going to be available to you in that area afterwards? Things like that?

Yes, I mean there has been research done at the undergraduate level that shows that people often do end up not too far away from where they attended undergrad, and I think that to a lesser extent that still remains true with MBA programs, and so that could be a factor.

If you know that you want to work in a certain industry—for example, media and entertainment—then it would make sense to have places like New York and Los Angeles on your list of target locations, as you begin to review MBA programs.

I also think that there are more basic considerations like whether you're comfortable in an urban or a rural environment when you're going to be in school. What does that mean for the MBA community that is built around the school. Obviously the career opportunities are going to be a factor, and then one other thing that we see more and more of in this process is just personal issues.

So, for example, you might have a spouse that is going to be accompanying you to business school and they need to be in a certain location. Perhaps the firm they're working for has offices in three other cities in America or abroad and you need to target those cities. So that's part of the location decision-making that goes on.

Speaking of spouses, some people have very particular lifestyle issues. If you're married, are there any particular considerations you should take into account when you're picking a best-fit school?

I think there are a lot of concerns around life issues—you have a spouse or a family near certain location, or even you're coming to school with your own family—and so those are all things that people need to take into account.

Again, I think if your spouse has restrictions, that's going to impact your target schools, and that's probably more important than some of the things we've discussed earlier about fit. I encourage people with families or spouses to look carefully at MBA programs in terms of the extent to which those programs have clubs that are built around family life. So, for example, Wharton has a club called Wharton Kids. It's just a club for all the children of MBA students, and having that support network can be really great.

Similarly, every leading MBA program is going to have what they call a partners club, for husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, to be a part of the community. Those are things you'd want to research if you're an applicant that is going to be coming to business school with someone else.

There has been a big growth in part-time MBA programs and other programs tailored for people who can't devote two full years to B-school. What are some of the considerations that go into deciding between a full-time or a part-time program?

I absolutely agree, there's been a real increase in the interest that candidates have in part-time MBA offerings. I think that despite that, we actually still encourage younger applicants, ages, let's say 22 to 30 or so, to seriously consider the full-time programs and the reason for that is that I think there are some really important benefits that come out of a full immersion in an MBA program and kind of the break you get from being in the workplace, the ability to unplug from the professional world and just immerse yourself in management study.

So I think that while the part-time programs can be really helpful for someone who has a great job, is planning on staying at that company throughout and in the long term, if you're young it's probably a good idea to at least give some serious consideration to taking a break and getting involved in an MBA program on a full-time basis.

What about international programs? There's also been a lot of interest in those. How do you decide if that's a good fit for you, to do international vs. a U.S.-based program?

I would say there are a number of excellent programs outside of the U.S., and it seems like that number is increasing every year as new programs come online. Of course, because some of these programs are relatively new, it's important for applicants to consider a number of factors when they're doing their homework.

The first would be the size of the alumni network, the second would be how loyal is that network. So there are a number of programs that have a small alumni network because they're new, but if that network is passionate and very well connected and active, that could be a way to counteract the size issue.

I also think that applicants who are looking to venture outside of the U.S. to pursue an international MBA would want to take a look at career-placement results, particularly those results outside of the home country of the MBA program, or even the home region.

So for programs in Europe, and your career goals involve a return to the U.S. at some point, you may want to see how are they placing people back in the U.S. Are there graduates that have gone on to return home to the U.S. afterwards? And then finally, looking at the quality of the faculty is important as well.

Another thing I should just mention is that a lot of the international programs are on a one-year format, and that presents a completely different offering, and so it's something you'd want to consider. It's a good parallel to the idea of a part-time program in the sense that taking two years for your education and the sort of relationships you'd forge with classmates is a little different than taking one year.

One final thing is outside of the classroom opportunity: What kind of clubs and conferences and social activities do these programs have? If they're relatively new, if they don't have a history of putting on all sorts of conferences in advance, is that something that's growing? Is that important to you? Do you need to be in a program that has a lot of things happening outside of the classroom or not?

And finally, like the applicants themselves, business schools are looking for the best fit between the students and themselves when they're deciding on a class. How do schools decide that, and how does an applicant go about convincing a school that he's the perfect fit for their program?

When I was on staff at Wharton as an admissions officer, one of the things that I would do, besides assessing a candidate's academic aptitude and looking at the quality of their work experience or community involvement and career plans, was to imagine that candidate on campus.

Let's say that we admit them, what would they look like on campus? As a member of the Wharton community? What clubs might that person join? What courses would they take? Would they be able to offer a particularly unique viewpoint in those classes? What conferences or guest speaking events might they organize? Even down to little things, would this person end up playing ice hockey for the Wharton Wild Men or singing in the Wharton Follies? How would they get involved? And so that's really important.

As an applicant I think it's really important to show the school that you've done that homework, that you've actually sat down and thought about your fit with the program and how you would go through it, what classes you'd take, what professors you're excited about, what clubs you'd join, and so we often, at Clear Admit, will counsel applicants to actually reach out to current students. If you are really crazy about real estate, then you should be talking to the head of the real estate club at each program, and I think that if you have a good conversation with that person and they share some information about the school, then that information should trickle down into your application.

So it's one thing to say, "Oh, if I go to Wharton, I'm excited about the fact that I can study real estate, or if I go to Cornell, I'm really excited about the real estate coursework they have." But it's another thing to say "I'm excited about it, and in fact, based on a discussion I had with John Doe, who heads the real estate club, I was pleased to hear that there's a conference that's organized each year and I'd love to be involved in setting that up."

Those are the types of things that candidates can do to demonstrate fit and show the school that they've gone out of their way to learn more about the school.

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

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