Narrowing the Field

If you read and listen closely, you'll hear a unique message from each business school's marketing materials, students, and faculty

Last month, I flew across the country to visit Fuqua, Duke's business school. In addition to interviewing with a second-year student, attending a Strategy class, touring the campus, and talking with several current students, I met more than a dozen hopeful applicants.

While these aspiring MBA students had fascinating stories, our conversations inevitably turned to our target schools. In fact, we traded questions like: "Where are you applying?" or "What are your top choices?" as quickly as "Where are you from?" or "Where do you work?" These questions probably reveal a self-conscious desire to size up the competition as much as they provide easy conversation starters, but I've learned that a person's target schools actually say a lot about them. In fact, for many applicants, choosing where to apply is just as personal as deciding to get an MBA.

That didn't occur to me when I started eyeing MBA programs. Instead, I just assumed I would apply to as many Top 10 schools as I could manage. A Top 10 school, after all, seemed like an MBA applicant's Promised Land. As Vernon Loucks, the former Segway CEO, is quoted as saying, "If you can get in and do well at one of these schools, it's nirvana." He has a point. Top schools attract world renowned professors, provide access to global business leaders (many of whom are alumni), and boast the strongest recruiting networks around. Considering that costs don't vary much among the top 50 programs, it's easy to see why applicants take B-school rankings so seriously.

Schools Want to Promote Their Uniqueness

Of course, a definitive Top 10 list doesn't exist and opinions differ on exactly which programs it should include. When I was explaining this phenomenon to a friend recently, he said, "So, it seems like there are about 15 Top 10 schools." That sums it up nicely. Sure, a perennial Top Three on one list can fall below 10 on others, but most people (including employers) seem to believe in a relatively consistent (albeit slushy) top tier of business schools.

While studying the elusive Top 10, I began to see that each school offers a discernibly unique MBA experience. In fact, as I talked to alumni and visited campuses, it became clear that business schools are eager to promote their uniqueness. Since "What makes you special?" is a common application essay and interview topic, it only makes sense that schools work to make their programs stand out. Sure, every business school offers strategy and statistics courses, but if you listen closely, you'll start to hear a unique message from each school's marketing material, students, and faculty.

As I paid closer attention to these messages, I saw how important it would be to define the type of business school experience I want. Not only would this help me refine my goals but it would also be a key element in my admissions essays and interviews. After all, admission is a major hurdle in the quest for an MBA. Sure, scattering applications across the top schools might seem like the best way to ensure at least one acceptance letter, but building a quality application means more than simply explaining why you want an MBA. Admissions committees want to know exactly why you want to attend their program—and there's no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. It's probably just as well, too. Schools don't want to admit students who don't fit their culture any more than students would want to spend $100,000 getting a degree from a program that doesn't maximize their experience.

Five Categories

To find the programs that offered what I wanted out of a graduate school, I started by listing 20 or so top schools from several different lists. Then I began evaluating them on five categories: education, people, employment, exposure, and environment.

"Education" entails the school's classroom approach, teaching philosophy, and external project opportunities. I want to spend my time working in a collaborative environment where professors are just as focused on teaching as they are on publishing. I also want plenty of opportunities to apply classroom study in real-world project settings. If those experiences can include international exposure, that's even better.

A collaborative education starts with other students, and the "people" category is all about interpersonal fit. Are students warm and outgoing or aloof and reserved? Do they want each other to succeed, or do they claw at each other for class rank? Ideally, I want a program that helps me practice working with and leading teams of fun, sharp people. Because I believe that a business school network is an important part of the degree, I also want supportive, tight class chemistry.

"Employment" includes the quality of the career services department, the type of companies that recruit at that school, and the percent of the class that has jobs at graduation. Lately, it seems like every top program has better than 90% employment rates, but superior career services and a strong recruiting base will help keep those numbers high if or when the economy slumps. And, since I want to work for a strategy consulting firm, it's also very important to see the top consultancies recruiting on campus.

"Exposure" is intimately linked with rankings (the higher, the better) and name recognition (the stronger, the better), but it also includes a school's national (or global) employment distribution. If a school has a strong academic program but its reputation doesn't resonate beyond a specific region, it probably won't give me the same employment opportunities as a program that sends graduates all over the country.

Studying where students work after graduation can reveal a program's regional, national, or international reach. Name recognition can also go beyond the business world. It may sound superficial, I don't want to have to answer questions about my graduate program with "You might not have heard of it." There's something powerful about being associated with a well-know institution, no matter your degree.

Although it's often dismissed as secondary, a school's physical environment can have a huge impact on a program. For example, schools in big cities attract local students that are more likely to have established outside social networks. While a smaller city school might encourage students to bond, it might also decrease social outlets and recruiter traffic. I'd like a balanced environment—somewhere that can keep me from getting stir crazy but that helps students focus on each other.

"Environment" also includes a school's facilities. Modern, stadium seating in classrooms fosters discussion and plenty of study rooms and group meeting places help facilitate team interaction. Likewise, newer buildings demonstrate an institution's commitment to the business school and help attract students, faculty, and recruiters.

So which programs fit me best? I have more schools to explore, but so far I've applied to Duke (Fuqua), Northwestern (Kellogg), and Michigan (Ross). Not only do these three schools emphasize collaboration and team learning, but their teachers are student-focused and their students are bright, team-oriented, and (in my experience) welcoming.

Finding a job after graduation doesn't seem to be a problem for these programs' students and, what's more, each attracts recruiters from the top strategy firms. All three are also consistently ranked well across every major list and have unquestionable name recognition. While Kellogg offers the excitement of Chicago, it's located in Evanston, which creates a quasi-small town environment. While Michigan has traditionally been tied to Detroit, it has an undisputed national reach, and Ann Arbor has all the upside of a quintessential college town. Duke is located in the vibrant Research Triangle, but most students don't hail from the Durham area. That gives the class an incredibly close-knit feel that's hard to find at other schools. What's more, next year Duke will be opening a new wing and Michigan will be unveiling a completely new B-school building.

Not surprisingly, several of the applicants I met at Duke were also applying to these three programs—many for similar reasons. As intimidating as that might be, it seems to validate my research. It's also good to know that applicants who might turn out to be my classmates are searching programs that fit them best. That kind of self-awareness can only help lead people in the right direction and add cohesion to each school's student body.

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