Everybody loves school rankings. They’re fun, they’re competitive, and they make great headlines. But they’re also a bit like political opinion polls: The devil is in the details. Sure, rankings are a great place to start, and they give you some ideas about which MBA programs to explore, but they don’t quite tell you where you best belong. That part is up to you.
So, even if you’re just starting to think about business school, it’s time to do some research. As you do your fact-finding, visit schools, and talk to people, you’ll get a sense of your own feelings about each program—including location, class size, school size, culture, career placement in your target industries, and one-year or part-time options. This way, you can narrow down your target schools and focus on those applications rather than apply to 20 schools and hope for the best.
With this in mind, here are five essential tips for evaluating potential business schools.
1. Make a Wish List
Keep yourself honest by thinking first about what you’re looking for in a school—beyond the ranking. Your list can include anything from programs that target your career goals to dog-friendly campuses. Write out your “must haves” in order, and keep the list handy when you’re looking at potential schools. For example, Stanford has the highest average starting salary of any full-time MBA program—and that’s great—but if staying on the East Coast is a top priority for you, then don’t be swayed.
2. Dig Into Each School’s Website
A school’s website can tell you much more than application deadlines and the cost of tuition. Spend some time digging past the general pages, and look for content created by students—their videos and blogs can give you a great on-the-ground perspective about a school’s culture.
Also explore the curriculum, electives, and faculty. Look at special research centers, such as those on entrepreneurship, green technology, or global health. The further you dig, the more likely you are to find something especially revealing about the way the school sees itself. Poke around on the Kellogg MBA website, for example, and you’ll find plans for a new building that reveals insights into the creativity of the Kellogg community. As you discover more layers to a school, you’ll have a much better sense for your fit within its culture and values.
3. Mark Your Calendars for School Visits to Your Area
Admissions officers are already building their schedules for the summer and beyond. You don’t want to miss the opportunity when they come to your home turf, so check their websites for upcoming events or sign up for a mailing list. This is a great way to narrow down the number of schools you’ll eventually visit.
When a single school puts on the event, both admissions reps and recent graduates will be on hand, so come prepared to ask questions to both groups. Some schools, such as Wharton, are even putting together specially focused sessions on topics like entrepreneurship or energy and clean tech.
You can also learn about a number of schools in one day by attending MBA fairs and panels. This format doesn’t promise a deep dive into each program, but may introduce you to a new school you hadn’t considered before.
Now, here’s the fun part: Use your research process as a way to talk to as many people as possible. For example, if you work with recent MBA graduates—or even just know of recent grads at your company—seek them out and ask them about their experience. Ask them what they wish they had known before they started the admissions process.
Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to people in your target career field for informational interviews. This is a low-risk way to learn if the MBA is a good fit, or even necessary, for what you want to do. You’ll gain valuable insight from someone who’s been there, and potentially develop a network of mentors, too.
5. Plan Your Campus Visits
There’s no substitute for a campus visit to see students in action, get a feel for in-class dynamics, and imagine yourself as a part of the community.
Be sure to plan your visit when classes are in session, so you get a real feel for what it will be like to attend. You want to see student-faculty-interaction, and at University of Virginia’s Darden School, or Harvard Business School, you want to see what the case method is all about.
Business school is a major investment, personally, professionally, and, of course, financially. All in, two years can cost about $180,000—and you wouldn’t spend that kind of money on anything else without proper due diligence, right? If you start making good business decisions now, you’ll make sure you find the right school for you.