And you thought taking the GMAT was the hardest part.
Truly, one of the biggest challenges when it comes to applying to business schools is deciding where you want to go. When I first started looking, I definitely felt overwhelmed and wasn’t sure where to start—there are so many schools out there!
But when I started to get a little more strategic about it, things felt much more manageable. By comparing the different categories below, I was able to see how different schools stacked up and ultimately narrowed it down to my dream school.
Check out the criteria I used below—then keep them in mind as you’re weighing your own b-school options.
Because students don’t have to pass a universal test like the bar after graduation (hooray!), business schools can teach pretty much whatever they’d like. So, many schools try to differentiate themselves by specializing in a particular sector—for example, Columbia and Wharton are traditionally known as finance schools, while Kellogg and Booth focus more on marketing. Not only will a school’s focus impact what you learn, it also indicates the interests of other students—and the jobs available to you after graduation.
There are a couple of quick ways to get a feel for a b-school’s focus area. For your initial research, spend some time on the school’s website taking a look at the industries students come from and get jobs in when they leave. Then, use what you’ve learned and talk to current or recently graduated students about their experiences, asking specific questions about how that focus area played out in their day-to-day learning.
If you’re not 100% sure what you want to focus on, that’s OK! Look for schools that have a strong general management program, so that you’ll get a firm grounding in the management and finance basics—skills you can apply to any post-b-school job.
Along similar lines, because b-schools have so much flexibility, their curricula vary a lot. There’s everything from the super-traditional case method-focus at Harvard to MIT Sloan’s smorgasbord approach that allows students to take a ton of electives.
To pick the best curriculum for you, really think about your learning style and what you want to get out of the program. Your needs will depend on a number of things, including what you majored in in undergrad, your approach to learning, and how hands-on you want your program to be. For example, I was a history major in undergrad, so I was interested in schools that require classes like finance and accounting to help me build my quantitative skills. (Otherwise I might not take them—I’m definitely not a math person at heart!) I’m also not sure exactly what I want to do when I graduate, which means I was looking to have a wide variety of electives available so that I’ll be able to explore different fields.
The best way to get a sense of this is to visit b-schools and sit in on classes—as you experience different programs first-hand, you’ll start to figure out what clicks and what doesn’t.
Love them or hate them, b-school rankings are something you’ll need to contend with as you decide where to apply. While rankings aren’t paramount, they are one way future employers will compare the degree on your resume to all the other applicants who’ve attended b-school.
That being said, going to a highly ranked school matters more for some people than others. If you’re within three years of undergrad, attending a prestigious b-school might be more important since you don’t have a lot of work experience to put on your resume. But if you’ve been in the workforce for 5-10 years, rankings might matter less, since you have real-world experience to bulk up your portfolio and help you land that post-grad job.
The main rankings are US News & Word Report, The Financial Times, and Bloomberg BusinessWeek. They all use slightly different methodologies, but clicking through them will start to give you an idea of where schools stand.
Don’t forget about your future classmates! The other students can make or break your experience and will serve as an important network for the rest of your life. Make sure you feel comfortable with the vibe of the student community.
Are you competitive or more laid back? Do you like to participate in a lot of clubs? Do you want to meet a lot of international students? These are good questions to ask yourself—and characteristics you can start to get a feel for as you walk around a school’s campus.s
Like everything else, the size of the student body varies from school to school—some schools take fewer than 100 incoming students while others take over 900. Make sure to take the size of a b-school’s program (and network) into consideration when you think about whether or not you want to apply.
Deciding where you want to live for the next two years of your life is one thing, but you should also think beyond graduation when considering the location your b-school-to-be. Most schools’ strongest networks are their local ones—Berkeley’s Haas, for instance, places almost two-thirds of its graduating class in the Bay Area. That’s great if you really want to work in San Francisco, but can make things difficult if you want to settle elsewhere.
The location of your b-school also has long-term implications for the location of your personal network—you’ll spend two years meeting people in that city or town, and these relationships can really help you out when it comes to getting a job or succeeding in your career.
Additionally, geography can end up being a major consideration if you have a partner who is going to be moving with you when you attend b-school. Depending on his or her job situation, certain places will be much easier to find work than others.
Tell us! What else do you think is important to consider when picking a b-school?