With Round 3 decisions quickly approaching, many candidates may be anxious about deciding which B-school they ultimately want to attend.
Fortune recently spoke to experts who offered a few important considerations that all MBA candidates should think about when making the big decision.
THE FOUR C’S
When deciding on an MBA program, it can be helpful to consider what experts call The Four C’s: Career, Curriculum, Culture and Community, and Cost.
“Much like the admissions process, choosing which business school to attend is uniquely aligned to your career goals,” Nellie Gaynor, a former associate director of admissions for the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, tells Fortune.
Likewise, aspects such as culture and community can also help you decide whether or not a B-school is a good fit.
“Size and location often play an important role in this regard,” Stacy Blackman, founder of Stacy Blackman Consulting, writes. “Larger programs in urban centers, such as Harvard, Wharton, and Chicago Booth, typically feel much more competitive and intense. Smaller business schools and those located in rural settings usually foster a close-knit community feeling. Here, many students live on campus and socialize with fellow students and faculty regularly. MBA programs with smaller cohorts take pride in their down-to-earth, collaborative cultures.”
An MBA certainly isn’t cheap. In fact, the cost for a full-time, two-year MBA tops $200,000 at every top 25 B-school in the US. And because the cost of an MBA likely isn’t getting any cheaper any time soon, it’s important to consider finances when making your decision.
If you receive financial aid offers from schools—especially those not ranked in the top 20—experts suggest leveraging your aid package and asking another B-school to match it.
“If a candidate has an offer in hand from one business school for, say, a $40,000 scholarship, that candidate could turn around to another program asking for the same amount, or a ‘match,’” Sydney Lake, of Fortune, writes. “While the program may not be able to offer the same amount, you could end up receiving at least a better financial aid package.”
At the end of the day, the MBA decision is a personal choice—one that ultimately will affect you the most. And while factors, such as prestige, hold some importance, experts say it’s important to look at the big picture.
“Prestige is only one piece of the larger puzzle when deciding between business school offers,” Gaynor tells Fortune. “Students who are motivated, goal-oriented, ambitious, and know what they want to achieve in their business career are more likely to look at the overall package that is being presented to them, including academics, student life, location, ‘fit,’ and other important factors.”
Most importantly, no matter what B-school you decide on, make sure it’s one that feel right to you.
“Do a gut-check and make sure the business school you decide on is the one your instincts are leading you to as well,” Gaynor tells Fortune. “This is a personal, self-reflective process as much as it is a logical one.”
The average acceptance rate at Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) typically falls between 6 and 7%.
At top business schools, including the likes of Stanford GSB, Wharton, and Yale SOM, stellar test scores and grades are only one factor of what admissions officers are looking for in applicants. US News recently spoke to experts who gave insight into what key elements top B-schools look for when making a decision.
DEMONSTRATE STRONG SOFT SKILLS
Soft skills, such as communication, leadership, and collaboration, are important traits that top business schools seek out. More often than not, admissions officers will consider a candidate with below average numbers, but stellar leadership potential.
“This is not a purely academic program; it’s not a Ph.D. program,” Bruce DelMonico, assistant dean for admissions at the Yale School of Management, tells US News. “We are trying to bring in people who are going to have impact after they graduate.”
How does one highlight strong soft skills? To start, experts say, it comes down to telling your story—and showing your drive to succeed.
“Beyond good test scores, top MBA programs are looking for students who demonstrate initiative,” Vijay Koduri, an MBA alumnus of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and co-founder of Sizzle, tells US News. “This can be entrepreneurial – have you started a company and scaled it up? It can be intrapreneurship – did you raise your hand and lead the wa
y for a new product idea or new market in your company? It can also be social impact – are you passionate about a cause, and have you led significant change in your region or around the world to make a difference?”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have marketable hard skills as well.
“Showing that you have the ability to work with large data sets and make inferences based on your analysis can go a long way in differentiating yourself from other candidates,” Arush Chandna, co-founder of the Inspira Futures admissions consultancy, tells US News.
HIGHLIGHT YOUR UNIQUE BACKGROUND
Traditionally, industries such as consulting and finance, have been strongholds for prospective MBAs. And while those are still top B-school industries, experts say having a non-traditional background can help you stand out from the crowd.
“For example, a student with a background in opera and performance, who has worked for four years in the opera entertainment industry and now wants this MBA to prepare herself to be the manager of an opera house, would be far more unique or interesting as an MBA applicant than someone coming from a consulting or financial institution,” Rachel Coleman, an independent education consultant with College Essay Editor, tells US News.
One of the most important steps for MBA applicants in the admissions process? Defining your career goals.
Experts say clearly evaluating your goals can not only assist you in deciding which MBA program to pursue, but also help lay a strong foundation for your application itself. Stacy Blackman, founder of Stacy Blackman Consulting, recently offered a few ways applicants can go about defining their career goals in order to set themselves up for success.
KEY QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF
The first step to defining your career goals is to do some self-exploration. Blackman suggests looking at your extracurriculars from a big picture perspective.
“Is there a theme?” Blackman writes. “Do you have a passion for sports or music that you would like to incorporate into a career?”
Once you’ve highlighted a theme in your extracurriculars, focus on your career accomplishments and try to see if they align.
“What has been most exciting in your current career?” Blackman writes. “Are you excited about every consumer products company you have consulted for in your management consulting job? Do you enjoy discussing the quarterly results with the finance team? What functions seem most appealing to you?”
It’s important to take the time to ask yourself these questions prior to starting your application. Exploring your past and defining your goals early on will help build a solid foundation for everything to come.
“Passion for your career choice will come through as you tell your story in the essays, discussions with recommenders, and interviews,” Blackman writes. “That’s why it’s worth articulating your dreams to yourself in advance.”
HOW DOES AN MBA FIT IN?
Once you’ve established clear career goals for yourself, you’ll want to see how an MBA aligns. More specifically, you’ll want to understand which B-school is right for you.
“Specific industries are clear feeders for MBA programs, while other industries may require more research,” Blackman writes. “Many MBA programs list typical companies that recruit at the school. So it’s worth investigating the industries that seem to value an MBA.”
Ultimately, the process of defining your goals and aligning them with an MBA will help you build a strong, compelling story.
“Strong stories are simple, cohesive and clear,” Penny Zhou, a professional development coach and Wharton MBA, writes. “They give the illusion that the applicant has been meticulously working on their career goals for a long time and that an MBA is the most logical next step to achieving those goals.”
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