How to pick the right business school for your MBA

Your first task is to define what you are looking for in your MBA, where you see yourself afterwards and how much effort you are willing to put into the program. Before you even start to look at schools, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do you want to study abroad or would you prefer to remain in the country where you are right now? If abroad – are you planning to return or would you rather settle down somewhere else?
  1. What is your main intention of the MBA? It could be a planned change of industry and/or position, the next step towards a promotion, a desire to expand your network, the attempt to get international exposure or an approach to leave your comfort zone and let your views be challenged.
  1. Define how important the brand of the school is for your plans. Do you have to rely on the career services team to find a job? Should recruiters have heard of your school or is that not of importance in your target industry?
  1. Do you thrive in large groups or do small team sizes allow you to excel? Would you rather have some internal competition or a focus on teamwork and collaboration?

Having answers to these questions will make your decision process easier. However, if you are still unsure in a certain area you can also come back to this later.

Now it is time to start narrowing down your selection:

Stage A — USA vs Europe vs Asia

To make this first decision, it is important to know where you are going to look for a job after the MBA. US schools have the longest history and many of them are considered the best in the world. However, the level of international diversity is fairly low compared to European schools. Harvard Business School’s class of 2017, for instance has 71% students from North America whereas INSEADs class of 2017 is diversely represented by Europe (37%), Asia (31%), North America (14%), Middle East/Africa (10%) and Latin America (7%).

Study where you want to work. U.S. schools mainly teach U.S. related business cases, give you a strong U.S. network and have companies hiring for the U.S. job market on campus. You will be perfectly prepared for the States, but if you plan on working in Europe or Asia these things will be less relevant.

The same goes for Asia: Choose a school based in Asia if you have a dedicated interest to work there, to learn an Asian language or to develop intense networking relations to the continent. If none of those apply, cross it out.

European schools are more global: you will develop deep connections to classmates from many countries and will see them re-locate to all corners of the world once the MBA is over. Anyhow, the focus is again local: you will mainly meet recruiters who are looking to hire for the European job market. And here even the country choice inside Europe becomes important because in most of the cases you will need to speak the local language of the country where you want to work in. Study in Barcelona and learn Spanish if you want to work in Spain. Go to Paris and learn French to get a position in France. If you are from Europe and plan on returning home after the MBA, consider the additional language as a plus for your profile.

Stage B — 1-year vs 2-year program

Once you are sure with the continent, you will have to pick the program length.

Do you already have a great position at work where you want to return to as quickly as possible with your newly earned MBA knowledge? Are you not interested in an international exchange program or in an industry switch where an internship could help you? Go with the 1-year option. You will experience a fully packed intensive year where you will learn all the business skills, have ample networking opportunities and start with your post-MBA job hunt from day one. However, you will not have much time to reflect and try out new things. A year is quickly over and your game plan should be set out already before you start.

The 2-year option will give you a similarly intensive first year where you will cover all the main subjects. You will have more time to find yourself and learn about all the interesting experiences from your classmates, though. The second year with its international exchange and corporate internship gives you ample opportunity to try out a new industry and re-position yourself during the MBA. If you are still open for different industries and want to take as much as possible from the MBA experience, a 2-year program is the best fit for you.

Stage C — Rankings / Tier 1 vs Tier 2

Now that you have a rough idea of how your MBA program of choice should look like, it is time to consult the rankings. In the end it is about personal fit, but rankings normally correspond to the brand awareness that recruiters have towards the several schools and are a good indicator if the schools can be considered tier 1, tier 2 or even tier 3.

Start with the schools that have been continuously in the Top 10 (Top 20) over the past couple years and cross-compare different rankings (Financial Times, Economist, Forbes, Bloomberg, Business Insider). Work your way down from the top and cross out all the schools that do not comply with your Stage A and Stage B requirements.

You should be left with only a couple of schools that make it into Stage D.

Stage D — School specific pros and cons

This is the part where you actually have to conduct your own research. You are trying to figure out which of the schools are strong in the areas that you consider important. Now it is not only about facts and figures but also about your personal feeling towards the school. Can you picture yourself studying there? Assess the following areas to get a full overview:

Campus location

  • Country / Area
  • City vs village
  • Lively and crowded campus vs quiet campus
  • Commute distance and time from housing to campus
  • Language
  • Climate

Class profile

  • Diversity of nationalities
  • Diversity of industries
  • Male / female ratio
  • GMAT average
  • Class size and overall students

Atmosphere

  • Collaborative vs competitive
  • Conservative vs liberal
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Strength of bonds formed
  • Individual support

Curriculum

  • Electives
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Exclusive opportunities such as business labs or real world consulting projects
  • Case method vs various teaching methods
  • Grading system (bell curve?)

Intensity

  • Demanding vs relaxed
  • Amount of workload
  • Time pressure

Reputation

  • Industry ties
  • Hiring firms on campus
  • Partnership with other business schools
  • Brand awareness
  • Mission values and goals

Costs and Scholarship

  • Total tuition fees
  • Living expenses
  • Likelihood to receive a scholarship

Alumni network

  • Size and spread of alumni network
  • Interpersonal bond of alumni and personal identification with the school
  • Number, frequency, size, and location of alumni events

Industry focus

  • In which field do most graduates find a job?
  • What is the school known for?

Career services quality

  • Percentage of students finding a job after the MBA
  • Total salary and salary increase

Once you completed all four stages you will have a selection of schools that you can apply to. Get in touch with the admission team to discuss your profile and get help with your application. Be aware that a campus visit will not only give you great insight on the “feel” of the school but will also give you an edge in your application essays. Towards the admission committee, it is a strong sign of dedication and will be considered in your favor.

All the best with finding your future business school!

How to respectfully decline an MBA admission offer

As a dedicated MBA applicant it is quite normal to apply to several schools at once. The risk of being rejected and remaining empty handed is just too high to only send your application to one school.

Consequently it is possible that you find yourself with more than one admission offer on the table. And even if you’d like to attend all the schools at the same time – you have to pick one and let the others know of your decision.

And this part is important. You came a long way: took the GMAT, crafted application essays, facilitated the work on recommendation letters, brushed up your CV, reached out to your target school’s admission team, possibly visited campus and finally interviewed with a school’s representative. Don’t think you’re done now. Academia is a small world and not finishing this endeavor respectfully can hurt you later on. You are likely to come in contact with faculty or students from the respective school in the future. Don’t destroy your reputation and good impression that you worked so hard to make on the school’s staff.

Business schools know that students apply to different programs and hence count with a few offer rejections. Declining an offer is your good right (you are the customer!) and you should not have any hard feelings about it. You invested a lot of effort into presenting your best side while the schools maintained the high position throughout. Now it’s your turn. The staff is paid to evaluate candidates and create leads – so don’t get the impression that they did you a favor in reviewing your file. However, there is no discussion about the tone to use in your rejection email.

It’s up to you how much detail you put into your message. You can formally decline in a two sentence mail or briefly explain your reasoning. Of course the admission team will be curious which program you are going to attend; decide for yourself if you want to share that information.


Here are two example rejection letters:

Detailed Rejection Letter

Dear Sir or Madam,

Thank you for offering me admission to the <SCHOOL NAME AND PROGRAM TYPE> MBA Program. I greatly appreciate the time and effort that you devoted to reading and evaluating my file.

However, I regret to inform you that I will be attending a different program in the <e.g. fall 2016>. As a result, I must decline your offer of acceptance and withdraw from my seat in your incoming class. Please contact me if you need further information to complete my withdrawal.

The decision between schools was close and not easy to make, and I am sure that also your excellent institution would have supplied me with a world class education and opportunities. The emphasis on <e.g. great people, collaboration and individual support> really made an impact on me. Thank you for your time spent, consideration and your excellent care throughout the application process. It was truly a great experience and I hope to get in touch with <SCHOOL NAME> and it’s students even though.

Sincerely,

<YOUR NAME>


Brief Rejection Letter

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am writing in response to your letter of acceptance to the <PROGRAM TYPE at SCHOOL NAME>. I appreciate the opportunity to enroll at your excellent institution, but I regret to inform you that I will not be accepting your offer of admission. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

<YOUR NAME>


You are free to mix those two and pick the parts that best fit your needs. Make sure to adjust your style according to how intense your overall contact to your admission officer was.