Applying to Business Schools
Your agenda while selecting a B.School should be two-pronged.
- The Lock-n-Key Fit – Properly analyze yourself and your needs to find what programs will be most appropriate for you
- Set the bar higher – After selecting programs that fit your profile and needs, try to get into the most reputed of these programs.
It is essential that you really get a hang of both sides of this equation. Your reasons for getting an MBA will help pinpoint which schools are right for you. If you carefully analyze your own needs, you are likely to opt for the right program. By the same token, if you do only a cursory analysis of the different programs, looking just at their slick websites or rankings, you are likely to choose the wrong program.
Few people will consider all of the following criteria to be important, but they are listed here to spur your thinking about what you should want in a program. The most important criteria will depend upon your specific needs, but on average they include course offerings, school reputation, location, academic atmosphere, school size, facilities, placement prospects, and teaching quality. The two items that applicants tend not to weigh heavily enough are the learning atmosphere, and the quality of the career services function, because schools of equal quality and reputation tend to have very different rates of success in placing their graduates in desirable companies and positions.
- Reputation - Is the school considered one of the best schools in the world, especially for your particular specialization? Is it particularly well known and respected where you would most like to work? The various school rankings should not be considered definitive but pay attention to the opinions of those in charge of hiring at companies of the type you wish to work for.
- SIZE. Smaller schools often engender a friendly, family atmosphere with stronger bonds among alumni. Large schools, on the other hand, are able to provide large numbers of both elective course options and skilled professors. Smaller schools tend to be better rated by students; larger schools tend to be better rated by employers.
- LOCATION. The appropriate location for you is likely to depend upon a host of factors, including, of course, personal preference. If you prefer a small town to a global city, you will lean toward Pune, rather than Mumbai. If you intend to work part-time during the latter part of your program, however, you should prefer large cities to small, given the greater employment opportunities.
If you are married or on the road to one, then the MBA does not remain a personal decision but becomes a family decision. The school’s location will also have a major impact upon your spouse’s (or significant other’s) employment options. A corporate strategy consultant will have a relatively easy time finding appropriate employment in a major city but not in a small town. Similarly, your spouse’s educational options are likely to be greatest in a city with numerous major universities rather than in a one-university town. By the same token, your children might have a tougher time socially and educationally in a large city than in a small town, or vice versa.
The location of a school helps determine its social environment. Schools in large cities tend not to foster the degree of social bonding among classmates that schools located in small towns do, largely due to the lack of other entertainment options in small towns.
One additional locational factor to consider: How important is it to be close enough to your home to allow easy visits?
- QUALITY OF LIFE. Student lifestyles may vary a great deal, of course, depending upon both the program and the student. A program in a metropolitan city (FMS-Delhi)may influence a student’s life less than one in the country. At a school like IIM-Indore, in a small city, most students socializing is done with other students, both because the students tend to get on well with one another and because Indore offers limited enticement to pull students away from the business school. But contrast an IIM-Indore with an FMS-Delhi and you can see the difference in quality of life.
Be sure that your favorite activities (including those typically organized as a business school society or club) are available, whether at the school itself or nearby.
- SAFETY. Related to the location issue is the question of safety. Be sure that the school environment is, and feels, safe. In assessing safety, make sure you see the school and its environs (wherever students spend time), and do not assume that what appears safe at noon will also be safe at midnight. Discuss the matter with school officials, of course, but do not take their comments on faith. Be sure to discuss your concerns with students physically like you. (Your notion of a safe environment will not necessarily be the same as that held by a 250-pound world karate champion or a tiny, fragile arthritis sufferer.)
- FACILITIES. Check to be sure the school has top-quality research facilities, including a traditional library, subscription to best of journals, and extensive online services. In particular, note whether the library and study rooms are comfortable for extended work efforts. Check, too, for facilities of unique importance to you, such as a simulated trading floor.
- HOUSING. Housing can be a major concern, especially in your first year. Look at the school’s student housing (dormitory, hostels or apartment). Examine the price and availability of off-campus housing. Research what transportation options you will have and their safety implications.
- MISSION. Some schools view their jobs as training general managers. Other schools look to train functional specialists. All want to train people who intend to get to the top of their chosen fields. Related to this, some schools require that students specialize in a field of their choice, meaning that they must take at least a set number of courses in that field. Others permit a free choice of electives. These differences can have a major effect upon your fit with a program and the students who have chosen to attend it.
- TERM LENGTH. Long semesters lift the pressure of constant examinations and papers, but shorter terms make it possible to sample a wider variety of courses.
- PROGRAM LENGTH. A shorter program is generally more appropriate for those well advanced in their careers, especially those who do not wish to change fields. Longer programs are more appropriate for those with lesser business backgrounds or a desire to switch fields.
- COURSES IN OTHER BRANCHES OF THE UNIVERSITY. Those studying many different areas of business can benefit from taking courses in other parts of the university. Thus, someone intending an investment banking career in corporate finance or mergers and acquisitions might profit from courses in securities regulation offered by the law school. Many business schools severely limit the number of courses that may be taken for credit in other parts of the university.
- JOINT DEGREES. The number and variety of joint-degree programs on offer at some schools is very impressive. For example, various schools offer the chance to do a master’s or doctoral degree in a related subject of interest, such as economics, engineering, international relations, law, medicine, urban planning, and so on. (This is likely to be possible only if the school is part of a university.)
- INTERNATIONALIZATION. It is not easy to gauge a program’s degree of internationalization. Consider the extent to which cases and courses focus on international management issues, whether the students and professors come from a variety of different countries, the ease with which one can do projects and exchanges abroad (see below), and the degree of emphasis placed upon language learning. Or, rather than assessing these input factors, you could look at factors that actually measure the programs’ outputs-the percentage of graduates who take jobs abroad or jobs that include a large international component.
- EXCHANGE PROGRAMS. Those interested in an international dimension to their studies might benefit from a term at another top school, one that offers the opportunity to study in another language and (business) culture or pursue a specialized topic in greater depth. Consider the number and quality of exchanges on offer at a given school (and how many students actually participate), but also make sure your particular interests are catered to.
- VISITING EXECUTIVES. Schools should bring CEOs and other senior executives to campus as executives in residence and guest speakers. The quality and location of the school will tend to determine the number and nature of such visitors.
- PREPROGRAM. If you need help in algebra, calculus, statistics, computer usage, or languages, try to prepare yourself as best you can before the program begins. Note, however, that schools now offer preprograms that range from a few days’ social introductions to a month’s instruction in core (especially quantitative) subjects.
- SOFT IS HARD – “TOUCHY-FEELY” COURSES. Check that the program offers courses that capture the non-mathematical elements of management in as rigorous and productive a fashion as possible. Note that graduates ten years out of business school almost invariably describe courses in negotiation, communication, teamwork, leadership, interpersonal skills, and other soft skill areas as being of great and continuing importance to them.
- INTEGRATION. In the past, most schools taught courses that were neatly divided into functional areas. Thus, a marketing course resolutely stuck to marketing topics without, for example, considering the impact of marketing decisions upon manufacturing operations. It is now generally recognized that such compartmentalization is not only artificial but also harmful to students who fail to integrate their knowledge of different functions. Although schools recognize the nature of the problem, not all of them have succeeded in developing truly integrated programs.
- ELECTIVES. Make sure the school offers sufficient electives in your chosen field. Note, too, whether the course offering.” reflect recent developments in the field. Be sure courses listed in the catalogue or on the website are given annually. Some schools list all the courses they have given at some point in recent years, or hope to give, rather than those that will indeed be offered. Be sure, too, that more than one professor provides them, so that your education will not be savaged by one professor choosing to take a sabbatical during your second year.
- PROJECTS. Numerous courses will offer the chance to perform consulting projects for credit with local companies. The teams will include executives of the company as well as other students, thereby giving you a chance to put your learning into practice while making valuable contacts. These projects also serve as helpful integrating devices, both for showing how different functions relate and for demonstrating the value of soft skills. These projects tend to be more readily available in schools situated in a region that is home to many companies; schools in splendid rural isolation tend to find it difficult to place students in good consulting projects due to the lack of local firms.
- TEACHING METHODS. Teachers can use lectures, the case method, computer games/simulations, or company projects in a course. Some courses lend themselves to one method rather than another. Thus, many schools use a variety of methods, depending upon course focus and professorial preference. Many professors mix teaching methods, including lectures and cases or projects, for example, in a single course.
The case method, however, remains the single most important and most common teaching method in top business schools. It is arguably not at its best for introductory economics, statistics, and accounting classes. By the same token, a consensus view appears to be that at least some use of cases, especially in advanced marketing, strategy, organizational development, and finance classes, is highly desirable. The drawbacks of the method are minimized in those settings, whereas at least some use of it helps develop the ability to mine cases for the most relevant information, package it quickly, and respond to wide-ranging questions in a coherent and powerful manner.
- TEACHING QUALITY. Even apart from the question of what would be the best method for teaching a given subject, quality is remarkably uneven and hard to assess (especially from a distance). It varies mightily from school to school and professor to professor, yet few students take enough courses at multiple business schools to be able to render a judgment about the relative merits of the schools’ teaching. As a result, the best way to gauge a school’s teaching is by examining the ways in which it promotes good teaching. Note that student course evaluations, which are produced at perhaps half of the top schools, offer a chance to judge the teaching in departments of greatest interest to you (even if such guides do not allow you to judge the school’s overall teaching quality). Such guides are typically available only if you visit the campus or have a friend in the student body send you one; few schools are willing to send them out to applicants.
- WORKLOAD. All of the good schools require substantial work, but there is still a large disparity between the load at the least and most demanding schools. This is partly a function of the degree of competition at the school rather than the actual demands of professors. To this extent, your workload is under your control; you do not have to work 100-hour weeks simply because most people around you are doing so. Still, the more easy-going the academic atmosphere, the less hard you will need to work for a given rank-in-class or possibility of impressing the most demanding of prospective employers. (Be careful in asking about this, by the way, because doing so may mark you as someone insufficiently determined. Rely in part on the various guidebooks for this information, and pay close attention at school information sessions when someone else is silly enough to inquire about it. When visiting a school, ask students how hard most people work, but do not take their replies at face value since students love to complain about how hard they need to work.) Note that case method schools tend to involve heavy workloads, although students also tend to enjoy their work.
- MATHEMATICAL SOPHISTICATION. Some schools such as an IIM-C require substantial mathematical sophistication of incoming students, whereas other require little more than a passing familiarity with differentiation and regression. Be aware of the level of quantitative knowledge required-for the school generally and your proposed course of study particularly-and assess your own skills carefully. Do not, for instance, blithely assume that you will easily recall math you have not studied for a decade. There are obvious advantages to attending a school that uses advanced math in any course that can be taught better and faster with it. For the mathematically desperate, however-the so-called “poets” -these advantages will not be readily available.
- CLASS SIZE. Smaller classes offer students the benefit of substantial interaction with, and attention from, the professor as well as a chance to participate relatively frequently. On the other hand, with more students you find a greater likelihood of students with relevant current experience commenting on matters. Small classes offer no chance to be anonymous and to hide, whereas larger classes-especially in courses using the case method-force students to compete for airtime. On balance, however, most students prefer small to medium-sized classes. In addition, it is valuable to have available seminars in your field, not just for the in-class attention you can get from professors, but also for the opportunity to get to know professors in your field out of class.
- PROFESSORS. The ideal professors would combine three related features. They would be dedicated to teaching, and would always be available in their offices for conversation and assistance. They would also be world-famous consultants who spend a great deal of time with companies spread across the world. thereby increasing their knowledge and making contacts that might be useful when it comes time to help you find a job. Ideal professors are, moreover, people who devote substantial energy to research and publishing, to increase their fame and that of the school.
Although it is impossible to square the circle and have professors both be readily available and be international consultants and prolific authors, a school can foster an open-door policy that encourages professors to be on campus and readily available to students for at least some portion of each week. Students routinely prefer teachers who teach well over those who do high-quality research at the expense of quality teaching. At a minimum it is possible to say that teachers who only teach in the executive program, whose courses are so oversubscribed that you will be unable to enroll in their classes, or who are on sabbatical while you are attending the school, are likely to have little impact upon your learning. The greatest danger exists for someone who chooses a school because one or two famous professors are there. The student may be unable to get a class with either of them, or change his intended field of concentration and thus choose other professors for study after all.
It is important that a school have full-time professors in your field, not just adjunct professors or lecturers whose full-time occupation is actually practicing in the field. Such adjunct faculty can provide a wonderful view of current issues and practice, but they are less likely to remain at a school for an extended period (thereby risking leaving you high and dry) and may not be available on campus for out-of-class discussions.
STUDENTS BODY CRITERIA
- STUDENT BODY. The composition of the student body will have a major impact upon your learning experience, your enjoyment of the program, and even your ability to get desirable jobs in the future. The large amount of team-work embodied in most programs guarantees that much of your time will be spent discussing classroom issues with other students. The other students should be experienced enough that you can learn a great deal from them. On the other hand, they should not be so skilled, relative to your own level, that you will be unable to compete with them. One thing that they definitely should be is friendly and willing to share-both their time and their knowledge.
You risk being isolated and miserable if you do not fit in with the typical students at a school. Make sure you have spent some time with current students or those who have recently graduated to make sure you will feel comfortable at a school.
Other aspects of the student body that might be of keen interest are the types of jobs people have held before business school, the age range, the percentage of women students, the percentage of minority students, and the percentage of international students. In general, the more diverse the student body, the more you will be able to learn.
- COMPETITION. Although most students would prefer an atmosphere that emphasizes cooperation more than competition, that is not true for everyone. Some people are inspired to work harder and perform better in a competitive environment. In assessing schools, note that six factors tend to determine the degree of competitiveness among students. Large schools, and those that have a high percentage of case method courses, are prone to a high degree of competition. On the other hand, the more work that is done in teams (and graded on a team basis), the less competitive the atmosphere is likely to be. If students’ grades and class rank are displayed to the class and to potential employers, the atmosphere is likely to be more competitive. The use of a mandated grading curve inspires competition, since an improvement in one student’s grade means another’s must suffer. Last, the number of students who are flunked out of the school has a large impact. Many, but by no means all, schools try to retain every student they enroll, thereby easing student fears.
- STUDENT-FACULTY RELATIONS. The student-faculty ratio, at the extremes, can have an influence upon the relations between the two groups. Thus, at a school with a 20 : 1 ratio, getting to know professors may be more difficult than at one with a 7 : 1 ratio. But this simple ratio is likely to conceal as much as it reveals. The relative numbers of students and professors tend to have less impact upon relations between the two groups than do other factors. Most important is the attitude professors have toward students. Some schools have a traditional closeness between students and faculty; faculty routinely invite students for coffee or drinks, join them for lunches, and so on. At other schools, professors do little more than hold periodic office hours. One determinant of the tradition is the school’s geographic situation. Schools that are isolated tend to have closer faculty-student relations than those in the midst of major cities. Another determining factor is the size of the business school. Smaller schools tend to have closer relations than large schools.
- JOBS. The more highly employers regard a school’s graduates, the more job offers will flow. Specific offers depend upon more, however, than just a school’s general reputation. Some schools are much more successful placing graduates in one field rather than another.
Check whether people get jobs that you would like to have. In addition, check what credentials they had. In general, distinguish between the job prospects of those at the top of the class and those at the middle and the bottom. The top graduates of the elite schools can be expected to get highly desirable jobs. The differences among schools become more marked as you work your way down their class rankings. Those at the bottom of the class at IIM-A, for instance, tend to do quite well, getting jobs at well-known firms. At less highly regarded schools, this is by no means necessarily the case.
To assess whether a school’s degree “travels” to whatever area is of interest to you, consider both where recruiters come from and where graduates and up working. Similarly, to assess the school’s overall success in placing graduates, consider not just which jobs graduates take, but also the nature and number of recruiters pursuing graduates (and summer hires). Precise calculations, such as the number of recruiters per student, should not be taken as definitive, just suggestive of the school’s success.
- CAREER SERVICES. A good career services department will provide in-depth assistance to you at each stage of the career assessment and job search process. The stages include assessing your skills and interests; determining precisely which field, then which type of employer, you should consider pursuing; mastering resume and cover-letter writing, interviewing, and “call-back” interviewing processes (including those specific to your chosen field, such as investment banking); sorting through job offers and negotiating the best deal; and learning how to succeed in the first months (years) on the job.
Good departments offer presentations-and extensive one-on-one assistance-regarding each step of the process. They also offer “brown bag” lunches, for instance, where you can hear from graduates about work in large consulting firms versus small firms, job opportunities in a given field or city, and so on. They should intervene early to help those who intend to make dramatic career changes. They should have a database of alumni that can be easily searched by location, graduating class, function or specialty, nature of employer, and so on. (Alumni, as discussed on the next page, are potentially highly valuable in your career assessment and search as well as your career success later on.) These services should be available to alums, too, because you may need them more when you are out of business school than when you are in.
To assess a career services department, compare the programs it offers for each of the aspects mentioned above. Note what is available only on a group basis and what is available one-on-one with career service professionals. Good departments will have specialists devoted to each major employment sector, such as strategy consulting, investment banking, and so on. The department’s assistance should not be limited just to the traditional employers of MBAs, however, or to the most popular or closest cities. Thus, a truly international school will have international career services officers. Discuss the effectiveness of the various programs, and the availability and professionalism of the staff, with a variety of students. Although the number of professionals working in a career services department is no more than a very rough approximation for the value of the service, it can still be helpful to know how many there are at a given school (adjusted for the number of students).