Where to Apply to B-School

By: Manhattan GMAT Staff

How to Decide

You’ve already decided that you want to apply to business school and you almost certainly have some ideas about “good” schools or where you want to apply. But have you really analyzed the decision to make sure that you’re matching your attributes and needs with the programs’ requirements and characteristics? If you’re like most of us, you probably haven’t thought much about how to decide where to apply.

For the next four weeks, we’ll discuss the major factors (tangible and intangible) affecting where to apply, your own personal strengths and weaknesses, the schools’ requirements and characteristics, and finally a method for selecting the best MBA programs for your own profile.

Why Do I Need to Plan How To Decide?

One good application can take anywhere from fifteen to thirty (or more!) hours to complete, not including time spent studying for and taking the GMAT. Most schools don’t release applications until August, and the first round deadlines can be as early as the end of September. Given the time commitment and constraint, there is a limit to how many applications you can complete (and complete well).

In addition to producing an excellent application, you also need to ensure that first, you have the necessary prerequisites and attributes to be considered for admission and that second, the school has the necessary qualities to be a strong fit for you. After all, an MBA is an expensive proposition; if you don’t gain the hoped-for benefits, you will have wasted 2 years of your career and tens of thousands of dollars.

Given these factors, it is helpful to think of three “buckets” – or categories – for your potential MBA programs. The first bucket is the “safety” school. Safety schools are those to which you are almost certain to be admitted because your profile places you in the top 10% of students accepted into that program, and you have no characteristics which that school would consider a weakness or a drawback. The second bucket is the “regular” school, to which you have a solid chance to be admitted; your profile is above average compared to those of admitted students. The third bucket is the “reach” school. It is less likely that you will be admitted to this school, as your profile is not above average compared to incoming students, but someone has to be in the “lower half” of the admitted students – it might as well be you!

We will discuss the buckets in greater detail in coming weeks, but for now, be aware that you should plan to apply to 2-4 “regular” schools, 1-3 “reach” schools and, if you are determined to go to business school even if you aren’t admitted to your regular or reach schools, you should also apply to 1-2 “safety” schools.

What Do I Need To Know To Make Decisions?

There are many important factors that will affect your decisions about regular, reach, and safety schools; the most important are listed below. Begin to think about these and gather the data now; over the next couple of weeks we will analyze these factors and learn how to match schools to our needs.

  • your history, including career, academic and extracurricular
  • the answer to the question “Why do I want to get an MBA?” (your own real answer, not necessarily what you will tell the schools)
  • your career goals and interests
  • each school’s profile, including admissions statistics and program strengths and weaknesses
  • financial considerations

Taking Stock

Now we will address the first and most important factor in deciding where to apply to business school: you! There are a number of data points to gather or determine here, from the mundane (your undergrad GPA) to the sophisticated (why do you want that MBA anyway?).

We will use the data to “match” schools to each of the three buckets we discussed last week: safety (you are very likely to be admitted), regular (you have a good chance to be admitted) and reach (it will be tough to gain acceptance but you still have a shot). Start an Excel or Word file to record all of your data points in one place.

Academics

If you don’t already have a copy of your undergraduate transcript, order it (or them, if you attended multiple schools). If you have done any graduate-level work in a degree-granting program, also order those transcripts, even if you have not completed the degree. Record:

  • overall undergraduate GPA
  • GPA for your major (only those specific classes required to earn your degree)
  • undergraduate GPA for your junior and senior years combined
  • undergraduate GPA for your senior year
  • overall graduate GPA (if applicable)
  • any honors designations, scholarships or other academic awards
  • GMAT score (or your best guess, if you don’t have an official score yet)

Career

Business schools want students who have already showed success in the working world. The easiest ways to document success are quantifiable things such as salary, promotions indicating increasing levels of responsibility, or accolades or awards from your company or peers in the industry. Record:

  • salary history
  • job title history
  • responsibility-level history (including management of others)
  • accolades or awards

Why You Want An MBA

What are your career goals (industry, level of responsibility, accomplishments, long-term)? Why will an MBA help you to achieve these goals? Why is an MBA necessary to achieve these goals? What kinds of characteristics does a business school program need to have to help you achieve your long-term goals?

Many business school applications will ask you some or all of the above questions, anyway, so you might as well get started on answering them. Be sure to give honest and complete answers – it may include considerations that you would not want to put in your application, but right now, you’re the only one who will see this information.

Financials

What are your financial constraints? Will the investment you have to make (in time and money) provide a satisfactory return? What are your financial goals related to the MBA? Record:

  • how much the degree will cost (tuition and living expenses)
  • how much you will give up in earnings while in school (offset by how much you may make from an internship)
  • how much you hope to earn after you finish the program (research this figure so you are sure it is realistic)
  • the limit in loans that you are willing and able to incur
  • whether you believe you may qualify for need-based or merit-based scholarships or grants

Intangibles

The “intangibles” are additional items of interest that either classify you or help to bring you alive as a real person to the admissions committee (and sometimes both). Record:

  • gender, age, race, nationality
  • geographic location – both where you live now and where you want to live and work post-MBA
  • years of work experience and industry in which you work
  • extracurricular (community, volunteer, etc.) activities
  • any unique experiences, attributes or qualities (the true definition of the word “unique”)

You will improve your odds of getting into a particular school if you belong to any underrepresented categories in the first three bullets; of course, this also means that your odds will be lowered if you belong to any overrepresented categories. Schools expect some level of extracurricular activity from everyone, but anything extraordinary or unique can have a significant impact on your chances. Someone who founded and continues to run a non-profit that helps AIDS orphans in Africa while holding down a separate, full-time job will definitely stand out.

Researching Schools

Now we will address the data you need about the schools in order to make a great match.

It’s also important to be aware that in today’s business school climate, there are several schools that are extremely difficult to get into, no matter how good your credentials. Any school which admits fewer than 15% of applicants has to be considered a reach school; there are so many top-tier applicants to these schools, and so few admitted, that there is no way to guarantee that any one person has an appreciable advantage.

Hard Data

First, gather all of the hard numbers for any schools in which you have interest. Schools will post much of this information on their own Web sites, but you will sometimes need to order the schools’ printed literature to get the full set of data that they release. In addition, magazines and newspapers may have a good amount of relevant data, particularly those which rate schools. Business Week, U.S. News and World Report, and The Wall Street Journal, for example, track business schools and provide regularly updated rankings.

For GPA and GMAT, gather both the median and range for accepted students (median is the number earned by those students exactly in the middle of the pack and range represents the low and high extremes – though many schools report only the middle 80% of the range). Most schools use these two numbers to determine whether to examine the rest of your application; you should be within the range, at the least. A stronger GPA can offset a weaker GMAT score, and vice versa, within reasonable limits.

Next, record the average number of years of work experience for accepted students, the percentage of accepted students coming from your work industry and (if possible) the percentage of applicants coming from your work industry. If you can get applicant versus accepted student data, assign each school a plus if there is a higher percentage of accepted students than applicants from your industry. Assign a minus if the opposite is true. A plus means that your work industry is underrepresented at this school, so your job experience is an asset. A minus means that your industry is overrepresented, so this category is a liability for you.

You will also need statistics about the diversity of the class: gender, race, nationality, geographic location – anything reported by the school. If possible, gather the percentages for both accepted students and applicants and perform the same “plus / minus” analysis that you conducted for your job industry.

In addition, gather data on tuition, room and board, and local cost of living, as well as financial aid statistics. In addition to information about university room and board, many programs will also post average rents for local apartments and other facts and figures about the local cost of living. Many schools will also provide information about the amount of financial aid that the average student receives.

Finally, record the percentage of applicants accepted, to determine the selectiveness of the school. If you like, you can also record the percent accepted who attend the school as a gauge of the program’s popularity (this is also called the “yield”).

Soft Data

This category is about the focus of a particular business school’s program(s), the school’s strengths and weaknesses, and how well the school “fits” your personality type and your goals.

First, take note of each school’s specialties – the types of degrees it offers, the special certificates you can earn for concentration in a particular area, joint degrees, classes in other parts of the university (beyond the business school) that you would be allowed to take, and so on. For this portion, rely on what the school itself promotes about its programs and goals.

Next, check the school out from the perspective of others and answer the question, “What is this school known for?” Stanford students are often referred to as the entrepreneurs, while MIT and Wharton are said to attract the “quant jocks,” or those interested in the more quantitative aspects of business. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you shouldn’t attend a school if you don’t fall into whatever category it is “known” for, but it may be beneficial to you to attend a school that has a good reputation in areas that are of primary interest to you. Also try to determine any weaknesses of a particular school (and you’re most likely to pick this up from third party sources, not from the school itself).

Try to visit as many schools as time and money will permit. Attend an info session to learn how the school presents itself and what information it emphasizes; this tells you a lot about the school’s focus. When you are allowed to do so, sign up to sit in on a class so that you can get a feel for the dynamics in the classroom – the professor’s teaching style, the student interaction, the types of topics discussed and studied. (Note that if you live very near a school to which you are applying, it is practically a requirement to attend at least an info session – if you don’t, the school will notice when it is reviewing your application.)

If you know any current students or recent alumni, talk to them about the school. Do your homework ahead of time (don’t ask questions whose answers can be found in 30 seconds on the Web site), ask for a meeting to discuss the topic (better yet, take your contact out to lunch!) and prepare specific questions in advance. While there is some small chance this will ultimately help with admissions, your real goal here is to get a very good sense of both whether the program is the right one for you and how good your chances are of obtaining admission.

Finally, do contact the admissions office with any questions. They really do like to hear from prospective applicants, and if you have a notable interaction with them, they may remember it come admissions time. (“Notable,” of course, could mean good or bad, so be on your best behavior even via e-mail exchanges; strive to make a positive and memorable impression.)

I’ve Got The Data – Now What? Putting It All Together

We have discussed three “buckets” for the schools in previous weeks: safety, regular and reach. You will certainly need schools in the middle category (regular), and it is up to you whether you want to extend your scope to safety and reach schools.

Buckets

You will probably want to apply to between two and four “regular” schools. For these schools, your GPA and GMAT score are above average and you have at least one other advantage in terms of the other data you’ve gathered. The school should admit at least 20% of applicants.

In deciding whether to add a “safety” school to the mix, answer the question, “How determined am I to go to business school next year?” If the answer is that you want to go no matter what, then you will probably want to apply to at least one safety school, possibly two. If you will only go if you are admitted into certain programs, then you may not want to spend the time to apply to a safety school – just be prepared not to go to business school at all (next year, anyway).

A safety school is one for which you possess a well-above-average GPA and GMAT score (both, not just one). You should also have several advantages in terms of the other data you’ve gathered. For example, your work industry may be underrepresented or you may be coming from an underrepresented geographic location. It would also be advantageous to have some kind of personal contact with the school, either a current student or an alumnus who keeps in touch with the program, and is willing to write a recommendation or otherwise advocate for you with the admissions department (NOTE: even this is no guarantee). Finally, the school itself should not be overly selective; that is, it should admit at least 30% of candidates.

Most people want to apply to one or a few reach schools; if you fall into this category, just be sure that you don’t try to do too much and, therefore, underperform on all of your applications. The process we’ve been talking about for the last several weeks is meant to help you have a clear view of your chances of admission at a particular school. You will do yourself a disservice if you try to apply to ten reach schools because you will not be able to do a fantastic job on any one application.

For any reach schools, you should at least fall into the range of GPAs and GMAT scores at that program. You should also have at least one advantage in terms of the other data, because your grades and test score aren’t positives for your application. Finally, no matter how good your background is, if the school admits fewer than 15% of applicants, you should consider this a reach school. It is very difficult for even top candidates to gain admission to such a selective program. (This is akin to the yearly media stories of Harvard turning down a number of undergraduate applicants who earn perfect scores on the SAT and have straight-A grades.)

Now, it’s time to match!

Can I Get In?

For every school, determine whether your GPA and GMAT score place you well above average, a little above average, average or below average for that program. Also, for anything for which you gathered both applicant data and accepted student data, compare the percentages to determine whether various characteristics are assets or liabilities. For example, if 30% of applicants come from investment banking but only 20% of accepted students come from that industry, then i-banking is a liability that you should factor into your chances for acceptance at that particular school. On the other hand, if only 10% of applicants come from Africa but they represent 15% of admitted students, and you hail from Kenya, then this is an asset for you.

For work experience, just be aware that you don’t want to be too far over or under a school’s average. For example, a school whose students average 5 years of pre-MBA work experience might raise an eyebrow at anything under a year and anything over 10 years. (If you’re concerned about this, contact schools directly and ask them what advice they have; their reaction will give you a good feel for how much of a liability your work experience may be.)

Matching the data gives you a good idea how competitive your application might be for each individual program. Then, use the “bucket” guidelines above to classify each school.

Is It Right For Me?

Now, you have to decide whether the school can meet your requirements and help you to fulfill your goals. As we discussed, business school is an expensive proposition; you want to make sure that it’s worth it.

First, the most practical consideration: how much will it cost (both tuition and cost of living)? Some schools may drop out of the running once you add up the numbers.

Second, another practical consideration: will the geographic location be an advantage for my post-MBA plans? A decent percentage of each class stays in the general geographic location for at least a few years after graduation, and you will likely be able to make business contacts within the community during your two years at the school, both of which are significant with regard to networking and your post-MBA career.

Third, the most intangible consideration: is the school the right “fit” for me? Is it known for something that I want to be known for, too? Is it well regarded in the industry and geographic region in which I intend to work after graduation? Is the predominant teaching style one that works for me? Am I going to fit in with the students and make lasting contacts to build my network? Am I excited about the possibility of earning my MBA there?

Use your answers to the above “is it right for me” questions to narrow down your bucket selections until you have a total number of applications that you can reasonably complete within the time constraints. Remember not to do too much – it is tempting to apply to many schools because you want to be accepted somewhere, but if you spread yourself too thin, your applications will suffer and this may significantly harm your chances.

Congratulations – you did it! You did the research and the hard “thought” work to make smart decisions about where you should apply. Now go get started on that application… and let us know how it goes!