There are sooooooo many business schools out there. And they sure start to sound the same when you’re going through their websites. They all offer finance and marketing and accounting etc. Most of them have concentrations or majors in areas such as venture capital, entrepreneurship, brand management, or the newest trend, social venture. Besides going down the list of hallowed rankings from BW or USN&WR, how can you figure out which school is right for you?
Schools really are quite different. They attract different types of students, and they emphasize different things in what they’re looking for. In your essays, you’ll want to express “school fit”: you are the right type of candidate for them, in that you have the qualities they want in a student; and their programs and specializations can help you meet your career goals. It goes two ways.
The very best way to find out if a school is a good match for you is to go there. Radical idea, we know! But think of it: You’re going to spend two years at this place. You’re going to dump umpteen thousands of dollars there. It’s going to DEFINITELY change the trajectory of your life. Don’t you think it’s worth getting on a plane to go check the darn place out?!?
Applying to a school you have not visited is, in our opinion, the ultimate blind date. And, if you’re applying to a Columbia for their Early Decision round, then it’s actually the ultimate blind marriage — you’re committing to them sight unseen!* And people do it! How bizarre is that?!? Sure, you technically have the chance to visit campus during the interview process, and most schools have admit days where they’re working to woo accepted candidates who may be in the position of choosing among other schools. But it’s completely possible to go through the entire process and get an offer of acceptance without having once stepped foot on the campus.
Sometimes traveling around the country (or around the world) is just not feasible. In that case, you might be able to attend a local information session. Many schools travel all over, doing outreach and marketing, trying to attract high-quality candidates. There are MBA World Tours and MBA Fairs that usually go to the major cities in Europe, Asia, Australia, and definitely all over the U.S. Some schools are doing more with Web-based outreach, including YouTube videos (Darden’s Director of Admissions Sara Neher has a great series of what she calls “video blogs” – go check them out) and online discussion boards (Wharton’s S2S is one of the best) and online chats (UC-Berkeley does a lot of these).
No matter what, you need to engage the school community to understand what it’s about. Every school has a unique flavor, and they definitely offer different opportunities.
More to come later about other ways to whittle down the universe of great bschools to find the one that’s right for you.
Update 12/14/11: Go check out this thread on BTG from someone who talks about how he’s making his decision for which schools to target. This is the way you should be looking at things. It’s not just the rankings, people.
*With CBS ED, you’re agreeing to 100% accept their offer if they extend one to you. If Columbia is among your top schools, this is a great strategy. However, it means you’re going to pull any other applications — and reject any other offers — even if they come from Wharton or Stanford or Harvard! It’s a commitment. Be aware of this going into it.