Finding the right MBA program

MBA admissions strategy
By Rahima

MBAAssessing fit within MBA schools

There are so many MBA programs out there. How should you determine which ones may be a good fit for you? An MBA is often an expensive and time-consuming commitment. You want to make sure you choose a program that you enjoy, in a place that you like, and with a culture that resonates with you. Here are some key steps to follow to help you determine which MBA programs you may want to apply to:

Get clear on your story.

First and foremost, do some soul searching to figure out what you want out of an MBA program. This part is not necessarily about figuring out what you may write in an application essay, but digging deeper to ask yourself honestly what you want to get out of a program and what your real reasons are for applying. Below are some critical questions to help you get started:

  • Why business school? No, really – why?
  • What do you hope to get out of an MBA program? Can you achieve that without going to business school? If not, why not? If so, what else do you hope to get out of it?
  • What are some specific things you want to learn or skillsets you want to gain?
  • What are your short and long-term career goals? What do you want to be doing in 3 years? 10 years? Challenge yourself to get as specific as possible. Do you see yourself in a rotational leadership development program? Consulting? Starting your own thing? Back at your current company? Switching gears to a non-profit?
  • Who are you? What kind of person are you? What kind of people do you like to surround yourself with?
  • What kind of environment do you thrive in? Collaborative? Dynamic? Competitive?
  • What do you see yourself doing at an MBA program? Learn healthcare specific content? Starting a company on the side? Taking a break from work and being as social as possible? Leading or starting some clubs on campus? Understanding general management and operations?
  • What is your financial situation? Do you need to focus on MBA programs that give significant scholarships or where you may have a higher chance of receiving more financial aid?
  • What elements did you love about your undergraduate experience? (e.g. class size, professor availability, research opportunities, hands on learning experiences)
  • What elements did you dislike about your undergraduate experience? (e.g. Greek life, location, workload, elective options, recruiting support)

Create your school shortlist.

Using the answers from the above brainstorming questions, start to pull together a list of schools that are strong in one or more areas that you’re interested in. If you have a background in finance and you want to go on to work at a hedge fund, Booth, Sloan, Wharton or Columbia may be a great fit for you. If you’re interested in entrepreneurship, Stanford, Sloan, Babson, Berkeley, or Haas could be good options. If you’re keen on building your leadership and management expertise, HBS, Stanford, Kellogg, Ross, or Darden could be ideal. Most programs would be great at developing your overall readiness for consulting or a rotational program, so maybe consider another factor to narrow your search. Think about location. Maybe you’ve spent all your life on the east coast and are really excited to live on the west coast for a couple of years, or live abroad during an international program like HEC, INSEAD, or LBS. Consider MBA programs that reside in the heart of a city such as NYU Stern vs programs in a more rural setting (such as Tuck) that could offer a different experience and outdoor activities. Look at campus life, culture, and activities. Which schools have clubs, experiential learning, or culture that you’re excited about? Get deep on coursework and professors. Who is doing research or teaching in areas that you are interested in? Which schools have electives that you would sign up for? For example, I automatically ruled out Stanford for my own MBA applications because they didn’t have any healthcare-specific electives at that time, and I knew that was going to be my focus area. Think about class size. Do you want a closer-knit MBA community or a large program with many people to meet? Columbia, Wharton, and HBS are amongst the largest top programs in the US, whereas Stanford, Kellogg, Yale, Duke, and Tuck boast smaller cohort or class sizes. Consider the classroom experience. Do you prefer a case-base curriculum or a mix of lecture and cases? Do you have secondary interests and other classes you may be interested in taking at nearby schools? HBS and Sloan allow for a plethora of cross-registration at many of the neighboring Harvard graduate schools, which can be helpful if you have multiple interests. Choose the factors that are most important to you and identify the schools that seem to check those boxes.

Do your research.

Take the shortlist of schools you’ve developed and do a deep dive on each of them. Build a spreadsheet and list out the most important criteria to you on one row or column, and list all the schools that are most interesting to you on the other row or column. As you do your research, identify which schools meet which of your criteria and take down any relevant notes about unique or differentiating factors in that school’s MBA program. (This research will greatly behoove you as you write your essays later!) See if you can take all this input and whittle down to a smaller list (~7-10) schools, through your research on each school and synthesizing what you learn about their curriculum, campus life, activities, and professional opportunities.

Talk to students.

Perspectives from current or former students can be extremely helpful in narrowing down your school search. Contact the admissions office and they will be happy to link you up with former or current students who are interested in your areas of study or share a similar background. Use LinkedIn, friends, or family to reach out to students or alumni and ask them about their experiences. Some great questions to start the conversation:

  • What made them choose their school in the first place?
  • What specifically did they like about their MBA experience? What was unique about the school that they liked?
  • What did they dislike about the experience? What did they wish was different?
  • What was the culture like in the classroom and beyond? Did they make good friends? Did they feel accepted and welcomed?
  • How competitive did they feel the culture and classroom environment was?
  • Did they feel challenged academically? Did they have the freedom and the time to explore and pursue their interests?
  • How well did the on-campus recruiting office set them up for pursuing their professional interests?
  • What did they wish they knew before they attended the school or started an MBA program in general?

Visit the campus.

There’s nothing like an actual visit to campus to get a true feel of the culture, classroom dynamics, and campus life. Although visits can be expensive and time-consuming, it can be a great way to help you narrow down schools for applications or make a final selection after you’ve heard back from your schools. If you have the resources, stay a day or two and make sure you sit in on a class, talk to admissions committee representatives, take a student-led campus tour, and try to talk to as many students as you can. Spend time on campus – in the student center, the dining hall, and other parts of the school so you can see the flow of life on campus, how students interact with each other, how friendly or welcoming they might be to you, and what the general vibe is like. If you’ve already gotten responses from schools, Admitted Students Day / Weekend can be a great opportunity to visit campus and narrow down your options. One of my clients was dead set on Yale for her MBA until she visited Haas and absolutely fell in love with the program and students there. It’s hard to know for sure unless you visit!

Factor in the personal.

Some things can’t be quantified. Getting an MBA is a big commitment, and you need support. Is it important for you to be near your family and spend time with them before you return to another city for a job? Or, would you feel pressure to live with your parents if you went to one school, and would that affect your social life? Does one school have better pre-school or daycare options for your children? Is one school offering you a financial aid package that would give you the freedom to do whatever you want after school without chasing a salary to pay down your loans, even if it’s not your top choice? Does your partner prefer one city or school over another for his/her career? I can’t even describe the number of unhappy spouses I have seen who followed their partners to HBS without making sure that they could work or do something in the meantime. It can affect relationships and cause significant friction. Most people don’t go to business school right out of college, so they have lots of ties to people and places. Don’t brush these aside. Make sure to factor in all the personal elements affecting your decision, even if they can’t be documented in a spreadsheet.

Hopefully, this post shed some light on the key steps for finding the right MBA programs for you. Once you’ve picked your schools, applied, and gotten your acceptances, try to take some time away from all the spreadsheets, comparisons, and checklists. Reflect deeply on what program feels the best to you, where you think you might learn and grow the most, and which school might challenge you on both a professional and a personal level. Listen to your gut. And once you decide, strive to make the most of your experience and find ways to make that program the best one for you.

Rahima graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied global health, healthcare management, South Asian Studies, and Asian American Studies. Rahima worked at PwC Advisory in New York as a healthcare and public sector strategy consultant after undergrad, where she earned an early promotion and the firm's MVP award. After three years in management consulting, Rahima moved to Malawi, in Southern Africa, with the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) to assist the Ministry of Health with global health programs. She initially worked to accelerate the introduction of new vaccines into Malawi, and then managed a team to increase access to HIV and TB diagnostics. Rahima also lived in Myanmar, helping CHAI to launch its offices in Yangon and Nay Pi Daw. 

Rahima earned an MBA from the Harvard Business School and an MPH in global health from the Harvard School of Public Health, where she was a Zuckerman Fellow through the Harvard University Center for Public Leadership. After graduate school, Rahima worked in Boston as a social impact consultant at FSG. She currently works for the United States Agency for International Development in D.C., where she is a Market Access Advisor at the Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact within USAID's Global Health Bureau. 

Rahima has been doing college and graduate admissions coaching and career coaching for over ten years. She has helped students gain admission into all the leading medical schools, public health schools, US and international top business schools, and a number of leading programs for public policy, public administration, science, education, engineering, healthcare administration, and other masters programs. In addition, her students have received admission to all of the Ivy League colleges and many other undergraduate colleges throughout the US and Canada. Rahima also provides strategic guidance, presentation preparation, essay edits, and project reviews for students in undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as targeted feedback, coaching, mentoring, and preparation for career transitions, scholarship applications, and job applications, including interview preparation, resume edits, and cover letter drafts.  Rahima deeply enjoys helping students build their narratives, find their voice, help their stories stand out, and craft personal, meaningful essays.


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