How to Choose an MBA Program: The Discerning Student's Guide

In this comprehensive article, we'll show you how to assess your MBA candidacy, evaluate top MBA programs, and choose which business schools to apply to.

Posted June 13, 2024

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So you’ve decided to apply to business school. Congrats!

Now what?

One of the first things you'll need to do, of course, is pick which MBA programs to apply to. It can be easy to look at the published MBA rankings and simply apply to the top ten programs, but actually choosing an MBA program that’s right for you is an incredibly important step.

Remember that applying to business schools can be a lengthy, stressful, and expensive endeavor, so you should only apply to programs in which you have a real interest. Second, business schools, especially top MBA programs, are extremely competitive, and you want to give yourself the best chance possible at landing at least one offer. Finally, and most importantly, if you're admitted, you're going to spend two years of your life at this institution! So you should make sure it's a place you really want to attend.

Taking the time to do your research, make your list, and apply to a select number of MBA programs will pay significant dividends in the long run.

Assess Your MBA Candidacy

The first thing to do when creating your application list is to honestly assess your candidacy as an MBA applicant.

Business schools are competitive. You know that. Your goal, then, should be to maximize your chances of getting into at least one of them. To do that, assess your own potential as a candidate, and curate your application list accordingly. Here are four factors to think about when you evaluate your MBA profile:

1. Professional Experience

What you've done in your career is, obviously, one of the biggest elements of the MBA application. Where you've worked, in what industry and in what location, the roles you've had at your organizations, if and how fast you have progressed in those organizations, and how much of an impact you've had all make a difference. Generally, admissions committees are looking for young professionals with four to five years of work experience, from a wide range of industries and geographic locations, who have shown demonstrable career advancement. If that's you, you’re off to a good start.

Business schools are trying to put together the best possible MBA class. They want diverse representation in terms of location, background, and professional experience. You will not be compared to every single applicant, but you will be pitted against others from your industry. Take this into consideration when thinking about your application strategy.

2. Academic Background

Admissions officers, of course, are also looking for candidates with impressive academic backgrounds and credentials. This doesn't necessarily mean a 4.0 GPA and a perfect score on the GMAT or GRE, though these things certainly help. (Note also that you might, for instance, offset a low undergraduate GPA with a strong GMAT score.)

Top business schools want to see evidence of academic rigor—i.e. did you take the most challenging coursework and do well in your core classes, as well as demonstrations of intellectual curiosity and vitality—i.e. did you participate in academically-themed clubs or organizations during or after college? Your GPA and scores, as well as the quality of your academic experience, all contribute to your MBA candidacy.

A great way to gauge your chances of success are to compare your statistics to those of the most recent entering class of your target programs. See the average GPAs and GMAT/GRE scores of the top 25 business schools here. Aim for at least the average; if you’re below the average for one stat (low GPA, for instance), try to go above average in the other (high test score).

3. Leadership Accomplishments

Admissions committees are looking for future leaders and the surest predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Therefore, candidates with material leadership experience to their name, whether professional, personal, or otherwise, will have an advantage.

Did you take charge of a large mergers & acquisitions project for your consulting firm that resulted in a successful transaction? Did you manage your company's summer interns on a recurring basis? Did you collaborate with your professional peers to reduce your employer's carbon footprint or present important analytical dashboards to senior management?

Experiences like these, in sum, will make you a stronger MBA applicant. This is particularly important for deferred MBA applicants who have less work experience to their names, but can show leadership through clubs, internships, projects, entrepreneurial endeavors, and more.

4. Extracurriculars/Intangibles

Finally, extracurriculars and intangibles help flesh you out as a candidate and give some color to your otherwise black-and-white profile. Did you return to your old college campus for a series of lectures on a topic you're deeply passionate about? Did you help your local non-profit procure a number of academic scholarships that they wouldn't have earned without your help? Were you an active volunteer in your undergraduate alumni network, helping with fundraising and reunion planning?

Are you the first person in your family to go to college? Do you hail from an underrepresented background or industry? Do you have some unique experience that no other candidates will be able to speak about in their materials? These things can significantly boost your profile and make you a more fully realized applicant.

Of course, there are also the negative intangibles: honor code violations, marks on your criminal records, etc. These aren't deal-breakers per se, but they can make it harder to get into one of your top schools. Our advice for these is to transform your obstacles into stepping stones; explain how these experiences shaped your journey or how they helped you see something more clearly.

Once you've taken time to evaluate your own candidacy and how strong an applicant you'll be, it's time to dig into your school research.

For more information on extracurriculars, read this article: What Extracurriculars are Graduate Programs Looking For?

How to Research Top MBA Programs

To figure out which business schools to apply to, you'll need to conduct a bit of research. This is an important part of the process of choosing an MBA program and the following methods can sometimes surprise you in how valuable they turn out to be. Here's where to start:

1. Browse the Web

For each school you're considering, start with its website. All business schools have robust information about their respective programs online, including details about their curriculum, faculty, student life, application requirements, and what they're looking for in candidates. That's the first step. Once you've done that, follow up by browsing blogs, listening to podcasts, and following the social accounts of MBA graduates whose backgrounds match your own. This is a good way to get a feel for what each school has to offer, both from the schools' perspectives and from the perspective of its affiliates and alumni.

Read: The Top MBA Programs in the US (2024)

2. Chat with Students and Alumni

To conduct even more in-depth research, reach out to current and past MBA students in your network and ask them if they'd be willing to chat about their business school experience. Most will.

In fact, if you have any lingering questions about how to choose the right MBA program, current students may be able to shed some light on what made them choose the school they’re at while alumni can give a good frame of reference as to what the program did for them in terms of their career goals.

3. Make Campus Visits

Finally, if you're able, make visits to the schools you're most seriously considering. This is perhaps the best way to understand what attending that school would be like. Schedule visits when the school is actually in session, so you can attend a class if possible, and soak up the full on-campus experience.

Pro tip: Most of the experts on Leland hail from top MBA programs, and many are current students. If you're struggling to connect with current students or alumni in your own network, consider reaching out to a Leland coach and speaking with them, if only for an hour, about their application and enrollment experience. It's a small expense that could give you the information you need to say "yes" or "no" to a school. Click here for Leland's world-class MBA admissions coaches.

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How to Choose the Right MBA Programs for You

Now that you've dug into some of your potential business schools, it's time to start forming your list. As you look at schools, factors such as program type, application deadlines, competitiveness, location, academics, career opportunities, extracurriculars, and culture should be at the forefront of your decision-making based on whatever you consider most valuable.

By carefully looking into and weighing these characteristics at each school, you'll be well-equipped to narrow down your choices and move forward confidently in selecting the right MBA programs for you.

What Type of MBA Programs Should I Apply To?

First and foremost, decide on what kind of programs you're going to target. If you've committed to a fully immersive experience, and have the flexibility to move and live on a university campus, then a full-time MBA program is right for you.

Read: ​​The Different Types of MBA Programs—and Which One is Right for You

Full-Time MBA Programs

If you’re looking for a fully immersive experience and have the flexibility to move and live on a university campus, then a full-time MBA program will be the best choice for you. This traditional route offers an intensive learning environment, extensive networking opportunities, and a chance to fully integrate into the school's community of both current students and alumni. Overall, a full-time program is ideal for those looking to make a significant career shift or gain deeper business acumen within a shorter time frame.

To learn more about whether a full-time program may be right for you, read our article The Pros and Cons of a Full-Time MBA Program.

Part-Time MBA Programs

If you're advancing rapidly in your career and want to remain in your job but still want to earn your master's degree, then a part-time MBA might be the thing for you. These programs are designed to accommodate working professionals and usually offer evening or weekend classes. The best part about part-time programs? They allow you to apply what you learn in real time at your current job! It's a great option for those who need to balance work, studies, and personal life without taking a career break.

Interested in what a part-time program can offer you compared to other options? Read our articles Part-Time MBA vs. Full-Time MBA Programs and The 25 Best Part-Time MBA Programs.

Executive MBA Programs

Alternatively, if you've racked up several years of experience at your current company, and that company is willing to sponsor you, you might consider looking into some executive MBA programs. These programs specifically cater to seasoned professionals who want to enhance their leadership skills and strategic thinking. They also often feature a cohort model to provide a network of peers with similar levels of experience. Compared to part-time programs, executive MBA programs are generally more careful about minimizing disruption to your professional commitments.

If you’re curious to learn more about Executive MBA programs and how they differ from others, take a look at our articles Is an Executive MBA Worth It? A Look at the Data and What is an Executive MBA and How Is It Different From a Full-Time Program?

Online MBA Programs

Finally, if you'd like to remain in the city you’re currently living in – perhaps because of personal or family commitments – there are a growing number of online MBA programs that can offer a strong curriculum from the comfort of your own home. Because they often feature a blend of asynchronous coursework and live virtual sessions, online MBAs are at the top of the game at providing flexibility in terms of pace and location. They are ideal for self-motivated individuals looking for quality education without relocating or pausing their careers.

For more info on online MBA programs, read Everything to Know About Online MBA Programs.

Make sure you've done your homework and thought through what class of program is right for you, before deciding how many programs you should apply to…

How Many MBA Programs Should I Apply To?

How many are too many? How many is too few? How many are just right? Here are some tips on how to pick the right number of schools.

First, think about the time and effort each application takes. If you have enough flexibility in your current job, you might have time to apply to 10 or more schools. If time is a significant constraint, or you're juggling other commitments, 3 or 4 may be a more reasonable number. (Remember, too, that you can stagger your application across multiple Rounds. See: The MBA Application Timeline—With Chart and An Overview of the MBA Admissions Rounds: When to Apply to Business School.)

Next, consider applying to several different tranches of schools to increase your chances of gaining admission to at least one MBA program while also aiming high and pursuing a dream school or two without the risk of coming up empty-handed. Most people label their school choices as Reach, Target, or Safety Schools. Here’s our breakdown of how many schools we recommend you have in each category:

  • 2-3 Reach Schools: More competitive programs with higher average scores; make sure to apply keeping in mind the unique strengths that set you apart.
  • 4-5 Target Schools: Programs where your qualifications closely match the average metrics of admitted students, giving you a solid chance of acceptance.
  • 2-3 Safety Schools: Programs where your qualifications exceed the average, providing a high likelihood of acceptance and a secure option in your strategy.

Finally, think through your own personal situation. Do you have your heart set on 1 or 2 dream school programs, or would you feel comfortable going to any number of business schools? Do you have the resources to pay the application fees for 15 different programs, or would you prefer to limit yourself to a smaller number? Take all of these into consideration when choosing your target number. Then it's on to:

Which MBA Programs Should I Apply To?

Okay! Now we've arrived at the heart of the matter: which schools will you apply to? We’ve listed out some factors to keep in mind when you start to narrow down your list. Below, we've laid out the primary criteria you should consider when making your decision.

1. Deadline

First, research school deadlines. As mentioned, most business schools invite applicants to apply in three rounds, and submission dates are clustered together: Round 1 in September / October, Round 2 in January, and Round 3 in April. There are a few key exceptions though一for instance, Harvard Business School no longer accepts Round 3 applications, and you’ll want to plan accordingly. You may have big life events you need to take into account一weddings, children, a promotion at work一so start your decision-making process by simply figuring out when applications are due, and if you'll be able to meet those deadlines.

2. Competitiveness

Next, find out how competitive your target schools are. Interview and acceptance rates for most programs are readily available (you may even have compiled these during your school research). Cast a wide net, and maximize your odds of earning at least one acceptance letter. We recommend applying to a mix of safety, target, and reach schools to balance your chances.

3. Location

As a final basic metric, take note of a school’s location. You probably know that Harvard Business School is in Massachusetts and that Columbia Business School is in New York City, but give some thought to the fact that you’ll be living in that city for two or more years. (If you don’t like cold weather, those northeast winters might be a good reason to cross HBS and Columbia off your list!)

4. Academics

Once you’ve nailed the basics for your schools, research the actual experience of going there, starting with academics. Go through the notes you've compiled about the school's academic offerings, determine how important the in-classroom experience is to you, and rank your MBA programs accordingly.

Pro tip: While you’re on this step, write down the names of a few specific classes that you’d like to study (and the professors who teach them). Almost all schools ask you to write a statement or essay about why their school, in particular, excites you, and that’s a great place to show off the detailed research you’ve done about their course offerings.

Read: What Do You Actually Learn in Business School?

5. Career Opportunities

Next, think about how each school will set you up for success in reaching your career goals. Each program has a particular lean or thing they’re known for which affects the companies that recruit there. Wharton, for instance, is highly regarded for its finance curriculum and might be a good choice if you’re certain that financial management is the industry you want to end up in, whereas the Yale School of Management offers excellent opportunities for those considering careers in social impact and nonprofit industries. Prospective students should know the strengths and weaknesses of their target schools. Not only will this help you apply to the right ones, but also give you good content for your essays, interviews, and other application materials.

6. Extracurriculars

A quick scan of each school’s website will also give you a feel for what kind of clubs, activities, conferences, incubators, and leadership opportunities it offers. While you might be most concerned with academics and career prospects, don’t overlook these一they go a long way toward giving you a full, well-rounded MBA program experience.Pro tip: As with academics, while you’re here, write down the names of a few clubs and leadership opportunities you’d like to participate in. Including these in your application materials lets a school know that you’re serious about them.

7. Culture

Finally, dig around and get a sense of the flavor of each school. Yes, this is intangible, but it matters一both for your experience at the school, and for how you put your application together. Harvard Business School is well-known for its structured training in general management, whereas Stanford’s Graduate School of Business places more of a premium on entrepreneurship and motivational leadership. Connecting with MBA graduates is a great way to assess a school’s culture.

Pro tip: There are dozens of world-class coaches on Leland who are happy to chat about their experiences. If you’re interested in applying to, say, Berkeley Haas, but don’t know anyone who attended, we suggest booking an hour of time with a Haas alum and picking their brain. Speaking to someone with experience is an excellent resource to use to ensure you choose the right MBA program for you.

Make Your List, and Find an MBA Admissions Coach

All right一now you’re finally ready to put together your list! As we discussed earlier, assessing your candidacy is a crucial first step for prospective students and is especially handy when picking your Target, Reach, and Safety schools.

To help you keep track of all your criteria and all of your schools, we put together this helpful School Selection Spreadsheet. It has our recommended criteria pre-populated, so you can compare all of your prospective schools, but of course, feel free to make your own tweaks. To fill it out, simply enter in the relevant information from your research, so you have it handy in one place.

MBA Program Research & Selection Sheet

Pro tip: As you fill it out, you may also assign your own rankings to the different categories, so you can begin your selection process.

Final Note

Keep in mind that even though it may seem obvious, it’s important to keep in mind that prospective MBA students who have done more research on their potential schools are generally better equipped to write stellar applications. Thorough research not only helps you tailor your applications to each program's strengths but also demonstrates your genuine interest and commitment to admissions committees. Moreover, doing so ensures you make informed decisions about where you'll spend the next couple years of your life. That being said, take the time to research, write down, and be honest with yourself about which programs interest you the most! You want to choose the right MBA program for your background and career goals and investing the time to do so will make sure you end up where you should be.

Leland provides you with the content, community, and coaching that you need to get into your dream MBA program. Here are some other articles/resources you may find helpful:

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