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 March 12, 2024

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Okay—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 determining which schools are right for you, and why, is an incredibly important step.

First, applying to business schools is 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.

Assessing 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.

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 4 to 5 years of work experience, from a wide range of industries and geographic locations, who have shown demonstrable career advancement. If that's you, then your bases are covered from a professional perspective.

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 stronger quantitative GMAT score.)

Top business schools want to see evidence of academic rigor—i.e. did you take the most challenging coursework, did you 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.

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 a number of 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.

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.

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 research. 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.

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 b-school experience. Most will.

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 coaches 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. Here are the main things to consider:

What Type of MBA Programs Should I Apply To?

First and foremost, decide on what kind of programs you're targeting. 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.

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.

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 executive MBA programs.

Finally, if you'd like to remain in the city you're currently living, perhaps because of personal or family commitments, there are a growing number of online MBA programs that can offer a robust curriculum from the comfort of your own home.

Make sure you've done your homework and thought through what class of program is right for you, before deciding:

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. Click here for A Comprehensive MBA Application Timeline.)

Next, consider applying to several different tranches of schools. That might mean 2 or 3 schools that are hyper-competitive and more of a "reach," 2 or 3 schools that are within range, and 2 or 3 "safety" schools where you have a high likelihood of admission. (Remember, you're trying to maximize the chance that you're admitted to at least one school.)

Finally, think through your own personal situation. Do you have your heart set on 1 or 2 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? 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一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.
  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 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 your career. Each program has a particular lean, a 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.
  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 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 alumni 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.

Make Your List, and Find an MBA Admissions Coach

All right一now you’re finally ready to put together your list!

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.

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

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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