The MBA Application – Which Schools should I apply to?

The MBA Application – Which Schools should I apply to?

One of the most critical decisions for those who are now getting ready to apply to MBA programs is which schools to apply to.  Many of you are absolutely sure of your application strategy, and this is an envious position to be in, but for the vast majority of the candidates, this could turn out to be quite a nerve-wracking decision that frequently changes with bits and pieces of new information.  It is natural and it happens to the best of us. We are genetically programmed to maximize the probability of reward, and new information will push us to scratch our heads.  So what should you do?

The first thing that I tell my clients is to have a diversified application strategy.  This means that you should apply to schools that are safe, within reach and ambitious for you.  This strategy is especially important for those candidates who have the most stellar profiles and those who do not want to target anything less than the top 5. Now obviously, I am not asking anyone to go to a lesser-ranked school, and why should you, but the fact remains – you can only choose where you finally go to at the time of admission, and not at the time of the application.  Given the really low acceptance rates of top schools, admissions, even for the most brilliant candidates is a matter of chance. To maximize the probability of reward, it is wise to hedge your bets.  Also, avoid taking acceptance rates at face value – most of you reading this blog belong to the Indian demographic – which means that you will be compared with the Indian pool in addition to the overall applicant pool. And acceptance rates for the Indian pool is lower that those published by business schools. At the end of the day, you really can’t go wrong with any of the top 15 schools. Applying to schools safe for you could reward you with possibilities that you otherwise could not have imagined at the application stage – such as a merit scholarship. I can’t stress enough the importance of this strategy – many a time very brilliant candidates come to me as re-applicants. When I learn more about their previous year’s applications, I can pinpoint with a fair amount of ease that their application strategy has been suboptimal. I myself fell in this trap when I was applying to MBA programs years back.  After getting the GMAT score I wanted, I applied only to two of the top 5 schools and landed up getting the ding letter from both of them.

Another piece of advice, which in continuation to the above, that I offer candidates is to focus their energies on an ideal number of schools rather than a large number of schools.  My logic to this is quality over quantity.  Given the time constraints associated with work and other commitments, applicants come to a point as which they start facing a writer’s block and lose objectivity. They rush to get things done, and ultimately don’t answer the question asked.  Often a time I have interacted with candidates who have applied to between eight and 10 schools.  When I review their applications, I can easily pinpoint that some of the applications are a cut-copy-and-paste from a previous application.  Admissions committees don’t have to be trained to gauge this sort of thing – they can easily make out whether the candidate has genuine interest, and whether he (or she) has answered the question that has been asked.  If an application makes the AdCom members feel that they are the candidate’s safety fallback option, or that the application does not display a certain amount of genuine interest in the program, they don’t feel very good – nobody wants to feel that they are unimportant! I know a candidate who once, upon receiving a rejection from a top 15 US school, sought feedback from the school’s Director of Admissions. The Director explicitly stated, ‘we don’t think you are interested in us, and we are a proud school.’ My recommendation to most candidates is four schools. In certain situations I have recommended five schools, but not beyond that.  This seems to be the ideal number for maximizing reward.

While you are considering schools and working on strategies, you may also want to pace yourself. Many a time candidates ask me whether there is any advantage to applying in R1 vs. R2.  The most clichéd answer is that you should apply when you are ready – till date it remains the best answer. At most schools R1 and R2 acceptance rates are not significantly different, and in case they are, the added advantage of the slight difference in acceptance rates will not outweigh the benefit of a better application, or a better foot forward. Many applicants who have not yet taken the GMAT ask me whether it is better to apply to the ISB in R1 or with a better GMAT score in R2. My answer is to take the GMAT before the R1 deadline, and apply if you get the required score, and postpone to R2 if you don’t.  Don’t stress over the number of GMAT attempts – while we feel it is more important to be perceived as intelligent than hardworking, this is not entirely true for the way others perceive us.  A little known AdCom secret about the GMAT is that the number of attempts has absolutely no bearing on your admissions outcome. In fact, if you have improved your score from a 600 to a 720, it is likely to be viewed with an element of awe.  You are immediately perceived as a committed and hard working person.

There are other considerations when deciding on which rounds to apply in.  You may want to take advantage of the ‘early-decision’ round at some schools, such as Columbia. In case you opt for early action, you are trading off the possibility of more opportunity in the future, for a higher chance of getting in now.  In case you have your eyes set on a top school, but are on the edge in terms of your credentials, early-decision may very well be for you.  Other considerations include awards and scholarships. If you are hoping for some sort of aid or a merit-based scholarship, some schools require you to apply by a certain deadline, which could be R1.  Given the soaring costs of a top US MBA, you might as well apply early.  At most schools, I would avoid applying in the final round, which could be R3 or R4.  Acceptance rates at most schools are significantly lower for the final round, and most students who apply during this round are those who don’t make it in the earlier rounds – AdComs know this, and are basically providing some highly qualified candidates one last opportunity to secure an admit.  Having said that, I have reason to believe that at some top schools, final round acceptance rates are at par with those at earlier rounds, or at least high enough.  These schools include Michigan, Cornell, Texas at Austin, NYU, and possibly Virginia, and Duke.

Other matters include the value proposition of the MBA program.  I almost always tell candidates that the ISB offers a fantastic value proposition – it offers state-of-the-art infrastructure, a great residential experience, fantastic placements, a plethora of international exchange programs, the opportunity to specialize in a number of subjects, and most of all, top faculty from the world’s best business schools, and all this, at a fraction of the cost.  One of the reasons I feel that the ISB has been successful in such a short span of time, is its exchange faculty model.  Many professors of Indian origin working in the US wanted to come back home to India from time to time. Their initial positive experience teaching at the ISB opened up doors to other professors exploring this option. And today, if you look at the ISB faculty roster, you will notice popular names from the likes of Wharton, Kellogg, NYU, MIT, LBS, UCLA and many others.  Having said that, let me also assure you that ISB’s own tenured faculty is par-excellence. Walk into the Operations Management course by Professor Milind Sohoni, and you will be blown away.  Take the New Product Development course by professor Arun Pereira, and I guarantee you that you will not want to budge from your seat.  A B-School is really about faculty, and kudos to them for committing their lives to achieving such depth, and making such a difference in the lives of so many.  I really hope that some of you in this new generation commit to higher learning and get PhDs.  Professors make all the difference – they are truly in a noble profession.  For the sake of not getting carried away, and coming back to the point I’m making – The ISB is an excellent value proposition. If you want to finish in 1-year and quickly get back to work without heavy debt, or if you want to live and work in India in the long run, my alma mater may very well be a great option for you.

Yet another consideration is the time you want to commit to further education.  In case you want to remain in the same industry of function, have already built a certain functional expertize, don’t want to go through the hassle of looking for an internship, or if you simply don’t want to be out of the workforce for too long, the 1-year MBA may be a good option for you.  Keep in mind that there are fewer top 1-year MBA programs, and you are better off with a few 2-year programs on your list as well.  In addition to the ISB, Insead, Kellogg, Cornell, Emory and USC Marshall offer the 1-year option.

Ironically so, I am more in favor of the 2-year program, which I feel has certain advantages.  In case you wish to build depth in a certain function and specialize, the two-year program will give you more opportunity and time to study subjects in more detail. For students wishing to work in Finance, you should to go for a 2-year program.  Finance recruitments have evolved to include a lot of weight on past experience, and hence, performance during the internship is a key parameter for evaluating candidates for post-MBA jobs.  There is a reason for why the finance heavy schools are all 2-year programs.  I’m not saying that you should totally avoid the 1-year MBA if you are a finance major – all I’m saying is that access to new opportunity and the likelihood of a desired placement will be higher at a 2-year program. Do keep in mind that no matter where you go, relevant experience and academic qualifications will play a role in how you finally fare.  If you have relevant experience and qualifications, or certifications such as the CFA, you are likely to get by with ease even at a 1-year program.

The 2-year program also has the advantage of a more holistic experience.  There are more opportunities to conclude tasks that you start, take on certain club and curricular activities in a deeper fashion, learn from 2nd year students, and enjoy the industry specific excursions and immersions. The 2-year program also provides more opportunities to network and form deeper friendships. By the time you get to know people, you have already finished one year. The 2nd year is really when you start building your friendships.

Also, you need to think about what kind of learner you are.  If you are a slow learner, and like to sleep over or philosophize over material before grasping it, the 2-year program may be of interest. But if you are a fast and intuitive learner, or that kind of engineer who has excellent visual and pictorial skills, you are likely to fare equally well at a 1-year program. Teaching methods will also play a role here.  Most of the schools adopt a mix of different styles that include case study, lectures, group work and simulations. Harvard and Darden are the only two US schools that deliver over 70% of their coursework through case studies. Cases are a type of flipped classroom, in which you do prior reading on a challenge that a company is facing, and discuss it in class with the faculty leading the discussion. If you like this sort of thing, you will be very happy with B-School no matter where you apply, because all of the schools use this method for at least part of the coursework.  Of the schools that tend to be more instruction based, Chicago, UCLA and Carnegie Mellon come to my mind. Personally, I feel that the case based method is not fitting for certain kinds of courses such as accounting, quantitative analysis and finance. Cases are more productive when everyone is class has some level of proficiency. Because this is not always the case, and grading is a result of class participation, there is a tendency for students to scramble for airtime, and this leads to random and often pointless discussions.

You may also want to reflect upon the location and size of the program. My advice on this tends to favor schools close to or in the major economic hubs of Boston, New York, Chicago and the Valley, to name a few.  It is not surprising that schools in these areas enjoy a good reputation. The ecosystems of these hubs foster mutually beneficial associations between universities and industry. Amongst other advantages, these associations lead to corporate requirements that bring about cutting-edge research, and research that is capitalized by corporations, not to mention research that has lead to the creation of successful companies. Many of the faculty members at these schools are closely linked to these organizations, and are on their boards.  Many of the faculty members are also running their own companies.  All these advantages translate into better classroom experiences and more opportunities for you, which ultimately culminate into a more effective job search.  Having said that, in case you want to enjoy some time off and live in peace and quiet, love the outdoors, or want to be free from the distractions of city life, a more intimate environment may very well bring out the best in you.  Consider Tuck, Darden and Cornell if you thrive in an intimate environment.  And then there is always the middle path; college towns that offer the best of both worlds – large enough to provide a great off-campus experience, and small enough for you to focus on the task at hand. Ann Arbor, MI and Austin, TX fit the bill here, and if this is what you want, go ahead and apply to Ross and McCombs.

You may also want to capitalize on your cultural outlook or fluency in a certain language.  If you are the kind of person who loves a multicultural environment, a European school will be a good bet.  The same holds true for those who can speak one of the EU languages. Research has indicated that knowing an additional language translates into significantly higher earnings in the long run.  You may want to exploit your strengths by taking up a job that requires you to be bilingual or trilingual.  At schools such as Insead, you will have many opportunities to interview for such jobs.

I will also urge you to look at schools that are powerhouses in their own regions but not often considered by top applicants. Schools such as Rotman in Toronto, AGSM in Sydney, and the Melbourne Business School are truly great programs, and very well respected in their own countries. If you want to work in these economies, these schools will provide better opportunity than even the most elite programs.

I have saved the most important piece of advice for the end – apply to places where you feel you belong. Ask yourself, ‘will this program provide me with an ecosystem, i.e. access to opportunity and recruiters in my desired industry, to fulfill my long-term goals?’  No matter what statistics say, you have a higher likelihood of getting into a school where you feel you belong. This is because your story and interview will naturally be in flow, and convey genuine reasoning and logical interest.  I feel that is world is progressing towards specialization. I also feel that technology is often evolving faster than it can be executed, and hence, pure generalists will be in lower demand.  Don’t view the MBA as an opportunity to create more options for yourself. Instead, have a narrower focus, and use it as an opportunity to build on what you already have a background in.  Even current psychology research has indicated that committing oneself to a single long-term goal leads to a higher probability of financial success and life happiness – so why not? If you want to work in Sports, consider Ohio University’s top ranked Sports Management MBA. If media is your calling, you may want to apply to NYU Stern. If its fashion and luxury, consider SDA Bocconi in Milan and HEC in Paris, and if you wish to work in the automotive industry, you might as well apply to the University of Michigan.

In case you are still unsure, get in touch with alums you know from schools that you are interested in.  They will be able to share insights and experiences that may aid you in your decision. There is always the option of reaching out to an admissions consulting firm – some of them have Admissions Office experience and deep information on what really goes inside business schools.  At CollegeStation, a profile review is free of cost, so why not use the opportunity!


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