Last week, we asked the important question–“How do I know if business school is right for me?”
This week, we’re taking the next step, and discussing everything you need to know to choose the best business school for you! This is a big decision and one that could have a major bearing on your future career and earning power. So before you pull up the usual list of best business schools, make sure you know exactly what it is that you’re looking for.
Business schools come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of prestige. It’s up to you to decide which school offers the right balance of atmosphere, opportunity and compatibility. But what exactly should you be looking for in the right business school? What factors matter most when it comes to finding the right MBA? And how can you be sure that you get your money’s worth out of the business school you select?
Read on to find out.
10 Factors to Consider When Looking for Business Schools
Where you get your advanced business education matters, and that’s not just because the reputation of your degree granting institution is so important (although it definitely is). There’s actually a lot more to it than that. Factors like geography, cost, and specialization will also factor into your decision. See which factors current MBA students see as the most important when choosing a graduate school.
1. Reputation and Prestige
When it comes to choosing a university for your MBA, prestige remains the single most consequential factor for prospective students. Reporting on a survey of more than 750 GMAT-takers from the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School, Forbes indicates that a business school’s prestige ranked as the number one most important factor to applying students by nearly twice the next factor.
Students searching for the best business school for their needs tend to apply the heaviest weighting to the prestige factor. And this finding is one that has actually been consistent for years. According to Forbes, “As in prior studies, Prestige ranked first once again among attributes considered in choosing an MBA program, outranking attributes with tangible benefits such as MBA Starting Salaries and Net Cost (Tuition Less Financial Aid). This result is consistent with the characterization of MBA education wherein prospective students rely heavily on a school’s reputation before applying.”
There are likely a few reasons for that. First and foremost, we must acknowledge that rankings play a major role in the way schools are perceived by students, hiring companies, and the general public. Publications like U.S. News & World Report (USNWR) drive a great deal of attention toward those institutions that reach the top of their rankings.
Institutions like the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University, and Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania typically enjoy the top positions on the USNWR’s annual rankings.
These rankings are typically highly publicized and often help to solidify the impression of certain institutions as being elite. Naturally, this impression carries a great deal of weight with prospective applicants. But how much should it matter to you?
Well, the reality is that impressions are more than just symbolic. Business schools that carry this type of prestige with students and rankers carry just as much prestige with employers. This is why attending a top business school with positive brand recognition will open a lot of doors, professionally speaking.
And as the Forbes article concludes, prestige is not about rankings, per se. It is the success of a school’s alumni that really confers prestige. This is a conclusion that we will explore with greater depth here throughout.
But for now, suffice it to say that carrying a name like Booth, Kellogg or Wharton on your resume will do more than just get your foot in the door for an interview. Many of the top corporate employers and Fortune 500 companies will actively seek out these names when courting candidates.
So going to a prestigious school can be a pretty big deal, right? Well, it doesn’t come cheap. The top business schools can easily cost between $100,000 and $200,000 when full time tuition, housing, and expenses are totaled up. That’s not exactly the kind of money that most people have lying around.
Naturally, if you do earn an MBA from a school like Booth or Wharton, you will see a dramatically increased earning potential. In a previous article, we asked whether or not an MBA was worth the considerable cost. Based on the wage premium both upon entering your field and over the course of a lifetime, the answer was yes. The MBA is definitely worth it. Moreover, an MBA from a top school–the kind with international prestige–carries an even greater wage premium.
But that doesn’t mean everybody can afford the cost upfront, or that you personally should take on the type of student debt that comes with a top-dollar MBA program. It is noteworthy that students who earn their MBA from any kind of fully-accredited, full-time MBA program will earn more during their career than their counterparts with just a college degree in business.
This is to suggest that you do actually have some options when it comes to the cost of business school. Yes, the MBA is the most expensive master’s level degree you can get, coming in at more than $60,000 for the average business school degree. But there are also accessible and accredited MBA programs that can cost as little as $20,000 to $30,000. Some institutions cut costs by providing no-frills, non-residential, and online graduate degree programs.
Granted, if you get into the Booth School of Business, it would probably be advisable to find a way to pay for it. The opportunities afforded by the top schools are simply too great to pass up. As noted above, prestige is the top consideration for a reason.
Otherwise though, you actually have a lot of options and various different price points. Always do your due diligence to ensure that any institution you’re considering is reputable and offers a credible degree. But shop within your budget, and remember that you will one day need to repay any loans you take out today.
Of course, the reality is that only a select few individuals will get into the top business schools in the nation. For every student that gains admission to Harvard University, Stanford University, and the Massachusetts Institute Sloan School of Management, thousands of other students will take advantage of accessible public university options, affordable MBA programs through small, local business schools, and flexible online business degree programs.
Indeed, only a select few applicants will gain admission into the top business school programs every year. Before you start sending applications out to Yale University, the University of Michigan, or York University in the U.K., see how your undergraduate grades and GMAT test scores stack up against others who have gained admission to these top programs.
In blunt terms, one of the major factors that will determine the right business school for you is whether or not you can actually get in. Be honest with yourself about the schools that offer the best balance of excellence and personal accessibility. Identify Target, Reach and Safety schools, just as you would if you were pursuing an undergraduate degree. And look for schools that enroll students with similar academic metrics to your own.
Of course, if you’re looking for a little help, you may consider enlisting an MBA admissions consultant. Admissions coaches may be able to help you refine your business school search and even enhance your odds of getting into some of the top schools by raising test scores and improving your application.
Once you have a sense of which schools are in your range, you’ll want to consider the actual physical location of your school. This decision will be based on a combination of personal preference and professional ambition.
Where personal preference is concerned, you’ll want to decide on the type of environment where you feel you will do your best work, whether you see yourself in a metropolitan city, a small university town, or a more rural setting. Likewise, do you prefer a large academic community or a small one? Take these factors into account as you get a little closer to making your selection. Business school is challenging enough. Make sure you choose a destination where you can enjoy a sufficient quality of life, while remaining focused on your courses.
Of course, you’ll also want to consider the connection between geography and your field of study. Many universities have close ties to the industries that surround them. As a result, some schools of business offer exceptionally strong or prestigious programs in specific disciplines like accounting, economics, executive leadership and more.
As Fortuna Admissions says “Geography influences ties to recruiters and school strengths, not to mention the community environment. It’s not surprising that London Business School, Columbia, and Chicago Booth have excellent reputations in finance. Similarly, schools in California benefit from ties to startup and technology hubs in Silicon Valley. Europe provides a gateway to fields such as biotech, aerospace, and luxury brand management, while schools in Asia are on the doorstep of the world’s most dynamic, growing economies.”
Consider the connection between your area of study and the location of your program. Indeed, the benefits of attending a school with, for instance, a technology focus in a technology rich locale are considerable. These benefits might include chances to engage with top professionals working in the field today, instruction from professors with direct connections to the private sector, and immediate opportunities for job placement in your field upon graduation, or even before program completion.
In other words, the location of your school may even dictate the location where you work after earning your MBA. Seeing as how you could be there for a while, get off on the right foot by choosing a university in a location where you can see yourself living for the foreseeable future.
5. Employment Prospects
Speaking of job placement, this is one of the most essential benefits of earning your MBA. Business School graduates enjoy significantly higher earning potential, job security, and post-graduate employment rates, not just than their counterparts with an undergraduate degree in business, but also their contemporary master’s degree holders in other fields.
In other words, the perceived promise of earning a master of business administration degree is its proven employment advantages. Be sure that any program you consider has a strong track record of delivering on this promise. In addition to carrying prestige and creating networking opportunities, business schools offer numerous direct pathways into employment. Many of the best business schools are noteworthy for the access they provide to job placement through channels like internships, internal job boards, and, of course, the power of personal relationships.
According to the U.S. News & World Report, the top MBA programs have a nearly perfect record of job placement. Among 149 business schools surveyed, the average employment rate among 2022 graduates at the three-month mark was a stellar 86.4%. Of those schools, 15 reported a 100% rate of employment at the three month mark. 48 schools said that 80% of their graduates had already landed a job by the time of their graduation.
In other words, excellent schools also do an excellent job of helping their grads take the next steps. Be sure you take this into consideration when conducting your search. How have former students fared upon graduation and what does this have to do with you? Better employment records suggest a combination of greater prestige, real-world preparation, and networking potential.
These factors are critical in terms of understanding the type of weight your MBA will carry in the real world. Fortuna Admissions counseling advises, “You’ll want to be confident that your favored schools are well-positioned to help advance your career vision. Talk to alumni and learn about their experiences with the career services team, campus visits from potential employers and recruitment events. Is the career services team proactive in reaching out to personal contacts and alumni networks? What opportunities exist to participate in career treks? Be sure to review at each program’s career and employment reports, looking beyond starting salaries to examine career statistics and recruiter data.”
When you ultimately select the program that feels right for you, you’ll want to be sure it has the potential to deliver on not just your educational goals but your career goals as well.
6. Alumni Network
As it happens, one of the very best ways to advance your professional goals is to become involved with a powerful alumni network. The best business schools boast expansive networks made up of graduates from decades of graduating classes. These graduates often rise to positions of influence and expertise in their fields.
In many ways, these graduates share a direct relationship with the prestige of their institutions. Just as the brand name recognition of an elite school can help to secure future professional opportunities, those who seize these opportunities help to expand, preserve or reinforce the visibility of their alma maters.
Alumni Networks are often a window into just how pervasive this visibility and influence are for a given institution. That’s why, according to Financial Times, it’s a good idea to “find out how active and widespread the alumni network is. These groups can provide valuable support, career advice and information long after you graduate.”
Indeed, this is one of the many ways that your MBA may open professional doors for you. Involving yourself in a robust business school alumni network can yield valuable insights, relationships, and opportunities. As you go out into the world and seek your path forward, being a part of a strong alumni network can serve as a constant source of personal connection. And with that personal connection may come chances for recognition, recruitment, and professional advancement.
So as you evaluate business schools, think of the alumni network as another window into how graduates fare after earning their graduate degree. Not only can information about each school’s alumni network yield valuable insights on post-graduate employment prospects. It can also lead to even more valuable long-term connections.
7. Teaching Methodology, Reputation and Quality
Returning to the Forbes article, which reports on a survey of 750 GMAT-takers at the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School, we come across one surprising finding. While prestige unsurprisingly ranked first among factors that MBA applicants considered important when choosing a business school, the second-ranked factor was somewhat less predictable.
According to Forbes, Quality of Teaching was ranked as the second most important factor when selecting the right business school. This factor slightly edges out the third-place finisher, Starting Salary. For the majority of students, the reputation of faculty members, the quality of the curriculum, and the teaching methodologies employed all played heavily into the ultimate decision of where to apply.
There’s an important reason for this. Elite business schools will often feature faculty and professors with their own measure of prestige in the private sector. For many applicants, the professorship of a given institution can represent the chance to interact with, learn from, and even receive professional support from some truly influential business figures. For many MBA candidates, a faculty of rock star professors can carry almost as much appeal as the prestige of the school itself.
8. Programs and Specializations
One of the reasons the business degree is so popular is because of its versatility. You can choose from a variety of concentrations as an MBA candidate. If you’re just looking for a solid foundation in business leadership and management, you can likely achieve this at any reputable university. However, if you do have your heart set on a specific concentration, where you apply does matter.
Some schools have very specific and unique programs. Others may not have a fully developed program in your area of study. Others still may offer a bit of everything. Take this into consideration before you decide where to earn your MBA.
For instance, the Rady School of Business at UC San Diego specializes in the scientific aspects of business management. The Tuck School at Dartmouth College emphasizes areas like finance and consulting. Then, of course, larger institutions like the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at University of Michigan–Ann Arbor offer an absolutely expansive array of concentrations in accounting, human resources, marketing, operations management, healthcare administration, entrepreneurship, portfolio management, and much more.
If you’re undecided on your concentration or you’re seeking a multidisciplinary experience, you may wish to choose a larger institution with a wide selection of concentration offerings. Wherever you choose to go, bear in mind that each school’s unique set of specializations can carry a great deal of significance not just in terms of your access to education but in terms of your access to top experts in the field and a thriving post-graduate job market.
As Fortuna Admissions notes, “Many programs have reputations in specific areas such as technology, real estate, entrepreneurship, non-profit, finance or luxury goods. They might have an incubator luring venture capital for entrepreneurs or offer immersion-learning internships for NGO experience.”
This means that by choosing a business school with a unique specialization, you would have the chance to interact with professors, industry leaders, and innovators at the bleeding edge of your field. In addition to providing an enriching and exciting learning space, this is the type of experience that can also lead to immediate post-graduate opportunities at the top of your field.
9. Program Format
While a great deal of our attention has been given to prestige and program quality, there are also several practical considerations that bear noting. Many MBA candidates are working professionals who are already several years into their careers. For those who wish to earn this advanced degree without derailing their professional progress, flexibility may be of even greater importance than prestige.
This is a major reason for the rapid growth in the availability and popularity of accredited online business degree programs in recent years. For those who are both working full time and considering an MBA, online business schools offer various flexible options that can be adapted to a variety of working schedules. Whether you consider a hybrid option that mixes online courses with in-person instruction, or you choose a fully online business degree, you may be able to exercise greater control over the pace of your business degree program.
This could take the form of asynchronous instructional methods like pre-recorded lectures, self-paced learning modules, and social media-based class discussions. Or you could attend live, off-peak hour online lectures and class discussions. Some MBA programs will offer online classes on nights and weekends to accommodate the needs of working professionals.
As you weigh your options, consider the benefits of an online business degree. If you have a busy schedule, a full time job, or you’re just looking to cut down on peripheral expenses like housing and transportation, consider some of the best online business schools for earning your MBA.
10. Program Length
Another consideration, one that often goes hand in hand with online learning, is the length of your program. The traditional MBA is usually a two-year program for full time students. However, for working professionals seeking the fastest pathway to a post-graduate degree, there are various accelerated business degree options worth considering.
In some cases, you may be able to earn your MBA in as little as 12 months. But before you choose this path, be sure that you are prepared for longer lecture periods, a more rigorous pace, and a great deal of independent work. If you think you are up to the challenge, you may be able to complete an accredited accelerated program in just a year.
If you’re ready to pursue your MBA but you’re not exactly sure what you want to study, you may want to start with a look at a few high paying concentrations. Jump to our list of the business majors with the highest salary.