Students choose to get an MBA for a variety of reasons, mostly to optimize their job opportunities and career paths. Media and accreditors alike continually offer rankings and tips to help these students make the right admissions decisions, but despite the saturation of resources, it isn't easy to identify or get into a school that "fits."
The notion of "fit" when it comes to b-schools can be sharp, such as a focus on technology, entrepreneurship or another discipline, or it can be subtle, such as the educational philosophy of faculty. Most sharp differences are easy to ascertain from a school's promotional materials, but it's the subtle differences not easily accessible to students that make a world of difference once enrolled.
Understanding the subtle differences comes down to asking the right questions - to admissions staff, faculty, students and alumni. I urge prospective students to visit each school to meet these people in person whenever possible, which can reveal nonverbal cues, surprise regarding questions and emotional responses, and give students a 360-degree understanding of an institution.
Once you secure a meeting, whether in person or virtually, what should you ask? It's important to go beyond the basics and ask the tough questions. Think of it this way: people may get married more than once in their lifetime, but they only get one MBA. Here are some of the most neglected questions you should ask to make the right choice:
What is the typical approach by professors in and outside the classroom?
Some schools require professors to have real world experience, which might mean teaching is their second job. This is great for real-world examples, but it may mean the part-time professor and full-time professional puts communicating with and educating students on the backburner. You want to know how effective professors are in the classroom, and whether they are available outside of class to answer questions, brainstorm, talk and help.
To get this information, you need to ask students and alumni for examples of the best professors' approaches and aspects of class they didn't appreciate. Whether someone is a great classroom instructor or not, determine the extent to which faculty are available to students. Do you need to make appointments to see them? Are they available beyond office hours and interested in talking to you? This information will give you a sense of a school's environment - and how you'll fit into it.
How much practice will you get?
The best sports teams practice extensively to improve their performance. Will you get the same chance to practice the skills to guarantee a great job outcome? Are students required or encouraged to work on "real-world" projects for corporations? How extensive are these opportunities?
Some schools may select an exclusive team to travel the country participating in case competitions, but these schools likely offer fewer opportunities for other students than those that encourage students to participate in less exclusive competitions. In addition to helping students learn, this kind of practice gives you the chance to decide if you really enjoy a job before you commit to it. Learning that you don't like a particular field before you graduate is a good thing. Only practice will give you the answer.
How does the program create career opportunities?
All business schools talk with pride about their job placement results in terms of percent placed and average salary. This is nice, but will not tell you what your result will be - especially if you are not the average business school student. If you are interested in a specific type of career or industry, you need to know how a b-school handles students in situations similar to yours. Is it up to you to generate an opportunity? If a school says it helped find positions for 95 percent of students after graduation, ask about the five percent they didn't place. What help is available to them? Why didn't they get jobs? Most importantly, does the school forget about those students after it files its placement statistics for the year? While prospective students won't assume they will be in the five percent without jobs, five percent of the class will be. Knowing the career services office's approach and the administration's view up front will give you a sense of whether a particular school is a good match.
Despite increasingly global competition, there are many opportunities for MBAs. Your opportunities will depend on whether or not you select a school that is the best fit for you. Do your homework. Don't assume a ranking will give you the best result. Ask the tough questions and compile the rankings that are right for you.