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MBA Applications: First steps for choosing the right business school

Over 100,000 people a year choose to study for an MBA worldwide. With young professionals recognizing that there are no “jobs for life,” an MBA can provide skills to make an individual more marketable and to provide greater career choice.

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Business schools are not all the same; you need to research your choice of school carefully to ensure that it matches your personal requirements.

MBA Applications: First steps for choosing the right business school

If you are interested in becoming an international manager you may soon join the ranks of qualified MBAs. But business schools are not all the same; you need to research your choice of school carefully to ensure that it matches your personal requirements.

The QS World MBA Tour and conduct annual research of 400 business schools, 50,000 MBA applicants and 500 MBA recruiters to assist you. Some of the findings are summarized below.

Step 1: Why should I take an MBA?

The first step is to analyze your personal motives for taking an MBA. Do you want to carry on working whilst you take your MBA, or study full-time and evaluate new career opportunities? Is a salary increase what matters, or is it international experience? Is your primary goal to broaden your education and horizons, or to develop specialist skills for career enhancement? An honest self-assessment will save you a great deal of time and energy by helping you choose a focused selection of schools.

QS Research (see table 1) demonstrates that MBA applicants around the world take an MBA for career-related reasons, to learn new skills and build a professional network, although ‘enabling a career change’ has noticeably increased in importance in recent years. Boosting salary remains only fifth most important, similar to starting one’s own business.

Table 1

To improve career prospects66%70%69%
To learn new skills60%58%54%
To build a professional network53%45%41%
To enable a career change41%43%34%
To boost salary31%32%27%
To start own business29%25%24%
Primarily for education26%23%21%

Source: Applicant Survey 2007-2009

Step 2: Identify career goals

The second thing to do when considering business school is to try to narrow down the types of career you might like to pursue, balanced by a realistic self-assessment of your skill base. Examine your motives carefully, and determining where you want to work after graduation should be a major part of this process.

Most business school application forms ask for your career aspirations; they want to see a cogent explanation of where you want to be in the future and how that school can help you get there. For example, if you want to become a management consultant with a starting compensation of over US$129,000, according to the most recent figures available – the QS Recruitment and Salary Report 2008 - there are only 50 or 60 international business schools actively recruiting, half of which are in the US. If you wish to work in a particular country, you may well be better off taking your MBA there and accessing the school’s local recruiter and alumni network locally.

Step 3: Budget and study mode

The full time MBA is still by far the most popular program in terms of candidate numbers. Part time and executive MBAs are growing, but are still quite small by comparison.

The standard period for an international full time MBA in the USA is two years. In Europe, London Business School and IESE offer a two-year program, whereas IMD, INSEAD, IE, Cambridge, Cranfield, Warwick and other leading programs are one year.

In Europe, the annual cost of an MBA can be from £5,000 to £40,000 for tuition, with books and living expenses extra. However, financial aid exists, which can make the most costly programs affordable. Scholarships are offered by a variety of organizations, and many local banks offer low-start loans for the period of your study. Individuals are advised to apply to the school of their choice and to make specific enquiries about funding options.

If you wish to carry on working during your MBA, this will narrow down your choice of schools. Part time, executive MBA and distance learning study become the only options. For example, in 2008, over 25,000 people used distance learning for an MBA or similar diploma with British institutions alone. Average costs for distance learning varied from £4,000 to £20,000, over three to eight years.

Step 4: Determining the criteria for your choice of school?

Despite the media frenzy surrounding rankings, our research suggests that candidates vary significantly in terms of the criteria which matter to them in selecting a business school. Prior to the QS World MBA Tour, candidates can review – a radically new applicant research tool which will allow them to apply their own weightings to a detailed set of selection criteria. Our research indicates that the most popular selection criteria are: Scholarship availability, Quality of Academic Staff, ROI, relevant specializations and career placement record, with rankings coming only seventh.

Table 2: Business School Selection criteria

Benchmarked :2009(2008)
Scholarships / Financial Aid1 (9)
Quality of Academic Staff2 (3)
Return on Investment3 (2)
School Specialisations3 (5)
Career Placement Record5 (1)
School Reputation6 (3)
Recent School Ranking7 (7)
Affordability7 (13)
Teaching Style 9 (11)
Accreditation Status10 (8)
Profile of Students / Alumni11 (5)
Course Length12 (12)
Convenience of Location13 (10)

Source: Applicant Research 2009

Career placement record is still a priority for many applicants; helping candidates in their job search is a key component of the MBA. Each business school has a career service department and some attract companies onto campus to interview students. Today, the majority of MBAs find their jobs through an off-campus search and over 100 business schools subscribe to TopMBA/Careers, the leading online jobs network for MBA students.

Knowing what your motivations are is the most important first step to business school success. It will get you through the interview process and stand you in good stead for your MBA and post-MBA experience. As it is such an involved process, getting it right from the start is essential. Do as much research as you can; visit the QS World MBA tour, look at Scorecard, read websites, talk to as many alumnae and admissions people as you can and move forward confidently with your choices.

This article is authored by: Nunzio Quacquarelli, Director, QS World MBA Tour. The QS World MBA Tour is the largest program of recruitment and information fairs for business school applicants.