Choosing the right MBA has never been tougher. With over 1500 business schools in the US and Europe alone and new ones opening almost daily across the globe, identifying the right school to match your goals and aspirations is not easy. Only a fraction will be suitable. Get it right and the rewards will be immense. Get it wrong – you'll have wasted an opportunity of a lifetime.
"Today, an MBA is the most prestigious qualification in the world" says Nunzio Quacquarelli, Director of World MBA Tour. "It offers the potential for talented young professionals to place themselves in the shop window for the highest paying recruiters in the world".
But success post-MBA depends on you making the right decisions pre-MBA.
"Remember your whole MBA experience and your life post-MBA could be vastly different depending on your choices of the type of MBA and the school you attend" says Dr. Joern Meissner, Academic Director of Manhattan Review.
Taking an MBA is like buying a house - it can cost you a vast amount, plunge you in to serious debt but should in the long term pay off handsomely. So how should you go about identifying the right school?
Work out your goals
First, before you begin, make sure your career-related goals and personal considerations are well-defined. Identify a range of schools that meet your needs, and compile a select list to which you will apply. Eliminate any schools that do not closely match your personal and professional goals.
"Find an MBA program that meets your academic and career goals, and matches your expectations - in terms of class size, academic support, curriculum, and career services" says Grady G. Gauthier of the University of California, Riverside Extension.
"You should look for credibility. So either the programme or the university should be renowned" says Professor Bill Rees, Director of the Amsterdam Business School. "Look at who actually teaches in the area in which you want to specialise.You may learn a lot more being supervised in a research project run by a star marketing researcher than by studying an MBA specialising in Marketing where they are just taking you through the text books."
Research is vital. Start by requesting brochures, looking at a school's website, and making direct contact with an admissions office. "If at all possible, arrange for a campus visit and talk to current students to get an insider's view" says Dr Meissner.
Remember quality counts
Second, choose only schools and programs known for their high quality - as these give the best benefits in terms salary hikes, job opportunities, personal development, and know-how skills. "Good school quality and reputation are assurances of a return on investment upon graduation; low-quality programs are not likely to offer the kinds of benefits and opportunities high-quality programs do", according to a survey by the UK Association of MBAs, based on interviews with 6000 students who graduated in 2004.
You get what you pay
Third, do not let the cost of the top schools deter you from applying to them. Frequently the more expensive a school is, the better the quality its program and the better the return will be on your investment. A school with lower tuition fees may suggest a quicker return on investment. But the best returns tend to come from the top schools where the fees are among the highest. Why? Largely, because in the eyes of the highest paying employers, there is no substitute for the top quality MBA programs in the top schools.
Fourth, remember help with funding the cost of your MBA can come in many forms. You may be lucky enough to get support from your employer – 50 per cent of MBA graduates had all their course fees by their workplace last year, according to AMBA. Otherwise consider other sources of funding. Some schools will provide positions as teaching assistants and in return pay you or as in the case of Tanaka Business School at Imperial College, London, reduce your fees.
"Look at those progams that have made deals with banks that are willing to extend good lending parameters to finance the MBA education", advises Dr. Joern Meissner of Manhattan Review. "Get a nice internship and lock in a job early. The sign-on bonus and summer savings alone can sometimes pay for the second year education."
Consider too applying for a scholarship or grant from the school itself. But note the criteria for these can vary greatly. Some business schools target participants from particular countries. For example, Edinburgh Business School gives four scholarships for applicants from South America and Africa. The Indian School of Business has two awards sponsored by the Anand Group and Novartis - only available to women. One of the newest sources of scholarships is the international business school information fair, the World MBA Tour. In addition to meeting Admissions Directors from over 300 business schools, candidates who visit the fair in 2006 will qualify to apply for over US$1,300,000 of exclusive scholarships from schools such as Wharton, Politecnico di Milano, Instituto de Empresa, Nijenrode and Ashridge Business School.
Fifth, do not forget that taking an MBA can have a major impact on not just your finances but on your lifestyle, your family, and on where you live. You need to weigh up how important factors such as geography, location and course flexibility are for you.
Online MBA programs vary in their quality of delivery and content. So it is vital you shop around and research your program and school thoroughly before committing
If a top priority is to gain international experience or exposure to foreign cultures you may find a school overseas attractive. This has become increasingly popular as on top of the benefits of a specific program, the added dimension of studying in a foreign country can be of immense value. If programs located on one campus appear too limiting, a specialist school like the World Mediterranean MBA, based in Marseille, may be the answer. It runs a nine month course that rotates students every six weeks from one city to another along the Mediterranean. Students take classes in seven countries in cities as varied as Beirut, Milan and Casablanca.
If you need to study from home and at your own speed consider an Online MBA. This can you all the flexibility you require. However, there are drawbacks. "Online MBAs do not allow students to benefit from the ideas and approaches of other participants", says Dr Trevor J Johnson, Dean of Lausanne Business School. You also miss out on the networking and schmoozing as well as courses on presentation skills and negotiating. Online MBA programs vary in their quality of delivery and content. So it is vital you shop around and research your program and school thoroughly before committing.
Alternatively you might consider taking an Executive MBA. These parttime courses allow students to continue working and so do not create the same financial pressures as a full time course. They are also attractive to employers who are keen to benefit from an employee's participation in an MBA course and eager to retain their services. According to Jeanette Purcell, CEO of AMBA, Executive MBA programs are expected to eclipse full-time MBAs in the near future. But they are not for the faint-hearted - as you need to set aside at least 15-20 hours each week for some combination of classroom work, computer and research efforts, and course assignments.
Getting in - GMAT
Sixth, before applying for a school, consider "Have I got what it takes to get in to this program?"
With many schools reporting an increase in applicant numbers for their 2006 programs, competition for places at leading schools is fierce. Most schools will require you to take the GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test) as part of the admissions process. Whilst the GMAT average at many of the top schools is above 670, the range of scores accepted by the schools is often from 600 to 740.
The better the in-take in to your year, the better your network and the more stimulating you will find the course
"Beware of courses that are too easy to enter", says Professor Bill Rees, Director of Amsterdam Business School. The better the in-take in to your year, the better your network and the more stimulating you will find the course.
Remember too, that, a great GMAT score does not guarantee acceptance - it is just one of a number of criteria used to ensure your suitability for the program. "A candidate has to display a level of motivation and thoughtfulness and convince the school of their academic excellence, their professional potential, and the personal contribution that they can make to the program", says Matt Symonds, Co-Founder and Director, of World MBA Tour.
Seventh, ask yourself "Will I fit in to the culture of the school?"
No two B-Schools are alike. Schools like Harvard stress competition, others emphasise teamwork like IMD in Lausanne. Some B-schools are extremely demanding, a number have become "MBA ‘lite'" as they struggle to maintain intake, warns Professor Rees. "A good school should be a work hard, play hard experience."
According to Dr. Francois d'Anethan, Dean of United Business Institutes, Brussels:
"The philosophy or culture of a business school is almost as - if not more - important than its curriculum, alumni network or its ability to secure job placements. The MBA program is not just a program, it's an experience. It's about working together, sharing experiences and knowledge, it's about teaming up with fellow students from all walks of life, it's about communicating with a great diversity of professors and it's about growing personally."
Eighth, take a look at the ranking league tables and a school's accreditation.
Rankings can and do play a key role in simplifying the process of choosing a school. The results are often confusing and conflicting. This infuriates some business school deans – as an institution's ranking crucially depends on the criteria used by the list maker. Some rely on post MBA salary data, others a school's reputation amongst recruiters, a number on opinion data from graduates.
Rankings can and do play a key role in simplifying the process of choosing a school
Sometimes there is hardly any difference between two schools and yet they could be ranked thirty places apart. No wonder Ronald S.J. Tuninga, Director Dean, Maastricht School of Management, warns "it can take a degree in market research to understand some of the rankings!"
Professor Bill Rees of Amsterdam Business School agrees, adding that rankings are of limited value because "they agree only on which are the top half-dozen schools - below that applicants are their own".
Flawed or not, "rankings are here to stay" says Matt Symonds. That's why his company, QS, which runs the www.topmba.com website, has compiled its own list of "best" schools. But, the more ranking lists proliferate and differ, the less attention students are likely to pay them in future.
A growing trend for schools to seek accreditation, says Ping Shek, a successful London-based financier who recruits MBA graduates. "This partly is a reaction to the on-going controversy over rankings tables and partly because accreditation can be a genuinely helpful way of assessing the quality of a Business School."
AMBA's Jeanette Purcell says accreditation will become the norm as the MBA market evolves. "The next ten years will see some business schools close down their MBA programme," says Purcell. "The unaccredited MBA does not have a future".
AMBA itself has accredited around 40 of the 118 business schools in the UK and 26 on the European continent. The AACSB (the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business) which was founded in 1916 is the oldest accreditation body. It has accredited 424 schools worldwide. EQUIS (European Quality Improvement System) has accredited 84 institutions in 28 countries.
Some schools are accredited by all three. Others by none. "If a school has not been through accreditation it does not mean the school is not good" says Jonathan Slack of the Association of Business Schools. It may be that a particular business school does not feel it needs the credibility that comes from accreditation. But as accreditation gathers pace, says Ping Shek, those MBA programmes from lesser well-known schools may attract fewer quality students and have worse recruitment profiles. The MBA market will just assume - rightly or wrongly – that such institutions do not meet accreditation requirement.
No one else to blame but...
In the end, your choice of business school comes down to you. If, after all your research, you remain undecided, try a SWOT analysis. That, after all, is what your professor would teach you in your first lesson at business school.