"Career progression and greater professional options are clearly the main drivers – acquiring managerial skills that will propel you towards more senior managerial positions over the long term, and enjoying a level of mobility both geographically and across industries," he says.
Even before beginning the process of selecting a school, prospective students should know exactly what they are getting themselves into, warns one Program Director.
According to Dr. Helen Lange, MBA Program Director for Universitas 21 Global, there are many factors that need to be considered, "Not all students are suited to the same method of teaching, the same cultural environment, or the same location. Hence, there are many programs. The students must find the program which suits them the best, considering the style of teaching, the program quality and design, the location, the flexibility, the price, etc."
Deans and Program Directors say that those considering an MBA should thoroughly research those schools they are interested in, read relevant material, attend MBA fairs, speak to recruiters and, whenever possible, visit the schools.
"First, those planning on dedicating so much of their time and money to an MBA must study the programs they are interested in on the school websites," explains Julio Urgel, the Director of the European Foundation for Management Development’s EQUIS accreditation program and a former Dean of Instituto de Empresa.
"Second, get in touch independently, not through the school, with alumni of the program and ask them if they were happy there and about the program’s strengths and weaknesses. Third, look to see if the school is accredited and where it stands in the rankings," he says. "And perhaps most important, one should visit the school and attend several classes if possible."
One Dean of a European school is adamant that prospective students should insist on sitting in on classes beforehand. "The only way to find out if you and the school can benefit from each other is to take part in the program before making the decision," he argues. Rankings are often an initial starting point for potential students, although these may be deemed questionable given the different methodologies used. Dr. Helen Lange claimed "none are perfect and all provide some information, but we must be careful not to place undue weight on them". She went on to explain, "the best will be those ratings groups that go directly to the graduates as these are more likely to demonstrate the outcomes of the programs"
"Value for money is another important consideration. You can pay huge quantities of cash for a program virtually identical to another one that is much cheaper. But what you’re also getting at the more expensive school is the brand and what is most likely a well-earned reputation." claims another Professor from a leading UK school.
Mr. V. Anand Ram, Professor and Dean at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB) offers the following advice; "look carefully at the curriculum that a school offers: the breadth and depth of the courses offered and the academic rigor". He says "the quality of a program is only as good as the students that get selected. This is where rigor and selectivity of the admissions matters the most. It is one clear signal about the quality of the program".
Other business educators say that with so many MBA programs available, one starting point would be looking at accreditation – AMBA, EQUIS and AACSB – which is a simple and instructive way of narrowing the choice. Other factors such as cost and location are often down to personal budget and preference.
Guillermo Velásquez, 39, a Costa Rican MBA student at Maastricht School of Management in the Netherlands, says he had worked for 15 years as an industrial engineer in technology and innovation management when he decided to go for the degree and career goals were what made up his mind.
"I wanted an MBA in English so I can increase my expertise working in a bilingual environment and some European friends suggested looking into programs in the Netherlands as the Dutch have historically been very good international business people. "After looking at three programs in the Netherlands, I chose Maastricht because they offer an MBA with a focus on Strategy and Economic Policy with lectures covering topics I’m interested in like innovation and strategic management" Velásquez explains.
THE SCHOOL’S TURN TO CHOOSE
The next step is the all important application process and Matt Symonds says that business schools use “a variety of different elements to give them an all round assessment of a candidate and while no one area guarantees your place in the school, each component contributes to an overall portrait of your ambitions, values, academic ability and achievements, both professional and personal.
"For those accustomed to a selection process based on competitive entrance exams where the top percentage is guaranteed a place, the admissions process for MBAs presents a very different model," he explains.
"Sure, you have tests like the GMAT to evaluate basic quantitative and verbal skills, but the GMAT is not an exam that guarantees acceptance for those with the highest scores" according to Symonds, who adds that academic ability, professional experience and personal history are also important criteria for schools when it comes to choosing which students will make the cut for the next intake.
Dr. Helen Lange comments, "We are looking for those with the aptitude for senior management - for more strategic thinking. Our students come from all different cultures, different industries and have very different management experience. The richness of the program comes from this diversity". She goes on to explain, "There are no "right" management solutions - our MBA uses problem based learning where students are encouraged to think about solutions to very new problems"
"We’re hearing that applications are again up this year at MBA programs for next fall’s intake after a significant drop off last years," Julio Urgel explains. "There are many factors involved in this fluctuation but it is mostly due to the ups and downs of the economy."
Whatever the reasons behind these fluctuations, more applications means that schools can be choosier in whom they pick for the next intake. Therefore, solid preparation is key. At Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB) “the long and short of it is, that we look to see if the candidate can benefit and do well academically in our curriculum, as well as be in a position where others can benefit from him/her in and out of the classroom" says Mr. V. Anand Ram.
Prof. Nicolas Mottis the Dean for MBA programs at France’s prestigious ESSEC, urges students to prepare thoroughly for the interview with the school of their choice.
"Think about your aspirations, desires, original experiences and project,” he advises. Be ready to explain why you are here and what you want to realize."
ESSEC officials receive on average more than 4,300 applications for just 520 slots in their MBA program and the most important criteria are the candidate’s academic records and, of course, the interview.
"The one-hour interview is carried out by a jury of three persons: a faculty member, an alumnus and a corporate representative. As we put a big stress on personal projects, the outcome of this meeting is key. It allows us to explore the aspirations and potential of the candidate in a very open way," he explains.
At the University of Strathclyde Graduate School of Business, which receives between 250 and 300 applications for 65 places, Admissions Officer Meg Lavery says there is no one criteria which has more importance in the selection process.
"The Admissions Committee does look at qualifications, references and work experience along with self-reflective essay answers that the applicant provides,” she says. “These are all discussed at the interview with a member of the staff."
"In the application itself which we receive before we schedule an interview with a prospective student, we would advise that when providing supporting information for the MBA application, try to provide a balance between academic, career experiences and personal aspirations and goals," explains the admissions officer.
"We are interested in the person as a whole and want to find out about what they can contribute to the program and what they believe they will take away from their time here in Glasgow."
PAYING FOR IT ALL
MBA students invest not only between one and two years of their lives in their degree, but also a lot of money. Annual tuition alone can cost between $9,500 and $60,000, according to Nunzio Quacquarelli, the editor-in-chief of TopMBA Career Guide and cofounder of World MBA Tour. And then there are further costs like living, travel, books and research materials.
But how to pay for it all? The more fortunate students are sponsored by their employers who, of course, expect a return on their investment. Others use their own savings, borrow the money or receive scholarships, either from the business school itself or from other sources.
"There are many funding options ranging from educational loans, career development loans, scholarships and corporate sponsorship," according to Quacquarelli. "Surprisingly, few who take full-time MBAs are sponsored by companies because most people want to keep their options open. By far the most popular MBA financing method is an education or career loan and increasingly, the terms of these loans are dependent on the choice of a business school.
At ESSEC, 40 percent of students get financial support: 30 percent through an apprenticeship system (in which a company pays a monthly salary and covers the tuition fees) and 10 percent receive one of the 220 scholarships awarded every year.
"We also have special arrangements with a bank for student loans and finally, many students work part time," says Prof. Mottis. "To sum it all up, we try to make sure that money is not an issue: we tell the candidates that the key objective is to be admitted, there are many ways to fund their studies if they are good."
Universitas 21 Global are finding that year on year the number of corporately funded students is increasing. Currently 37% of their students are sponsored by their employers.
At the University of Strathclyde Graduate School of Business, Admission Officer Meg Lavery says that most people joining the MBA are “self-funded although employer sponsorship accounts for approximately 50 to 60 percent of those studying on the part-time or flexible learning routes.
"We can provide details for self-funded applicants on both Career Development and the Association of MBAs loan schemes. Applicants can apply through a free phone number for an information pack and eligibility criteria,” she says. “On application, we can also advise on the range of both external and Graduate School of Business scholarships which are merit based."
Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB) feel that bank loans are easily available and any student who gets selected to the program will be able to get them.
Whatever way you may choose to pay for this most important investment in your future, remember that Deans and Directors all stress that it pays to select the best program for you and your needs and to do your very best in the application process.