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Choosing an MBA program will be among the most important career decisions you will ever make. Selecting the exact program that fits your needs will impact on your professional life and the choices available over the years, your income for decades to come and perhaps, if you are set on an international career, even the country where you may spend much of your life.
There are hundreds of business schools around the world and even more MBA programs on offer. Ranging from general MBAs, to Executive MBAs and also a selection of highly specialized programs. So sifting through the available choices is a formidable task.
"There are over 100,000 people every year who enter an MBA program, and they will all have different motivations and criteria with which they judge the different business schools," according to Matt Symonds, author of "Getting the MBA Admissions Edge" and co-founder of the World MBA Tour.
"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. (See Table One).
Even before beginning the process of selecting a school, prospective students should know exactly what they are getting themselves into, warns Dr. Stuart Dixon, the Program Director for the Euro MBA at Open Universiteit Nederland.
"It is a relatively easy decision to want an MBA, but it is quite something else to do one. Commitment is essential and applicants must be aware that they will be working in some cases 15-20 hours per week over a two-year period. Can they make this kind of commitment?"
Deans and Program Directors say that those considering an MBA should thoroughly research those schools they are interested in, read relevant publications, 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."
|MBA Study Motivation
|To enable a career change
To improve career aspects
To boost salary
To start own business
To learn new skills
|Table One. Source: TopMBA.com Applicant Research 2003
Dr. Trevor Johnson, the Dean of Business School Lausanne, 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.
Many other vital factors can figure in choosing a school, including location and price, according to Martin Parker, Professor of Organisation and Culture at the University of Leicester's Management Centre.
"If I were a student, I would try to study in a fairly cosmopolitan environment because business is becoming increasingly global. Preferably the school would be in a different country and have a diverse faculty and student body," Parker says. "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."
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, the 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.
Personal reasons were the deciding factor in choosing a school for Courtney O'Neil, an American MBA candidate at ENPC in Paris who narrowed the field down to five schools in the French capital where she wished to study.
"I was concerned with the international reputation of the schools as I plan to work in France but I might some day return to the United States," she says. "After researching the various programs I set up appointments with the schools a year before the courses began. What impressed me most about ENPC was the personal approach with every contact I had here, as well as how international the faculty is."
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.
François d'Anethan, the Dean of United Business Institutes in Brussels which receives around 500 applications each year for its class of 120 MBA students, says his priority when selecting students is professional background.
"For us, the number of years of professional experience is important. The average age of our students is 32 and we have students ranging from 26 to 52 years old," says the Dean. "When it comes to teamwork in the classroom and case studies, experience and maturity make a clear difference.
"We also take into account the essay for their application and I would advise them to summarize their expectations regarding the program. They should clearly explain what they want whether it is sharing experience, exploring the topics, acquiring more knowledge or personal development. When students define precisely what they want from the program, it helps them immensely."
At the Euromed MBA program at Marseille Ecole de Management in France, Director Prof. Gerard Mitilian describes the application process there as fairly typical of business schools with a required GMAT score of 550 and three years of professional management experience, plus a well-received interview and five essays.
"In the process, we assess what the students want from an MBA and if that goal coincides with our program," says the professor. "We are also looking for open-mindedness and an ability to work in a team."
Professional background counts at the University of Glasgow Business School, according to Director of Teaching Dr. Martin Beirne, who emphasizes that "evidence of managerial and supervisory experience is essential for a prospective student to be selected.
"Formally our requirement is for at least three years of practitioner activity, founded upon a good honors degree. Since participants come from a range of backgrounds and different countries, we specify additional prerequisites as necessary at an early stage of the application process.
"Typically, applicants with English as a foreign language will have an IELTS score in excess of 6.5. Concentrated access courses are offered for those who have not previously studied management or have limited coverage from their first degree."
Andrea Benocci, Database and Research Director of the Master in Corporate Finance program at SDA Bocconi in Milan says besides a student's GMAT and TOEFL scores for non-native English speakers, and academic and professional CVs, his school asks for a statement of motivation explaining why they want to study there.
"We're looking for talented individuals who want to empower their careers," he says. "If we have a borderline candidate or there is some doubt, we'll schedule and interview with them either here with us in Milan or with one of our alumni in the country where they live."
For U.S.-bound students who might need a little extra polish to their CVs before applying at a business school, the University of California – Irvine offers within its English and Certificate Programs for Internationals, an MBA prep course, along with certificates in Global Operations Management, Marketing, Business Analysis and other disciplines.
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.
"The majority of our students finance their MBA through an interest-subsidized loan that is available to Canadian citizens and permanent residents," says Cheryl Millington, Director of MBA Admissions and Recruiting at Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. "There are also scholarships, up to the full cost of tuition, available to international and domestic students."
At Rotterdam School of Management, Mike Page, the Dean of MBA Programs and Executive Education, says that most students are self-financed, usually with accumulated cash.
"Many of our MBA candidates have been working for a while in their professions and use their savings to pay for their program. But some take out loans from banks and we have an arrangement with ING Bank for this and there are also various scholarships available.
"Some of the full-time MBA students are sponsored by the corporations they work for but that is much more common among those attending our Executive Education program," he adds.
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.