How to pick the MBA program that’s right for you

Over the course of last couple of months, I had the opportunity to interview several highly qualified applicants to the Duke MBA program. Yes, we are in the thick of MBA application season. You are probably starting to see the fruits of your labor now from your Round 1 schools and perhaps even Round 2 schools .  All the hours you’ve put into studying for the GMAT, making countless revisions of your essays, crafting the perfect outline of your “story” for your recommenders, and  practicing for your interviews have paid off big-time and now you’ve been accepted to several schools. Now what?

Eeny, meeny, miny moe. Catch a tiger by the toe?

You may be ecstatic to have gotten into a school high on your list. It’s ranked highly by all the magazines and newspapers that precisely measure the quality of hundreds of MBA programs (sensing my sarcasm here?). The choice here is easy. It’s a no-brainer. Or is it?

Should you go to the highest ranked school with the most prestigious name? What’s in a ranking or a name anyway? How do you even measure that? And more importantly, how do you decide which one is best for you?

Rankings and prestige are meaningful, but there’s more.

Three years ago, I cared a lot about rankings. I cared a whole lot about which program had a better name recognition. Also, I cared about which program provided the most support for aspiring entrepreneurs. The rankings are helpful and brand is certainly important, but there is so much more to a program than what the editors of a magazine think of them. After having completed my MBA and having interacted with students from other MBA programs, I now have a different perspective on what the MBA degree means and how applicants can decide the best program for themselves.

The Top 3 Program recruiting advantage is a myth. 

One of my former colleagues said to me, “If I can’t get into Harvard, Stanford or Wharton school, then I’m not going to get an MBA at all. It’s just not worth it.” Firstly, that’s an arrogant statement. Secondly, it’s just not true. Yes, there’s a difference between a top 5 program and and, say, a top 50 program, but that’s partially because recruiters at top consulting firms, investment banks, and tech companies can’t go to all top 50 programs to recruit. And again, very generally speaking, people who go to a top 50 program often do not have the same goals as those who aim for a top 5 program.  However, as long as you are in a top 20 or top 25 program, you are going to get similar opportunities when it comes to recruiting. Let me show you an example.

For instance, 24% of HBS Class of 2011 went into consulting, earning a median base salary of $125,000 according to the  school’s recent employment report.  Some of the consulting firms that recruit at HBS are: McKinsey, BCG, Bain, LEK, and Deloitte. In 2011, HBS was ranked #2 according to US News and World Report. Assuming that its student body of 1,840 was divided evenly between the first year class and the second year class,  approximately 221 HBS class of 2011 became consultants. That’s impressive and I can certainly see why people would want to go to HBS. The school does a fantastic job of providing career opportunities in consulting for its students .

Now let’s look at Duke MBA (Fuqua), which is where I went to school. With an enrollment of 901, the Fuqua School of Business, which was ranked 12 last year by US News and World Report, is about half the size of HBS. According to Duke MBA’s employment report, 34% of its students in the 2011 graduating class accepted a job with a consulting firm. That’s about 153 students going firms such as McKinsey, BCG, Bain, LEK, and Deloitte. Median salary? Same as that of HBS. $125,000. I am not at all saying that Fuqua is better than HBS for getting a larger percentage of its students into consulting firms. That’s definitely not the point.

The point I am making is that similar firms go to top 2o or 25 schools to recruit. Not just top 3 or top 5. You will be given the same or at least similar opportunities if you attend a top 20-25 school.  Once you step in the interview room, it’s all on you. It doesn’t matter a whole lot where you went to school if you suck at interviewing.

Consider the intangibles

Someone I know got a high paying job as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. This person left the firm in less than three months. I know a lot of investment bankers who applied for a job at GS, but didn’t get an offer. So why did this person leave so soon? Because he hated it. On the outside, GS looked like a great firm for this individual, but when he got there, he absolutely hated it. It just wasn’t a good fit for him. Similarly, a business school can be that way too. You have to find the one that is right for you.

You may believe that you must go to Wharton, Columbia or Booth if you want to go into banking. Maybe you want to work at a non-profit so you think Yale SOM is perfect for you. If you are marketing-minded, you might think Fuqua is the right school for you. Think again. Take a look at the employment reports of those schools and pay a close attention to the companies that recruit there. While there certainly are differences, there is also a large overlap.

Don’t buy into the stereotype that there’s a program for the quant jocks and another school for the creative types. MBA is a general degree. It gives you the training and the tools to be a great executive.

You want to become well-rounded. What you must consider, then, is how you fit in at the different schools, where you can contribute the most, and where you will have the most enjoyable experience.

Do you like large classes or smaller, more intimate classes? Do you want to live and learn in an urban setting or do you prefer a campus experience? Do you have kids and want to live in a house with a backyard while you are in school? These questions ought not to be secondary. I heard Brad Feld of TechStars  once say that you should pick where you want to live and then find a job there. To a degree, I say the same about MBA programs. I say “to a degree” because the MBA program is for less than two years. It’s temporary. But then so is life.

Why I chose Fuqua

There were three factors that led me to choose Fuqua over some of the other schools.

  1. Before meeting my wife, my top choice was Tuck. I had met several people that had gone to Tuck and was impressed by their intelligence and friendliness. However, my wife spent most of her life in the South before moving to Boston and was not particularly fond of long New England winters. I actually like the cold winters in NE, but I have also come to learn that a “happy wife is a happy life” so we decided to go somewhere a tad bit warmer. I ended up not even applying to Tuck.
  2. After attending several info sessions and visiting a few campuses, I decide that I wanted to have a classic campus experience. For example, I love New York and am a huge “city person,” but I didn’t think I would feel like a student at the largest city in the country. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that some of the New York schools had more of a commuter feel to them. I wanted a campus with large libraries, statues, open quads, maybe even a bell tower or a chapel, and a great sports program because I went to a small college and felt like I had missed out on an important part of the college experience. I was looking for a place with a strong culture. That’s just me though. You might want the opposite.
  3. The third reason I chose Fuqua was for the “Team Fuqua” experience. As a side note, I hear Ross has a similar culture to that of Fuqua. During my visit at Fuqua, I sensed that Duke MBA students were serious about learning, but weren’t serious about themselves. In fact, that was my biggest takeaway from my visit. The professors were very friendly and I knew that Duke would provide a fun learning environment.

Where my MBA has led me

I am now doing exactly what I intended on doing after getting my MBA. I am working at an online start-up in San Francisco doing business development. It took a lot of work for me to get this job, but fortunately, I was able to leverage the Duke network. Could I have gotten a job at a start-up in SF had I gone to another school? Probably. But I ended up where I wanted to be after having the best two years of my life so I don’t ask myself, “I wonder what would have happened had I gone to XYZ instead.” In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the school is ranked 2, 5 or 25. If you are ambitious and smart enough to get into a top program, you’ll be able to use the resources around you to get to where you want to. I think that’s in part what the MBA teaches you– how to be resourceful and network effectively.

If you are fortunate enough to be deciding between two or three great schools, congratulations! Forget about which school your friends or managers think is more prestigious. Don’t let a person like my former co-worker make you think that you are “wasting” your time and money if you decide to go to a non-top 5 school. Go with your heart.

Go where you will be happy. Visit the campus and talk to the students and the alumni if you can. Two years is simultaneously too long and too short for you to just get a stamp on your resume and not embrace the full MBA experience. Invest in your career, but also invest in yourself. Let it be a time of self-discovery…. and have a great time!

The Dean of Admissions at Fuqua said during our orientation something to the effect of, “This is an expensive gift you have given yourself. Make the most of it. Learn about yourself and enjoy the journey.” I couldn’t agree more.

By: Jonathan Lee
Twitter: @hi5at5


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