Doing an MBA is a major investment in time and money, and for many students the biggest educational expense that they will make in their lives. Candidates who make the MBA move are absolutely correct in weighing up all the pros and cons of each programme before selecting the few to which applications will be sent.

Before most students even start thinking about an MBA, they have gained about two-to-five years’ professional experience. At this turning point, they are asking themselves what they want to do with their careers in five years’ time, and where they want to do it. Answering this set of questions often leads to the business schools that match their career aspirations.

Says Arnold Longboy, Director of Corporate Relations & Recruitment Chicago GSB – Europe, “Candidates should think hard about what their goals and objectives are for an MBA. Then, based on these objectives, he or she can focus their inquiries on how each potential school fits with the goals.

Making Contact

Having sat their GMAT and TOEFL exams, students know their strengths and weaknesses and how best to position themselves against a backdrop of rigorous competition for places at the top b-schools. But with more than 3,000 MBA programmes worldwide, students are assured that they will find a home at a quality school of their choice.

Students can schedule appointments with the representatives at upcoming Access MBA events, where candidates meet other MBA candidates, consultants and coaches. At these venues, they are engaged in a discovery process to find the most suitable schools. After drawing up a list of potential programmes, prospective students should make contact with the business school representatives. By taking the time to talk to the representatives and Access MBA consultants, candidates start to form a larger picture of the school’s learning environment and social atmosphere.

Most school representatives prefer to meet potential candidates in person, but this is not always physically possible for international students. In such cases, students now have the option of conducting a telephone interview via webcam. According to Business Week, a few business schools have already required that phone interviews be conducted via webcam, while many others view it as a positive option. This assures the ethical integrity of the interview and rules out any perception of cheating.

Upon request, students can go to the schools for the open-house tours, where they attend classes and meet current students. They benefit from this interactive experience by becoming involved in the atmosphere on campus. Students will discover, for example, that some schools offer small, close-knit communities in somewhat rural locations, while others are located in major cities and enrol bigger intakes. Apart from their differences in physical location and class size, schools identify themselves in other less tangible ways. Some schools attract students who want to return to their family-owned businesses, while others attract candidates who want to start up small enterprises, while still others attract international managers who want to join multinational companies. This selection process also helps students find out what sort of environment and classmates would best match their careers goals.

Programme Structure and Faculty Make a Difference

Not only do students want schools that match their goals, but they also want faculty members that will drive their careers forward. Full-time programmes might have faculty members well known for their research in a particular area of expertise, while part-time programmes might have visiting professors who are pro-active business leaders in a particular sector. Furthermore, schools create their own structures that combine management theory and business practice. The Manchester Business School, for example, has developed the Manchester Method, a learning structure that produces positive results and has pushed MBS up in the rankings.

In addition to faculty and learning environment, some business schools offer a more well-rounded education than others. Says Arnold Longboy, “Our programme does not require candidates to have a business background. In fact, we have had very successful students who had never studied business before, including medical doctors, lawyers, etc. One reason that they have done well is that they do not have to "unlearn" a lot of bad habits or misconceptions they have covered in the past.”

Candidates also have to decide how long they want to spend doing an MBA, which in part depends on their motivation for getting an MBA. The good news is that MBA programmes are very flexible, which in no small measure accounts for their growing popularity. Students can choose between a one-year full-time programme and a two-to-three year part-time programme, knowing that both offer the same added value to their career development. As a general rule of thumb, however, a full-time programme is designed for career changers, while the part-time option is designed for career enhancers.

Differences in career motivation are highlighted by a recent GMAC report which states: “Career enhancers enrol in MBA programmes to remain marketable in the business world. Their post-MBA career goals focus on seeking opportunities for advancement within their pre-MBA professions. Career switchers desire to evolve from one career path to another, with the hope of changing their professional areas or industries upon graduation. These critical motivations affect student satisfaction with the MBA degree, which directly relate to the confidence they build by learning new skills or improving existing skills in the programme.

A student’s motivation might also affect his or her approach to networking, which is another important component of MBA programmes. Networks enable students to forge diverse relationships with fellow classmates, alumni, and professors during the programme. They are often crucial in career evolution and can lay the foundation for growth in the professional and personal lives of MBA graduates. For example, MBA candidates who want to return to their home countries should ensure that the school has strong networks in place there. Furthermore, a careful study of career placement activity is therefore essential, especially where some business schools have higher success rates at placing their graduates in certain regions or companies than others. A candidate who wants to work in Europe post-MBA, for example, might think twice before applying to a school in the USA. 

Professional Clubs

MBA candidates come from dynamic workplace environments with plenty of on-the-job training and after-work professional activities. Choosing the right business school certainly puts the training onto a much higher platform, but don’t forget about the professional activities on offer. Professional clubs can vary from one campus to another. Candidates who want to open up a business selling luxury goods, for example, may want to apply to a b-school with a well-developed club focused on this sector of the economy. By exploring these options, some students might even come to the conclusion that a specialised MBA suits them. For the candidate above, it might be advisable to consider an MBA in luxury goods, as for example Essec’s MBA in International Luxury Brand Management. In addition to professional extra-curricular activities, students with partners and families should determine which schools have partners’ clubs. Candidates have their homework cut out for them. As the demand for MBA programmes has soared, so has the supply, leaving candidates with the obligation to match their career goals with the right business school.