An MBA should not be expensive wallpaper-a sacred document to frame and hang up in your office for all to admire. The purpose of an MBA is to serve its owner as a sturdy tool for constructing a career. Whether you want to develop managerial or specialized technical skills to secure a promotion, undertake a drastic career change or mere ly remain market able in your current position, an MBA program exists for every motivation. But the vast range of possibilities can present problems when candidates start sifting through all the business school programs. Finding the right fit can be challenging. At worst, the process becomes tediously slow and difficult, particularly if one's goal is not well-defined. "If you are not clear in your mind and your vision of the future, you shouldn't apply for an MBA. It doesn't make sense. It's not something you do to put the diploma on the wall and be proud of it. You have to use it. It's too expensive not to," advises Patrick Dupin, a 25-year-old Paris resident.

First look inwards

According to Dupin and several other outspoken MBA candidates who recently went through the agonizing admissions process, the best advice is to do your soulsearching first. School-searching comes second. There’s no alternative to deciding what you want to do with your life after graduation and setting solid goals to get there.

The next step may be even more painful. Parisian candidate Fanny Ponsot cautions prospective students to confront reality head-on by matching TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) scores against the target school’s standards. Scores for target schools are widely available, so verification saves a great deal of time, not to mention disappointment, later in the application process.

Also consider the benefits of the school’s location. Ambitious MBA candidates like Ponsot can compensate for poor language skills by living and studying in an English-speaking country. When the time comes around for job interviews, the language barrier will be broken. Problem solved.

Financial restraints also are not to be overlooked. Every applicant has his or her own situation to consider. Again, the students say, be rigorously realistic in making the assessment. And after all that, the choice of a school should become easy. Obvious, actually.

The project leads to the school

It’s really the project which leads to the school, not the contrary,” Dupin said. Dupin, a civil engineer with five years of work experience in Paris, outlined a project to start his own construction company after graduation. His idea centers on refurbishing houses throughout Europe for investors and individuals: the classic “ Buy low, sell high” approach.

To ensure all goes well, Dupin wants to pursue an MBA to acquire the necessary management and financial skills. Having set such a specific goal narrows down the options dramatically—to just one, in fact. Thus, selecting a school was “ very easy,” he says. ENPC Paris, the oldest “grande ecole” in France, is the only school offe ring not just an MBA but also a civil engineering degree in management.

It’s primarily a civil engineering school, and also proposes an MBA. It’s the easiest way to get my MBA and also be understood by my teachers as a student engineer. It fits the most with my background and my project and the school is ve ry wellknown in France. It’s the only one I considered,” Dupin said.

Although he doesn’t plan to submit his application until June, Dupin feels confident he will be accepted: “I’m said to have my chances.” Much of his confidence stems from the fact that the school meshes so well with his background, abilities and future plans.

Buying into the future

Gerald Dalverny is also proud to say he applied to only one school, the European Institute of Purchasing and Management, where he was accepted in mid-December.

Although classes we re scheduled to begin in January, leaving him only two weeks over the holidays to make the move from Paris to Geneva, Dalverny remained calm. He is, after all, an experienced professional in transportation and logistics.

Yet the 30-year-old lacks experience in purchasing, which is what drove him towards the school. The institute is the only business school in Europe with a purchasing specialization. Finding the right fit between the school and his skill base— and future needs — was critical.

Dalverny feels strongly that his career prospects hinge upon learning critical negotiation and purchasing skills, which will supplement his back ground. He hopes to secure a career in a corporate arena where cost-cutting promises to remain the rule of the day far into the future.

English and economics impose limits

At age 22, Ponsot is examining her options to leave France for a large English-speaking European city where she can take up management studies with an emphasis on law. Her project is to work for an international organization in an economic development or human rights capacity, perhaps as a consultant to give investment advice to developing countries.

This is what I’m studying now and I would like to study more in an English-speaking city. That’s very important for me,” the law student said, noting that she feels her business school — and ultimate career — prospects are restricted by her poor English language skills.

Ponsot is quite concerned that a low or even mid- range TOEFL score will limit her chances of accep t a n c e. She said schools like Oxford, Cambridge and King’s College require 260 or 270 on the TOEFL, cutting her from the competition.

The first point, for me, is the level and the reputation of the university. But that depends on the TOEFL. At some schools, the minimum score is really high,” she said.

And then, it depends on the money,” she added. “I’m not looking at the U.S. because it’s very, very expensive. I prefer the U.K. But I don’t want to be in a little town. I want to be in a large city like London or Edinburgh.

Top 10 not always top

All the candidates agreed that applying to the "Top 10" schools clearly would have been a waste of time and money from their perspective. "It doesn't make any sense for someone like me to apply to the best ranked MBA. Going to ENPC is more important and to the point," Dupin said.

Dalverny agrees, "As the purchasing activity takes on more and more importance in company profitability, I want to have an MBA in purchasing. This is the reason I applied."

"Some people want to go to INSEAD because of its ranking, but they sometimes forget to see if their project is welldesigned for that. No matter the rank of the MBA, if they go on an interview and can't say precisely why they are here — and only here — without saying 'you are ranked Number 1,' the applicant doesn't have much of a chance to enter," according to Dupin.

Ponsot echoes, "I think it's more intelligent to choose a university where I will be accepted. I don't want to send a file to a university that I'm sure they won't read."