How do you reach the right decisions when choosing an MBA? How do schools compare to programmes? What are the merits of focusing on the school as opposed to the programme and vice versa? Finally, is there really such a thing as a balanced decision?
When my brother and I were about to go to college, we had that very discussion. "What kind of school do you prefer: more modern and high-tech or old and classic?" I asked. "Of course I'll go for the modern, are you crazy?" was his response, and that's where he went. I was for the old and classic, and that's where I went.
That was at the end of the '90s. Guess what? A lot has changed. New vs. old, modern vs. classic, local vs. international, large vs. small, expensive vs. affordable. There is so much, too much, to consider in terms of MBA selection these days.
It has probably already dawned on you that your future MBA will be one of the greatest investments of your life in terms of money, effort and time. Therefore, finding the right school is not just about looking at rankings, or choosing one considered "prestigious". The key to making the right choice is figuring out why you want to take an MBA, and what you expect it to do for you.
The truth is, you could stop reading this article right at the end of this sentence – although you would miss some excellent additional tips - since it will sum up the best and most straightforward advice: Go to the best school you can get into.
That said, let's analyse the inherent strengths of the two arguments.
Building a network of contacts
Having the opportunity to develop and strengthen an excellent network of contacts of like-thinking peers from all over the world is the one thing that all MBA alumni consider to be a school's best asset. If you are able to appreciate that, then you need to aim for a high-ranking school with an international profile.
Check out: 5 Reasons Why Networking Matters
There is more to higher education, be it under or post-graduate, than your immediate programme. Harvard Business School is part of greater Harvard, so you will get access to everything an incredible institution like that has to offer: classes taught by the brightest minds in their field, state-of-the-art technology and equipment, a unique atmosphere of esteem, achievement and competition, and a sea of knowledge to dive into.
Develop international experience
If you want to go international and take your business or expertise to new markets, then you should aim for a school that boasts a truly international class, and often, faculty. Even if you wish to be an entrepreneur, instead of working in the corporate world, businesses these days may skyrocket into new markets with the speed of light. To prepare for that, you may wish to use your two-year residency to get to know new markets and cultures from the people around you, and from the international internship or project development opportunities provided by your school.
Irrespective of the purpose of your degree, the school's location could turn out to be the best friend of your business or career. If you are in IT, then a school in an IT-prolific area such as California or the UK would provide you with the contacts, clients, partners and high-quality employees to facilitate your future growth.
It is, therefore, no wonder that schools in Chicago, Boston and London prioritise finance.
You might also consider which languages you would find useful in the future. Almost all top programmes are taught in English, but simply living in France, Germany or Hong Kong for a year could equip you with a level of fluency that could be highly valuable in years to come
Climb the career ladder
If your end goal is to climb the corporate ladder, choose by programme. It is the programme's specific curriculum that provides the necessary mix of soft skills, knowledge, class interaction and discussions with the professors, to make you challenge your own beliefs. Gone are the days when adding three letters after your name was a passport to a spacious office and a six-figure starting salary, but equipped with the skills acquired during your studies, you can achieve this on your own.
By the way, that is also true if you are set on a total overhaul of your career. It is what you learn in life (or school, in our case) that makes you confident and capable enough to undertake a complete change of direction.
Set up your own business
With the start-up boom and the almost desperate demand for innovation, entrepreneurship is the way forward. Almost all reputable schools have it, more so in some parts of the world than in others. But it is the programme's concrete curriculum rather than the school's abstract reputation that will actually teach you entrepreneurship. It would not be fair to say that if you go to an established institution such as Wharton or LSE, you will immediately become the next Elon Musk. Even the crème de la crème of business schools would not be able to turn you into an entrepreneur if you don't have it in you. However, you are more likely to become one by meticulously absorbing the programme's content.
Check out: Top 5 Entrepreneurs with MBA Degrees
The HEC Paris MBA entrepreneurship specialisation track is especially well known for that. Of course it teaches a balanced view of entrepreneurship, but most importantly it is able to assess whether entrepreneurship is indeed right for you. Specific topics include high-tech startups, execution, business modelling, governance, how to network, and how to enter markets. If, when you've completed this course, you still have doubts, then nothing will dispel them.
MBA students around the world are seeking to use their recently acquired business degrees to advance in niche businesses of their own or in burgeoning industries. That has broadened the horizon for new, non-branded schools to enter the stage and expand the best programmes' ranks to the top 100 rather than the top 20, mainly due to their specialisation.
Beyond the generalist nature of the MBA degree, schools have become "known for" certain areas of expertise such as marketing, entrepreneurship, finance, non-profit, real estate, IT management, health care, etc. The schools not only work hand-in-hand with the related industry, but also have faculties which have developed an area of expertise. They might have an incubator to attract venture capital for entrepreneurial business plans, or offer work-study programmes that give students hands-on experience of working with NGOs. You can find information on the various schools' particular strengths on their websites, in alumni forums and in various rankings.
A specialised degree does not mean a smaller school. Top schools are winners here too, since most of them seem to be "known" for something: Kellogg for Marketing, Stanford for IT, Stern for Banking, Wharton for Finance, etc. And yet there is so much more that those schools do. In truth, each one of the top schools will prepare you for whatever you wish to do with your MBA degree post-graduation.
Considering the magnitude of a decision such as enrolling in an MBA programme, everyone wants to get the most out of their investment. So, as stated above, the perfect option is to aim for the best school you can get into. If for some reason that's not possible, think of which elements of the experience matter to you the most. Almost certainly, your first questions will be "Where?", "What programme?" and "How long?" Your 'balanced decision' will be found at the crossing point of your answers to these questions.
This article is original content produced by Advent Group and included in the 2016-2017 annual Access MBA, EMBA and Masters Guide under the title “Apples and Oranges (OP-ED)”. An online version of the Guide is available here.