Over the past decade, business school has been a popular place. This is good for business deans and faculty BECAUSE it has been good for business students. Students have chosen to major in business or get an MBA for a variety of reasons, mostly related to optimizing job opportunities and careers. As we enter that season of the year when students select their business school, I wish to offer some helpful hints for making the B-school choice.
There are many information sources competing to get prospective students’ attention – ranging from all of the media rankings sites to B-School accreditors to the government’s “Occupational Outlook” reports. Blogs too numerous to count offer hints and clues on getting into the best schools or what to look for in a program. With all these resources, it should be easy to select a business school that is a good fit for each student. But it isn’t easy to identify a school that fits.
I emphasize the notion of fit because there are differences across B-Schools. Some are subtle (e.g., the educational philosophy of faculty) and some are sharp (e.g., focus on some specific area or emphasis, such as technology, entrepreneurship, or health care). Most of the sharp differences are observable from available information and likely emphasized in schools’ promotional materials. Prospective students will notice these features. The subtle differences are more difficult to assess because they may not cluster in the avalanche of data that students can find on each school.
To understand the subtle differences, prospective students must ask questions. The questions may be asked in an email, phone call, meeting with a school representative, or during a campus visit. I urge prospective students to visit each school they are seriously considering as the ability to assess things in person, including nonverbal responses, surprise from those being questioned, and emotional responses, is very valuable. And where it is not possible to visit a school, it is essential to get a 360 degree perspective through directed conversations with each prospective school’s constituencies (i.e., admissions staff, a few faculty, a few students, and some alumni).
Are they interested in talking to you? Do they provide a canned pitch? While you want to get some consistency in responses, there will likely be some differences. Your challenge is to interpret the information and make a good choice. It is not an impossible task. It is, however, a very important one. Put differently, people may get married more than once in their lifetime, but they only get one MBA. If you choose your mate poorly, you have options. Not so if you choose your business school poorly.
So what questions should prospective students ask? I don’t claim that the questions below are the only ones or most important ones to ask. They are neglected questions. Ask them to get contextual information that will help you make a better B-school decision.
What is the typical approach by the professor in and outside the classroom? To what extent are courses taught by full time faculty or people with less teaching experience. Some schools stress that all professors have real world experience. This might mean that teaching is their second job. It also says nothing about the extent to which the full time professor or part time professional are good at communicating with (and educating) students. You want to know how effective professors are in the classroom and whether they are available outside of class to answer questions, brainstorm, talk, and help. Some Nobel Prize winners seem uninterested in teaching students while certain adjunct faculty are awesome. Some part time professors seem only two steps ahead of the class despite their work history and background. Information on such teaching quality does not translate well from rankings sites. Those grades given to teaching will not tell you what your instructors will be like.
To get this information, you need to ask for some examples of helpful approaches used by the best professors and aspects of class that were not appreciated. Then get a sense of the extent the best and not appreciated behaviors existed in typical classes. Because learning styles and preferences differ across people, recognize that someone else might not enjoy a professor whom you would love.
Whether someone is a great classroom instructor or not, determine the extent to which faculty are available to students. Do you need to make appointments to see them? Are they available during or beyond office hours? Are they interested in talking to you? This kind of information will give you a sense of the environment you’ll enter at a school. Then you’ll be able to judge better whether you’ll like the environment.
How much practice do you get? It is not unusual for promotional materials and rankings media to focus on majors, class work, placement, and similar factors. But consider the analogy that the best sports teams practice their skills extensively to improve performance and opportunities. Will you get a chance to practice the skills that supposedly guarantee you a great job outcome? Since the overlap across curricula at business schools is great, the practice time allows people to gain the edge necessary to do a job. Practice comes in a variety of forms. Are students required (or encouraged) to work on “real-world” projects for companies or organizations? How extensive are these opportunities? For example, a school that has try-outs to select a team to go around the country to participate in case competitions likely offers fewer opportunities to students than one that encourages many students to participate in such competitions. Practice has an added benefit. It gives you a chance to decide if you really want to be a (fill in the blank) before you take a job as one. Learning that you don’t like a particular job or field before you graduate is a good thing. Only practice will give you the answer.
How does the program leverage graduates’ skills to create opportunities? All business schools will talk with pride about their impressive placement results – percent placed and average salary. This is nice, ON AVERAGE, but may not tell you what result you will secure – especially if you are not the average business school student. If you are interested in a very specific type of career, getting a job in a particular city, breaking into a certain industry, or changing careers, you need to know how a business school handles students for placement purposes. Is it up to you to generate the opportunity if it is outside the school’s normal recruiters and jobs? (Note, this is not necessarily a problem; the key is knowing the answer up front and not being surprised.) And if a school says that 95% of students were placed by 90 days after graduation, ask about the 5% that were not placed. What help is available to them? Why did they not get jobs? Most importantly, are those individuals forgotten after the final placement statistics for the year have been compiled? While no one looking to enroll in business school assumes he or she will be in the 5% without jobs, 5% of the class will be. Thus, knowing up front the approach of the career services office, the view of the administration (even the dean), will give you a sense of whether a particular school is a good match for you.
Despite the global problems that appear on each day’s news, there are many, MANY opportunities for business graduates. Your opportunities will be greater or less depending on whether you select a school that is a good fit for you. Do your homework on this. Don’t assume that some ranking will give the best result for you. Do your work and you’ll compile the most important and relevant ranking – for YOU.
And make sure you ask questions – especially ones that are neglected.