Should I Apply to Business School? Here is the Best Way to Answer That Question

Once again, there are four basic questions one should ask before pursuing an MBA or graduate degree: 

Why do I want to do this? When is the right time to pursue such a degree? Who can I ask for advice about this, and what do they say? Where is the best place I can obtain the degree, and how do I determine this?

In our first article in this series, we asked our network of over 100 MBAs on LinkedIn Linkedin to help us answer the first two questions, the Why and the When. In the second article, we addressed the Who and the What. We now answer the last question, involving the Where and the How.

The point of this article will not be to develop a definitive list of the best MBA programs or the best graduate schools in the world. What is the best for one person may not be the best for another. In addition, rankings conducted by business magazines and other third-party evaluators change every few months. These organizations apply a different set of criteria and different weights on even the same criteria, making comparisons across different rankings very difficult. Because they evaluate schools based on different criteria, it behooves you to look at a variety of sources when gathering information.  The Financial Times, for instance, recently discussed how some leading MBA programs are making their application processes more creative.  

You need to know How a given school’s human and social capital can fulfill your goals, develop your passions, enhance your strengths and address your weaknesses, and most importantly, increase your ability to thrive in a rapidly changing world. Professors, students and staff represent the school’s human capital, and how the school structures interactions among those groups as well as with the school’s alumni and their connections represent its social capital.  Both world-class human and social capital are essential for a school to be worthy of your investments of time and money, so it’s essential to evaluate both. As one of our alumni wrote, “Do your research. Not all programs are created equally. Do not shy away from a brick and mortar program because of a "perceived" time benefit of an online option. For me, the interaction, networking, relationship-building and shared knowledge were worth every penny spent.”  As another wrote, “The MBA provides you with both technical and soft skills (if you approach it the right way). In today's business world, it is almost like a ticket to being considered for senior and executive management positions.”  

The Close Connections who have already earned graduate degrees, Trustworthy Talent whose opinions you can trust, and Professional Pundits are all good information sources we discussed in our second article, but you must weigh their advice against your own deep self-assessment of what you need most from a graduate degree. Alumni from the schools you are considering, especially ones in careers or fields you are interested in, are other excellent inputs. Following discussions among current students and alumni on social networking sites is another potentially helpful tactic, but remember that what you read will be biased in favor of strongly positive or negative opinions, not necessarily representative ones. 

Cost/value is clearly one criterion to apply when considering Where to attend. As one alumnus told us, I was offered a full scholarship. Coming back to the U.S. at my own expense, married, with 1 child, and having to restart made Wake Forest’s offer too good to pass up compared to higher-ranked schools. Another wrote, “I chose Case Western out of convenience and cost. My employee tuition benefit funded my degree.” As one of Karen’s fellow MBA alums wrote, “Michigan was/is a highly regarded MBA program in finance, I was already somewhat familiar with the school, and I received a fellowship to attend.” As one of my friends told me, “I selected my program/school because (a) it was an up-and-comer, with recent good publicity from the rankings and a recent major donation from an alumni, (b) the cost of attendance was very low, and (c) they acted like they really wanted me to be a part of their program's renaissance. You could say that the ROI looked really good.”

Location was another critical reason. “I chose Harvard because it was in Boston and was the top-rated program in the U.S.” As another alumnus wrote, “I chose Wake Forest because I didn’t have to move and reducing risk caused by change was an important factor. Continuing to work while pursuing an education was another important related factor for several of our respondents. “I selected Wake Forest because they offered a weekend program in Charlotte which allowed me to still travel for work.” As another wrote, “Wake’s MBA program had exceptional brand recognition throughout the United States and if I elected to relocate from Charlotte for career opportunities, the alumni network and brand could be leveraged for career prospects.”

As mentioned in our previous article, considering the needs of your spouse, partner or family should be of paramount importance, because their support is critical. One alumnus integrated several criteria when answering the question. “We needed to be in state where my wife, a PA-C, could not only be licensed but maximize her clinical skills as well. The second factor was the quality of the program. The third factor was the financial aid package.”

Once again, deciding to pursue a graduate degree is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make. So make sure you answer all four questions before making it. Getting input from Close Connections who have already earned graduate degrees, Trustworthy Talent whose opinions you can trust, Professional Pundits like HR folks and recruiters, and alumni from those institutions you are considering, can all help you make the best decision for you.

Aneil Mishra and Karen Mishra are business school professors and authors of Trust is Everything (2008) and Becoming a Trustworthy Leader (2012)