Rankings vs. Fit: A femBA Guide to Targeting the Right Schools for You


Target Schools MBA

So what does matter more? Rankings or fit? Spoiler alert: it depends! There are countless existing credible sources on what applicants should look for when researching potential MBA programs they may want to attend. If you want the facts on what to consider, we did the research during our own decision phase and recommend the following:

These will help you review what we believe are the eight key factors one should consider when selecting their target schools:

  1. Size of program (smaller or larger entering class)

  2. Length of program (one year with or without internship, two year program, etc.)

  3. Geographical location (city or small town, weather)

  4. Ranking and prestige (perceived value of brand name)

  5. Student culture, “fit” (more competitive or collaborative)

  6. Learning methods (case-based or lectures, etc.)

  7. Curriculum flexibility (fixed mandatory classes or opportunity to test out)

  8. Post-MBA career opportunities (institutional, entrepreneurial, or niche industries)

So now you’ve read everything and have the information you need, but which factors are more important? How should you personally, as an individual with a unique combination of goals and preferences, prioritize and weed through the content? Before you pull up your whiteboard to draft a decision matrix, consider our thoughts on making sure you weigh each component appropriately for what you hope to achieve during and after your MBA.

Consider your past, present and future

Past: Your journey up to this point should be taken into consideration when selecting your ideal program(s). If you completed your undergraduate degree at a less prestigious institution than the programs you are considering now, you may want that platinum brand name. That was the case for Emilie, who attended a local school in Montreal and knew that the Harvard name would carry some weight and increase her legitimacy in her future entrepreneurial projects. The MBA is a chance to get out of your comfort zone; if your previous degree was earned in a large city with a big student body, now is the time to think about experiencing college town living with a close knit group.

Present: Your current employer, working environment, and location should also be considered when picking your target schools. Are you an investment banker who’s also a CFA? For you, curriculum flexibility should be high on your priority list — you probably don’t want to sit in Introduction to Corporate Finance and listen to the professor expand on how to discount cash flows on Day 1. A program that lets you test out of introductory classes and allows you to take different or more advanced courses will maximize what you learn in class. If you work for a small company or on a small team, a larger program could offer you the opportunity to get a feel for working within a big organization in the corporate world. You’ll face more people and personalities than you’re accustomed to and your networking skills will be highly developed by the end of the MBA.

Future: What do you want to do after your MBA? We believe that a great candidate can achieve anything they desire from any of the top programs, so don’t worry about limiting your opportunities. However, who wouldn’t want tailored resources and the best odds of making that happen? To that end, consider the post-MBA careers of the graduates from schools you are evaluating. Do they tend to end up on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley? Are they more likely to start their own business or join leadership development programs at established companies?

A Day in the Life of an MBA Student: What Will Yours Look Like?

Many MBA applicants think about the concept of the school and the degree in broad strokes. What are the job prospects? Average salary? Percentage of female students? All of this information is important to have but doesn’t accurately describe what your day-to-day life will look like. The minutiae of your experience is important to consider; you will be attending class, group meetings, and commuting to school every day. How will those hours be spent? Think about how you’ve most effectively learned in the past and whether something like the case method is right for you or not. It’s often touted as the best learning environment but it’s not for everyone and has both pros and cons. You’ll be doing all of this learning with others (that’s right you’re not alone in all of this) and every current student and recent graduate we’ve spoken with always says that the people you spend your time with will make or break the experience. Each school attracts different types of people and taking the time to learn about the typical student body and whether this is a fit for you is highly beneficial. However, try to stay away from one-dimensional stereotypes — for example, we know for a fact that Wharton has plenty of non-Wall Street, non-aggressive people. These stereotypes are usually false or represent very dated information about each MBA program. We recommend you reach out to current students to get a true feel for the experience.

Another important consideration is the opportunity to do in-year internships and experiential learning. Some programs are more structured or academically rigorous and do not leave room for you to work during the school year. If getting some just-in-time experience while you learn is important to you, or if you think a summer internship will be too short to try something new, then consider programs with more flexibility in class scheduling and workload per semester. For Celine, this was a huge factor in choosing Columbia, where in-year internships are encouraged and the concept is already often established at companies in her desired field.

The Bottom Line: Make sure you do a thorough overview of what’s important for you to ensure you end up at the best school for what you hope to accomplish. This is a big investment of your time, money, and energy thus warranting this level of detail and exploration. Last but not least, follow our golden rule when you’re not sure whether a school should make your list of applications to submit — if that school was the only one to accept you, would you happily put your deposit down and attend? If the answer is no, keep it off your list!

Now you’re ready for the decision matrix. We'll be coming out with a template soon. Not sure how to get started? If you have any questions on how to tackle this task, comment below.

Celine TarrantComment