MBA Program Research – A Complete Guide

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Likely you’re at the beginning of this research process. There’s time before Round 1 deadlines, but you really need to use it wisely. I’ve laid out a guide below that will help you get your ducks in a row as you begin.

Have A Plan

Get focused. Don’t just walk into this process waiting for something to jump out at you. That is a bit like going into the grocery store without a list. You forget what you went in there for and walk out with everything that seemed cool and interesting at the time. Yet you still have nothing to make for dinner.

You Now + MBA = Goal

Think about what needs to happen in business school for you to become a viable candidate for your post-MBA career goal. Read that again and let it sink in. You now + MBA transformation = You + post-MBA job. What do you need to accomplish? That might mean learning a second language, mastering a specific industry, or getting leadership experience under your belt.

The Fit Factor

Once you have done the networking and research on your career goal, and evaluated what you need to get out of b-school to get there – think about what you need out of business school (which is not the same as what needs to happen above). FIT is paramount. Yes, fit means finding the recruiters you want to talk with at the school, but applicants grossly underestimate the importance of fit in other ways. Six years after obtaining my MBA I went to work for corporate marketing and everyone thought it was such a great job. I left a job where I was happy leading a large team for more money and the illusion that I would be happier working for a hot, elite company. However, this was against my own inner guidance and the advice of a recruiter who had thought the company culture would be too uptight and stifling for me.

“Brand” Won’t Make You Happy

Continuing with my own example, the company I was with recycles a very regimented, lockstep marketing calendar year after year. This was totally counter to my high need for individual expression. I had to tiptoe around corporate leadership – and was asked to cater to them as if I was an inferior being. The job was more about rules than creativity, and when I explored other jobs within the company, it was more of the same. To sum it up: I was miserable. And the only person who dressed up for Halloween.

My point here is that school rankings are nothing more than journalistic fodder. Review employment stats and alumni placements. Take a close look at instruction type. What works best for you? What is the feeling you get when you’re on campus? Or when you watch student-created YouTube videos? Pay attention to that. Do you feel a sense of expansion or contraction? What commonalities do you notice among alumni that you speak with? Do they all seem serious, playful, creative, or formal? Spend time learning about your values and choose in accordance with those that will make sure you are happy and successful in b-school.

The “How”

Getting down to the nuts and bolts. I personally find it unimaginable to pick a b-school sight unseen – that is like getting married at first sight (and if you have seen the TV show you know how badly that can turn out). This is a lifetime affiliation. No divorce allowed. I urge you to make the campus visits happen. However, if you are living in the middle of Zambia, like one of my clients, or Covid restrictions are still making that difficult, it might not be an option. I would encourage you to take full advantage of social media, YouTube in particular. Locate the student videos that give you a snapshot of what it feels like to be there. School culture varies widely. Most student-run organizations have a Facebook presence; reach out, take an interest. Set up a “school research” email and sign up for everything.

Connect with alums on LinkedIn – this is a very underestimated resource. Find out what you need to learn to position yourself for that ideal job. Some schools actually have formal networking opportunities. For example, in the summertime, you can reach out to speak with Haas MBA students who are completing their summer internships. Which brings me to an important point – sign up for online admissions events as much as possible, and any in-person events in the city where you currently live. So, in a nutshell: Admissions events, in person and online. Alumni interviewing. YouTube. Facebook. School newsletters. LinkedIn. Campus visits if at all possible.

Using What You’ve Gathered

Now, what to do with this research? Well, once you’ve shortlisted schools, look for activities that will help you become a strong, viable candidate for your post-MBA goal. Strategically identify the activities best suited to bring about the +MBA transformation for you. As for the applications, go deep rather than wide. Spend words discussing a few things in depth, as opposed to packing in random crap. I’ve read hundreds of essays and believe me, writing a 500-word essay about a dozen clubs you plan to start on campus makes you look like an unrealistic idiot. You will have to spread your time between classes, recruitment, networking, clubs, externships, mentorship, speaking events, the list goes on.

Take note of the fact that nothing irritates the adcom more than having to read essay after essay that simply regurgitated the course catalog or a list of student organizations. They know. They are aware. You want to mention these, but only after giving them context – meaning – your goal. Please remain steadfast in your awareness that they are reading the application to learn about you. Not learn about the school or its offerings. Good essays are personal and specific.

Your App Is A Pitch

My advice would be for you to research schools the way you would research a business plan, because it’s really quite the same! The business of YOU is in full-swing, which assets do you need to build? Remember that the schools are investing dollars in you, so your goal is to look like an investible opportunity. It’s Shark Tank, only the product you are pitching is you. Showing that you’ve done your homework will help you develop a consistent, solid plan to present. The goal is to inspire adcom to give you a seat, because you would leverage the opportunity and make good use of their money. You would be a great addition to their community and reflect well on the program.
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