How To Find The Right Business School

Along with instructional styles, MBA hopefuls should think about their professional goals, school location and cost when choosing a business program, experts say.

“They need to think hard and long about return on investment,” says Frank Rothaermel, a professor at the Scheller College of Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “The students need to know how they will be investing their money and time. Are they going to go full-time, part-time or evening?”

It’s also important to choose the right industry at the right time for a post-MBA career, Rothaermel says, adding that healthcare, energy and artificial intelligence will be fertile business sectors well into the future.

Caryn Beck-Dudley, who started teaching in 1985 and has held dean positions at several universities, says she has witnessed “huge” changes in MBA programs and in her roles as “the expert and the coach.” As president and CEO of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the largest accreditor of business schools globally, she also has seen the surge of the online MBA and significant curriculum changes – all of which prospective MBA students should be aware of, experts say.

School Mission and Location

Experts also note that it’s important to consider whether a business school’s mission is more internationally or regionally focused. While the most prominent B-schools tend to have an international focus, “there are some great schools that are locally focused,” Beck-Dudley says.

“What they care about is students come to their university and their program, and they get a job and go back to the community where they grew up,” she says. “Some students don’t necessarily want to go to a school that’s international. They want to own their own business or work at their family business.”

That’s why the first things she asks prospective MBA students are where they want to live and what their personal and professional goals are.

“You may have a great school that won’t be that expensive in your backyard, “she says. “You just don’t know about them because they don’t show up on anybody’s ranking system, but they have great faculty, great outcomes, everybody who goes there gets a job and your alumni network went to that same school, which are the people you’re going to be affiliated with anyway.”

Culture and Program Format

If possible, visit the campus and see the business school before making a final decision, suggests Dalvin Dunn, who obtained his MBA in 2020 from Texas Woman’s University.

“If you can see yourself there if you see an administrator, a faculty or staff member that looks like you or you can form a relationship with, that is vital,” Dunn says. “Prepare to step outside your comfort zone because that is what getting an MBA is about.”

Dunn talked to a TWU professor about a human resources emphasis and applied to the program. He got accepted, but it wasn’t long before he felt like a unicorn.

“In my cohort, I was the only male; the only Black male at that,” he says. “It’s a challenge to go into spaces that you thought you could not succeed in or be comfortable in and end up overcoming that.”

The experience helped him grow, he says.

“I wanted a different student population group. Texas Woman’s University is known for diversity as far as women, men, race, religion, and everything. I knew that going into higher education, I wanted to be in a different space just to see how it feels. I wanted to see how I would adapt to it. It served its purpose academically and personally.”

When looking into business programs, it’s worth checking to see if you can get credit for any undergraduate coursework. Dunn says he was allowed to transfer some of his undergraduate business courses to the MBA program.

“It only took me a year and a half to complete,” he says.

Also important to consider is if a B-school has a format that works for you personally, whether that means full-time, part-time, executive, online, one-year, international and even the degree to which coursework is project-based, experts say.

“Age is perhaps one of the less-important factors in making this critical decision,” Rothaermel says. “Prospective students can ask themselves several questions to hone down on the right path, (such as) ‘Do I want to continue working and apply what I learn in my day-to-day job?’ Many students in evening and weekend MBA programs appreciate the chance to understand concepts and use them in a continuous learning-knowing-doing-feedback cycle.”

Personal Motivation

People seek to earn an MBA for various reasons, and one prospective student’s motivation may be different from another’s.

“It’s not unusual to see them (college graduates) come back and does an MBA part-time, online or the executive MBA, which is usually for people who have been working 10 to 15 years in business,” Beck-Dudley says. “We have a lot of people seeking MBAs who are over 35. Their classes are usually over a weekend, Friday night and Saturday, allowing them to work during the week. They have people with a level of experience, more established and more mature.”

Most MBAs offer students areas of concentration. The degree itself is a general overview of a business that touches on various areas, but students can take additional classes in specialized subjects such as human resources management or finance.

Other Factors to Consider

Experts recommend asking yourself these essential questions when choosing a business school:

  • Are you interested in moving up in your career path but have hit a ceiling that you don’t think you can get above because of your technical skills?
  • Do you want to drop out of the workforce or take a sabbatical to immerse yourself in an MBA experience?
  • Do you want to progress on your current career trajectory or achieve a more dramatic career pivot that requires more hands-on specializations and career services?
  • Do you want to join a network of early- to mid-career professionals or more seasoned, experienced leaders?
  • What makes sense financially, considering salary, employer tuition support, scholarships, fellowships and other financial aid opportunities?
  • Have you conversed with student and alumni ambassadors to understand the more intangible elements of cultural fit?
  • Have you scheduled class visits to gauge the learning experience?
  • What would your prospective cohort be like?

MBA classmates often form a “deep and long-lasting network” with one another that lasts many years after graduation, Rothaermel says. “Often, the peer network is one of the most valuable assets the students take with them as they progress throughout their careers.”
After being out of touch for many years, he recently reconnected with a former MBA classmate, Chad McBride, to co-author a case study for publication by Harvard Business Publishing. McBride, who worked in management consulting for five years and then at a pharmaceutical company for 20 years, is now a marketing lecturer at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

“Many times, academia is much more about the knowledge you gain, but a business degree, particularly an MBA, does teach you skills,” McBride says. “But it is much more, particularly for in-person programs, about the networking and relationships you build.”

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