MBA programs offer specializations by industry, unique campus cultures, and diverse curriculum choices. MBA Expert Judy Gruen helps you ask the right questions to determine which MBA program deserves your time and money.

In our first blog post in this series about prepping for an MBA, we discussed why it’s crucial to define and identify your MBA goals before applying. Now, let’s hone in on how to find the program that’s right for you as an individual.

Don’t Obsess Over Rankings

In my 20-plus years as an MBA admissions consultant, clients have repeatedly told me, “If I can’t get into Harvard, Stanford, or (fill in the blank with desired Top 10 school), it won’t be worth it for me to go.”

It’s a good thing they can’t see me rolling my eyes through the phone. An obsession with elite schools, where acceptance rates range between 10 to 20 percent, can torpedo your plan to get in. It also blinds you to the myriad considerations you need to determine whether the program actually suits you—educationally and personally. After all, shouldn’t earning an MBA be more than a giant, pricey ego trip?

Let’s unpack these rankings for a minute to see why they are not the Holy Grail of MBA programs. First, the overall rankings of top programs by U.S. News and World Report, Financial Times, and Forbes aren’t uniform. This is because they measure different metrics, some of which aren’t even important to you. Further, some programs in the lower region of the top 50 programs overall might actually rank much higher, even in the top 10, for your specialty interest. For example, Michigan State University’s Broad and Penn State University’s Smeal business schools consistently rank in the top 10 for supply chain logistics, though much lower overall. If supply chain logistics is your field, these schools would be excellent choices. Are you an entrepreneur? Consider Babson, never in the top 10 overall, but with an outstanding reputation for teaching entrepreneurship.

Find Your Fit

Now that we’ve dispensed with some myths about rankings, let’s talk about fit. It’s not enough to have GPAs, GMAT-GRE scores, and professional achievements that are competitive with the incoming class. MBA programs vary widely in educational style, geography, atmosphere, and even values. For instance, University of California Berkeley’s Haas program wants students who have demonstrated a commitment to community service and the philosophy of going “beyond yourself.” Harvard seeks applicants who have shown relentless hard work and have risen above the competition. Duke University’s Fuqua program is known for its collegial atmosphere, with students proudly referring to themselves as part of “Team Fuqua.” Which resonates with you?

Consider both your chosen industry field and function when exploring a school’s strengths. Whether it’s health care technology, nonprofit management, luxury goods marketing, venture capital, or Pacific Rim economic development, look for programs that offer classes, immersion programs, semester abroad options, specialty tracks, research opportunities, the ability to take courses from other grad schools on campus, clubs, and recruitment options that support your goal. You’ll find a wealth of information on school websites, including student blogs. Network! Connect with current students or alumni who work in your chosen field to ask their advice on how to make the most of the program. They are usually very happy to share their experiences and offer valuable insight.

If you can swing a school visit, go for it. Nothing beats actually being there, sitting in on classes, grabbing coffee with students, and chatting with professors and members of the admissions staff, to either confirm that your interest in the program is on the money or save you from applying to a program that’s actually a mismatch. Can’t fly there? Check out The MBA Tour and get to an information session closer to home.

Go Beyond the MBA Classes

Here are other ways to investigate programs to determine fit:

  1. Employment Profile. The career office (and often the school website) will have data on where graduates find jobs and a list of employers who recruit there. Which schools are sending the most grads to the companies, industries, and locations that most interest you?
  2. Class Profile. Do you want a large class or a small, close-knit class? Will you be at home in a school that draws more than 70 percent of its students from engineering, business, and technical fields (such as MIT)? Or would you prefer to be in a class where nearly half (46 percent) come from the social sciences and humanities, such as Stanford?
  3. Curriculum. A growing number of programs now offer electives during the first year, which can help spark ideas for summer internships; others maintain rigid first-year curricula. Think about the impact of these options for you.
  4. Methodology. Are you suited to the case-method approach (Harvard and University of Virginia—Darden), or would you excel with a mix of lectures and small-group experiential learning projects?
  5. Clubs and Extracurriculars. Business plan and social enterprise competitions, plus clubs for marketing, athletics, arts, and even wine tasting are on offer at MBA programs. Where will you want to hang out after class is over?

Following these steps will help you apply with confidence, knowing you’ve chosen an MBA program for all the right reasons.


Judy Gruen is the author of four books, including co-author of MBA Admissions for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schoolsand an advisor with

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While Society of Grownups hopes the information is useful, it’s only intended to provide general education. It’s not legal, tax, or investment advice, and may not apply or be useful to your specific financial situation. All investing has risk, including the possible loss of assets. If you need recommendations geared to your personal financial situation, schedule time with a financial planner.

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