Guide to MBA Applications • MBA

How to Shortlist the Best Business Schools for Your MBA

POSTED ON 01/23/2024 BY The Red Pen

Student evaluating and selecting business schools for MBA Program

What is university shortlisting? If you’ve decided to pursue an MBA abroad, creating a university shortlist of institutions you want to attend is one of your priorities. You can increase your chances of success by understanding the MBA selection process and adopting a strategic approach. We recommend that applicants find a middle ground by being realistic and optimistic, balancing their focus on academics and employment opportunities. When selecting an institution, they should consider cost, duration, culture, and values. Here’s our checklist to help you choose the best business schools for you:

1) MBA shortlisting: Categorize the business schools 

While creating your university shortlist, segregate it into the following three categories: 

  • Dream schools: 

If you could walk into any MBA program in the world, no questions asked, where would you go? Answering that question will help you determine your dream school and address the key question of which MBA program is best for your unique aspirations. For most applicants, the list will include one or more of the M7 schools, such as Harvard Business School, Columbia Business School, Chicago Booth School of Business, etc. But these are the world’s most sought-after and elite MBA programs. So, competition is fierce. In the 2021 application cycle, the average acceptance rate for the M7 was just 16 percent, with an average GMAT score of 730 for accepted students. Still, it is possible to punch above your weight. With proper guidance and execution, it is possible to get admission to your dream school.

  • Target schools: 

If your academic credentials (GMAT score, GPA) and employment experience fall within the average range of a school’s cohort, you can be a candidate for a target school. There are no guarantees, but if you play your cards right, you should be confident about acceptance. 

  • Safety schools: 

A safety school does not automatically translate to a “bad school.” It should ideally be a school you are happy to go to as a fallback option if you fail to gain admission to your dream or target schools. Suppose your academic credentials and years of professional experience are comfortably above the average of a school’s most recent intake of students. In that case, you can consider it to be a safety school.

Following this strategy allows you to dream big while also hedging risks. Experienced consultants at The Red Pen suggest you include five schools on your university shortlist – any more and you won’t have sufficient time to spend on each application. If you still cannot narrow your choices to five schools, create two separate university shortlists of five schools each, which you can split across rounds one and two of the application cycle. Doing so will maximize your chances of getting admission into the school that is best for you.

2) MBA shortlisting: Fit over rankings 

Several reputed publications provide rankings of the world’s leading business schools, and among the most influential are Forbes, the Financial Times, Bloomberg-Business Week, and US News. Although rankings can be a helpful starting point to acquaint yourself with prestigious business schools, relying on them exclusively to build your university shortlist is a mistake. Not only do these rank providers use different and often arbitrary methodologies (making it difficult to know which ones are more accurate), but there have also been issues around colleges trying to game the rankings unethically. 

When selecting a college, consider the characteristics a business school is looking for in students, then check it against your profile. Knowing if they value global leaders, innovators, or team players will help you focus your efforts when applying to programs where you are a good fit. 

You must also consider how the school can help you achieve your post-MBA goals. For example, Harvard Business School is known for leadership development and general management, while the Booth School of Business is known to be strong in finance. Awareness of these characteristics will also help you write your essays, where you demonstrate how you will contribute to the school community.

At The Red Pen, we avoid the distraction of rankings and instead focus on whether a school offers a good fit for you academically, culturally, and professionally. 

3) MBA shortlisting: MBA program type

Although the two-year residential MBA program is the standard program type, schools offer MBA courses that vary in duration, structure, and professional experience requirements. For example, a one-year MBA program at  INSEAD is a good choice if you cannot take a professional break for two years and want to return to work as soon as possible. However, an executive MBA (EMBA), offered by institutions like the Wharton School or IESE Business School, is better for experienced applicants who are currently employed and wish to continue working while pursuing their MBA. International applicants can also consider a global EMBA. 

4) MBA shortlisting: Curriculum

While most MBA programs offer similar core subjects, the range of optional electives and the extent to which you can customize the curriculum varies from school to school. For example, The Wharton School’s core curriculum comprises six fixed and six flexible courses. 

In contrast, Columbia Business School offers ten core subjects for all students, with no flexibility in its core curriculum. The differences do not necessarily imply that one curriculum structure is better. Either could be good for you, depending on your preferences and learning style, which should guide you in determining your university shortlist. 

In terms of electives, each school will have a range of courses from which you can choose. Columbia Business School, for example, has over 300 electives, which you can bid on using the bid points given to you when you enroll. Alternatively, consider a school offering specializations if you want to specialize in a particular field. Schools such as NYU Stern School of Business and Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management offer a one-year Tech MBA, which will give you insight into how to lead a technology company in the future.

5) MBA shortlisting: Teaching method

Do you prefer classroom lectures or non-traditional teaching methods like case studies and role-playing scenarios? You can determine which school best fits you based on your answer. Even though most institutions use a combination of methods, they usually emphasize one. For example, The Tepper School of Business and the Marshall School of Business use classroom lectures for about half the courses. On the other hand, Harvard Business School focuses on case studies, which emphasize a “learning by doing” approach, where students provide solutions to complex real-life scenarios dependent on many variables. The Stanford Graduate School of Business uses experiential learning methods like simulations and role-playing activities. Here, technology is used to recreate scenarios where students, either in teams or individually, explore and solve problems in an exciting and interactive environment.

6) MBA shortlisting: Location

A school’s location influences its strengths, specializations, community environment, and the kind of recruiters it attracts. Columbia Business School (New York City) and London Business School, located in global financial centers, are ideal for those wishing to pursue a finance career.

In contrast, the Tuck School of Business’ location in small-town Hanover, New Hampshire, fosters a closely-knit student community away from the chaos of urban life. This unique environment creates a cohort focused on learning with deep bonds that extend beyond the program’s two-year duration. 

On the other hand, Stanford Graduate School of Business benefits from ties to Silicon Valley and is an ideal location if your career goals are technology-oriented. Meanwhile, schools in Europe, such as HEC Paris and IESE Business School (Barcelona), offer the benefits of a cosmopolitan environment with an immersive cultural and historical backdrop to foster the development of a global, inclusive perspective.

7) MBA shortlisting: Faculty and mentorships

Faculty can also be an important differentiating factor between business schools. Certain institutions, such as Columbia Business School, offer unique mentorship opportunities through its Executives in Residence Program. Senior management executives with decades of experience across sectors advise students on their careers, business ideas, and professional challenges. Schools often invite renowned experts in various fields to serve as visiting faculty. For instance, Timothy Geithner, former Secretary of the Treasury under President Obama, is a visiting lecturer at the Yale School of Management.

8) MBA shortlisting: Employment opportunities

Delving into recruitment data can help determine which companies hire from the schools you wish to attend. While consulting, financial services, and technology firms are usually the largest recruiters from leading business schools, essential distinctions emerge from the recruitment data. SDA Bocconi School of Management, for instance, has many graduates placed in the pharmaceutical, FMCG, and fashion industries. The healthcare industry was a significant destination for graduates of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and MIT Sloan School of Management.

Similar information is available for all selective business schools and can be extremely useful in evaluating which one will help you meet your post-MBA career goals.

9) MBA shortlisting: Alumni 

One of the most significant advantages of a business school education is that it grants you access to a highly qualified alumni network. Some schools have alumni concentrated in a particular geographical region, such as Silicon Valley (Stanford GSB, Berkeley Haas). Others have specific industries like finance (Chicago Booth, The Wharton School). While shortlisting schools, consider how you can leverage their networks. 

10) MBA shortlisting: Cost

An MBA from a prestigious business school is an expensive affair. At nearly USD 85,000, The Wharton School’s annual tuition fees for a full-time residential MBA is the highest among US schools. Other sought-after business schools are not far behind in terms of cost. The total program costs, including living expenses, are usually more than USD 200,000. Selecting a program that you cannot afford is not a good fit. However, don’t think of it as a sunk cost, either. An MBA is an investment for the future; hence, it is helpful to consider your post-MBA salary earnings as a return on investment (ROI). Cheaper programs, like Warwick Business School (total tuition cost USD 61,000) or Bayes Business School (total tuition cost USD 58,000), are more affordable, but their ROI may also be lower. 

11) MBA shortlisting: Student clubs and activities 

The classroom experience is only one part of a business school education. Equally important is how you spend your time outside the classroom and the connections you make through the various student clubs on campus. If you’re a crypto enthusiast, you will find plenty of like-minded people at Harvard Business School’s Blockchain & Crypto Club. If sustainability and social consciousness are important aspects of your personality, ESADE’s Net Impact Club can be a venue for exploration. Thus, researching the list of student clubs at different schools will help you determine if you can pursue your extracurricular interests and hobbies or learn new ones. 

12) MBA shortlisting: Class diversity 

If you place a lot of value on meeting and interacting with people from different backgrounds, cultures, and nationalities, investigating a school’s class profile should help you determine if it meets your standards for diversity. In 2021, for instance, The Wharton School became the first M7 school to achieve gender parity in its MBA intake, with 52 percent of the cohort being women. European business schools have a far greater inclusion of international students in their cohorts than US schools. Oxford’s Said Business School had 93 percent international students, and IMD Business School, Switzerland, had 80 percent students from outside Western Europe.

13) MBA shortlisting: School interactions

Ideally, you should visit the business schools you are interested in to understand the campus, culture, and student life. However, if that isn’t possible, online interactions with alumni, students, and officials are the next best way to determine whether you feel comfortable putting a business school on your university shortlist. A comprehensive shortlisting strategy requires a fair amount of effort and research. But keeping the above factors in mind, you will end up with an ambitious, realistic university shortlist that reflects what you seek from an MBA degree. You may read our 9-Step Guide to MBA Applications and our blog on 7 Points to Check Before Submitting Your MBA Applications. But if you need help narrowing down your list of business schools or any aspect of your MBA application, we’re happy to help you. Please contact us today!