Repost Wednesday: An Insider’s Take on Choosing an MBA Program

So you are thinking of returning to school to get your MBA. You google “MBA Rankings” and start looking for a top-ranked school in a good location at an affordable price. The rankings are a good place to start. Programs that score high deliver on their promises to students (and employers) and help graduates achieve their career goals. But realize that different programs make different promises to students. They attract different people hoping to get different things out of their MBA experience.

Most obvious is the difference between full-time and part-time programs. Part-time, or working professional programs as they are sometimes called, appeal to students that have great demands on their time and are looking for an efficient vehicle for gaining the credentials they need to move up in their current firm, change jobs or start a new career. These students tend to favor practitioner-oriented programs that play to their work experience and stress immediate relevancy over the development of a deeper perspective based on a rigorous conceptual approach. Some of these students will choose an on-line option because they are drawn to the combination of convenience and efficiency offered by such programs. In contrast, full-time students are making a much bigger commitment of time and lost wages and are typically looking for a more immersive experience that will up-grade their conceptual abilities and produce results over a longer time horizon.

You can see these differences in the rankings. The top of Business Week’s full-time program rankings is a list of elite schools presented largely in the order you would expect. Academic prowess and reputation rank supreme. The part-time rankings, on the other hand, offer several surprises. The number one program, Elon has students with very average GMAT scores and almost ten years of work experience taught in very small sections. Number three, Carnegie Mellon has students with half the work experience of Elon, who are taught largely by non-tenure track faculty (i.e. practitioners) in much larger class sizes.

But other differences matter too. MBA programs don’t have a commonly-defined set of pre-requisite experiences, required undergraduate majors, or selection criteria. The general applicability of the degree (MBAs are employed everywhere) attracts a broad range of students with a wide range of interests, talents, and aspirations. Some MBA students hope to start their own business or work for a small firm. They are likely to be drawn to more generalist programs, that stress entrepreneurship, strategy and a comprehensive view of business. Other prospective MBAs are looking to move up in the corporate world. They tend to have strong technical skills in engineering, finance, or the sciences and are looking to augment those talents with managerial skills. Still others want to change careers. They may be liberal arts majors with creativity and strong communication skills who have never taken a business course in their lives and are looking to improve their data-driven decision-making abilities in one or more functional areas of business.

And then there is the fifth year business school “senior” who simply can’t leave the fraternity house and thinks an MBA might be the best way to stick around for another year or two. Unless you too want to join the unambitious, run from programs who admit these students. If you are a fifth year senior go get five years of experience before enrolling in an MBA program. If you won’t listen to that advice, at least go to a different institution from the one where you got your undergraduate degree. Otherwise, you are likely to hear many of the same professors share the same insights with you that they did when you were an undergraduate. It’s not like they were keeping secrets from you until you became a graduate student under the belief that “you couldn’t handle the truth.” Yes, they will offer you material in a more sophisticated manner, but the difference is rarely enough to justify you going to that same institution immediately upon graduation.

The bottom line is this: Your MBA experience will be heavily influenced by the students around you. Be wary of programs that claim they can be all things to all people. Diversity in students’ industry backgrounds, types of work experience and cultural perspective are big plusses. Diversity in student expectations about program goals, approaches, and outcomes tends to breed dissatisfaction and dissent. Look for a program that has a strong sense of itself, the type of student it wants to attract, and what it is trying to accomplish. Take the time to dig deep and ensure you are joining a program that draws the kinds of people you want to be around and compete with both today in class and tomorrow in the business world.

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2 thoughts on “Repost Wednesday: An Insider’s Take on Choosing an MBA Program

  1. I have discovered that my only option is to choose a different school because of the recent changes to the one-year full time MBA program. I have lived in Orlando my entire life and hold UCF in very high regard, having graduated with my business degree in August 2012. I am not a fifth year senior and did not live near or on campus. Since graduation, I have worked two unpaid internships including one in the Ucf incubator and continued to hold a part time job. Meanwhile, I have been studying for and taking a prep class (through Ucf test prep) for the GMAT exam which I scheduled for march 1st. In the last year I, have spent a good amount of money toward reaching my goal and spent a great amount of my time researching program options, gathering recommendations, and writing the essay for my application. My biggest frustration came this week, the day I was to submit my application, when I found out, through an external source, that the program was no longer being offered to business majors even though the website did not reflect this. I would not be so flustered about the changes except for they were not reflected online in the graduate program section presently or when I was going to submit my applications earlier this month. There was a small note about changes to be announced in May which I felt was odd because apps were due in March. I had been hoping to be accepted to this program and continue my journey with the support of my Alma Mater. Now I will reevaluate my career outlook and hopefully I can find another alternative that fits at least a portion of the criteria that Ucf did and without too many personal sacrifices including relocating to a new area and finding meaningful employment. I do understand why you made the decision based on your other blog post but I am going to be effected severely because of it. Thanks for your time.

    • Hello Spencer:

      Without knowing a little more about your personal situation, it is difficult to offer you advice. I would caution you that going directly into an MBA program may not be a very good option for you: It may not be more education you lack, but rather experience. I can also tell you with certainty that gaining a couple of years of relevant work experience will greatly increase the number of MBA program offerings you would be eligible for both here at UCF and generally….Think hard about this.

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