Today's post is one that can be used by just about any MBA applicant, as it has to do with rounding out your list of schools to which you are applying.
As you will see, it uses logic that can be deployed by any candidate, as the idea behind your "last" or "last few" b-schools has everything to do with context and nothing to do with a one-size-fits-all approach. I find myself discussing it with virtually every applicant I speak to, so it felt like a good topic for a quick post.
To get to this main idea, we will work through:
General philosophy on selecting MBA programs,
The contextual nature of ROI, and
How to finish off a list of target MBA programs.
GENERAL PHILOSOPHY ON SELECTING MBA PROGRAMS
First, we have to start from the premise that when putting your list of MBA programs together, you should be aiming for a strong ROI. Reasonable minds can disagree here and I'm not trying to speak for everyone, but for the most part, grad school is not like college. By that I mean:
You don't *have* to attend (as many people feel they do with undergrad),
The argument for fit/growth is not as powerful for grad school because your resume is further along and needs to generate actual returns on this additional investment, and
There are only a handful of truly top-tier "national" programs (12-16 top law schools or business schools, versus likely 50-100 for college).
An MBA list should usually be pushing the envelope a bit - aiming for all schools that you really want to go to and that feel pretty hard to get into.
You shouldn't go crazy and swing way out of your range, but I would abandon the idea of "safety schools" because if a school is a sure thing, you probably shouldn't be going there - just by the logic of it not advancing your resume enough at this stage of your life. So if someone is a super elite candidate, starting with Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton makes some sense; again, this isn't college where you are looking up and down the rankings for it and wanting to have safety school choices. But what about adding a fourth or a fifth school?
THE CONTEXTUAL NATURE OF ROI
Okay, so we have established that you need to prioritize the return on your investment for business school and therefore needing to be aiming for schools that maximize that. But does that *always* mean going straight to the rankings? Using our "elite b-school candidate" example, does that mean that she should just automatically find the next "best" school after H/S/W? Not necessarily. In fact, this is where I think you have to get out of the logic of groupthink and rankings and conventional thinking and work a little harder - because here at the back end of your list (most top candidates do/should apply to four schools, some consider five) you are trying to add a program that does indeed greatly increase your overall chances of getting in somewhere.
I'm not saying you go full "safety school" but you do want to expand your possibilities.
And one way to do that is to find a school that is a top choice FOR YOU specifically. If you are super elite and gunning for H/S/W, perhaps the ideal fourth school is NYU Stern or Michigan Ross or Duke Fuqua, rather than a very hard school to get into like MIT Sloan or Columbia Business School. If you are someone gunning for the big finance schools like Wharton, Chicago Booth, and Columbia, maybe there is a fourth really sharp finance program like Cornell Johnson that makes a ton of sense for you specifically, rather than chasing after a hyper-competitive program like Kellogg.
With almost every candidate I've worked with in my life, they have interests, perspectives, career goals, or geographic considerations that elevate a school several ranking places FOR THEM.
So take advantage! Maybe you have a tech focus that makes Haas or Texas McCombs more appealing than it would be for the next applicant. Maybe culture fit means Duke Fuqua slides in behind Kellogg. Maybe teaching style puts Darden into your mix with HBS, Wharton, and Tuck. There is no reason you have to use the priorities of other people all the time. It's okay to let the ROI of any given school become specific to your context.
HOW TO FINISH OFF A LIST OF MBA PROGRAMS
Putting this all together, here is my advice:
For your first 2-3 schools, try to stick with pure ROI, gunning for the best possible schools you can get into. Use fit (culture, geography, programs, industry emphasis, etc.) to distinguish only within the same tier.
For your final 1-2 schools, try to use your specific context to elevate the ROI of a school, such that your list suddenly has a rankings outlier - a school that would still be amazing for you, but is easier to get into by the numbers.
Then, of course, when you apply, make sure to really showcase to that final school (or two) what that specific context looks like. Make sure NYU Stern or Duke Fuqua or Yale SOM feels the love so they will believe you want to attend there, even though you, on paper, look like someone applying to H/S/W or Wharton/Booth/Columbia or MIT/Kellogg/Booth. Let the school see the unique fit and candidate-school context that put them on your list in the first place.
In doing this, you will come up with a way of adding a safer school to your list, greatly expanding your overall chances of success, all while never sacrificing the crucial ROI you need to achieve to make two years and $150,000-$200,000 worth it.
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