The following piece was written by Paul Bodine. Paul has been featured in our Admissions Expert series and is the author of the best-selling admissions guide, Great Applications for Business School. He currently runs his own firm, Paul Bodine Admissions Consulting.
A business school’s overall reputation is the sum of the perceptions that students, alumni, employers and the media have of it. A program may look brilliant on paper and all the right employers may be recruiting from it, but to decide if it's truly the right fit for you, you need to do some digging. MBA fairs and school websites only go so far; the best way to discover whether business schools should stay on your short list is by chatting with their current students and alumni. And I do mean more than casual chats about the weather (though climate is a school-selection factor, too!).
When you’re face-to-face with a current student or alumnus, you will want to focus on questions that you can't find the answers to online and that reflect your own specific reasons for seeking an MBA (e.g. post-MBA goals, preferred learning environment, etc.):
What would you change about the school? Hopefully, you'll receive a superficial answer, such as, "Winters are cold," or, "There's no wine club." But if you get a response that indicates the career services office is terrible, meeting with professors is difficult, or financial aid is paltry, you must dig further to confirm or disprove.
Why did you choose this school? Each alum will have gone through the same decision-making process you're experiencing. Perhaps they uncovered something about the school that you simply don’t know (yet).
How easy is it to interact with your professors? Yes, you do want your lecturers to be involved in research and experts in their fields, but not to the detriment of their role as educators. A broadly positive answer is all you’re after with this question, as there will always be one or two professors who are more difficult to pin down. But if the alum you’re speaking with has experience with the specific professors you’re interested in (you should short-list specific faculty of interest before reaching out to alumni), definitely ask what they thought of them.
How difficult is it to get into choice electives? This is a crucial question, because all the electives in the world won’t make up for the one that you need but cannot get into. Again, if the alum has experience with electives in your concentration area (and ideally you will seek out alums who share your track or specialization), then take your questions even further.
Of course, business schools are about more than just academics. Students are also there to network, secure career opportunities, and have some fun. Ask questions like these to determine if the alum's school is as well rounded as you are:
How easy is it to become involved on campus? Ideally, you’ll hear that there are active clubs and impromptu gatherings year-round. You may also want to ask about the diversity of these groups, garner an idea of potential costs, and gauge whether the alum's eyes light up or glaze over when discussing his or her extracurricular experience. If no clubs exist in your interest areas, you have a serious fit problem—unless it's easy to start clubs at the alum's school; ask if it is.
Are other activities and networking opportunities well organized, frequent, and varied? This could include school-sponsored networking events, experiential learning weekends, and anything else that could further your studies, social life, and career.
How useful is the career services team? Business schools will have recruitment fairs and teams dedicated to finding potential employers or internships. How involved or how useful these departments are, however, varies. Unless you plan to return to your current employer, you should ask alumni how much help the career services team really was.
One final note: if you hit it off with the alumnus or current student, try to keep the contact alive. You never know when he or she may prove helpful with a support email to the admissions office or with names of other alumni or students who could advance your application process or career. Of course, thank them profusely for their time and help.
Visit Paul Bodine Admissions Consulting for more information.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.