How To Choose An MBA Program With Confidence

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Choosing and applying to an MBA program requires a lot of planning. This guide can help you find the best MBA program for your needs.

A Masters in Business Administration can open many doors to an advanced management position and other incredible career opportunities.

Researching options for MBA programs can be a daunting process laced with a multitude of questions and considerations.

To make the process easier, I’ve provided a comprehensive guide to help you as you consider your MBA options.

Table of Contents

Do You Need an MBA to Have a Successful Career?

This is the first and most important question you’ll be faced with as you consider an MBA.

While an MBA can be incredibly valuable, it isn’t necessarily for everyone, and you can still have a lucrative and meaningful career without one.

How Do You Determine if you Need an MBA?

Define your career goals:

Jobs that require an MBA: Some careers virtually require an MBA. Some of these include investment banking, private equity, hedge fund management, and high-end management consulting. If any of these are your chosen career path, you should pursue an MBA.

Jobs that don’t require an MBA: An MBA does not guarantee success. There are also many great jobs that do not require an MBA. Some examples of great jobs not requiring MBAs include those in technical fields, the medical field, sales, law, entrepreneurship, etc.

Quicker Advancement/Greater opportunity: An MBA opens doors that otherwise may not have been open to you, or at least, the door would not have been open to you as quickly. An MBA can often raise your career ceiling, allowing you to reach a higher position in your career than you otherwise would have. Similarly, an MBA can give you a better chance of getting hired more quickly if you are between positions or if you relocate.

Changing careers: Many people are excellent performers in their current careers but desire to transition into another specialty. An MBA is a great way to enhance your marketability and make an easier transition from your current line of work into management consulting, banking/financial, general management, or another business-related field.

Examples of career fields that can easily benefit from an MBA include IT, medical, engineering, military, and non-profits. Often people with these backgrounds are highly sought after by top MBA programs because their experiences are highly valued in the marketplace.

If you plan on working in a job requiring an MBA, you are attempting to change career paths, or you feel like the need to promote more quickly and to a higher level, then you should definitely consider an MBA. If you don’t meet these criteria, that doesn’t mean you should not get an MBA. Do more research and determine what is best for your personal and professional situation.

Why I Want an MBA

I need an MBA for all of the above reasons, except “jobs that don’t require an MBA.” My background is technical in nature and light on business. I know I want to get into management; without additional education, the road is long for someone with my background.

I am also looking for a new challenge that will allow me to work on projects with people in a business setting. In a sense, I will be looking for an MBA to help me change careers.

I want the opportunity to promote more quickly than I have done already, and more importantly, I want the responsibility and challenges which come with those promotions.

I also want the experience an MBA will help me achieve, so if I have to relocate, I will be more confident about quickly finding a job in my new location.

I know a Masters in Business Administration is not the “magic bullet” guaranteeing me health, wealth, and happiness for eternity. But based on my research and experience, this is the challenge and opportunity I am looking for.

How to Select an In-Residence MBA Program

In Part 1 I discussed whether or not you need an MBA. I have decided an MBA is pretty much necessary for my chosen career path, so now I want to investigate program types.

The way I see it, there are two main categories, in-residence and distance education. Once you decide between the two, you have several other options: full-time, part-time, or executive.

In-Residence MBA Programs

Advantages: For most people, taking an MBA course in residence is the preferred method. Many learn better in a classroom environment than only reading and/or internet contact. Many MBA programs rely heavily on case studies and team projects, and classroom environments encourage discussion and interaction among the students and professors in a way an Internet bulletin board cannot duplicate. The classroom environment also more closely replicates a normal work environment, making a smoother transition to the workforce upon graduation.

Disadvantages: Unless you are willing to uproot your life and move to the university of your choice, you are limited to nearby schools. Some local schools may not have the academic specialty or reputation you desire, may require prerequisites, or may be prohibitively expensive.

In-Residence, 3 types: Full-time, Part-time, and Executive Programs

In-Residence MBA programs come in three flavors, full-time, part-time, and Executive. Which one you choose should depend on your current career path, whether or not you can afford to take off a substantial amount of time from work, or whether you want to do the Executive track, which is geared toward mid-career and upper-career managers.

Full-Time In-Residence MBA Program Pros & Cons

Full-Time: Full-time programs give students a structured and focused learning experience. Programs typically run for 2 years and are essentially a full-time job. Many programs focus on team building and networking, both of which are highly valued skills. Many full-time programs also offer a wider variety of focus areas for your MBA than do part-time programs. Internships are very common during the break between year one and two, and many people are able to turn these into a full-time job upon graduation. A full-time MBA is also a great way to go if you consider changing your career field.

As great as a full-time MBA program is, there are distinct disadvantages as well. The biggest disadvantage is cost. Due to the large workload, it is nearly impossible to maintain a meaningful level of work. Most people have to forgo the paycheck they were earning prior to their MBA program and need to take on large loans to afford school. Not only do you pay a lot, but you don’t earn anything either! For some, the intense level of study is another disadvantage.

Advantages:

  • Ability to focus 100% on studies.
  • Structured learning environment.
  • Best method for networking.
  • Possibility of turning internship into full-time position.
  • Best method for changing careers.

Disadvantages:

  • Cost of program.
  • Forgone salary.
  • Little opportunity to take time off.

Part-Time In-Residence MBA Program Pros & Cons

Part-time programs often cover the same material as full-time programs. The difference is usually in the delivery and pacing of the coursework. Most people who participate in part-time MBA programs do so to continue working full-time while they get their education.

This way, they maintain their current income while they get their education. Many students also receive tuition assistance from their employers, making the deal even better. Many part-time programs also allow students to take time off between classes if their schedule is too busy. Part-time programs are great if you plan on continuing your current career path.

Part-time programs often take longer to complete. Two years is average for a full-time student, but three or more years is the norm for part-timers.

Part-timers may also have a more difficult time getting to know their classmates and learning to network as well. Still, the added benefits of maintaining a steady paycheck and completing the degree at their desired pace appeal to many students – especially those with a family to support.

Advantages:

  • Maintain salary.
  • Possible employer tuition assistance or sponsorship.
  • Complete courses at a more convenient pace.
  • Best for those looking to continue their current career path.

Disadvantages:

  • Time. Part-time courses may take a year or longer to complete.
  • Work/life distractions.
  • Not as beneficial for those planning career changes because most people continue to work in the field they desire to leave.

Executive In-Residence MBA Program Pros & Cons

Executive Programs: Executive MBA programs are geared toward executives and high-level managers, and most executive MBA programs require 10-15 years of work experience to be eligible for the program.

Many executive programs only meet once or twice a month on weekends or with an occasional Friday thrown in. This allows these high-level execs to continue their valuable work with their company while getting the education to hopefully set them apart from their peers and give them the knowledge to climb higher on the corporate ladder.

Executive MBA programs are usually filled with people with similar levels of work experience and similar goals. The curriculum in these programs is geared toward the issues workers at this level face. Corporate sponsorships are very common for these programs, with many students receiving full tuition from their company.

Some companies even fly their managers to and from their weekend courses. At the executive level, networking among peers is a very important skill. You never know when you might need to reach out to someone for a work-related matter. Knowing several mid to high-ranking individuals across several industries is an extremely valuable asset in the business world.

However, unless you have corporate sponsorship, the cost is often prohibitive. Tuition for the typical executive MBA program is up to 1.5 times the amount of the normal MBA program.

These programs also tend to be very compressed, and executives are often very busy to begin with. It may be difficult to balance the workload.

Advantages:

  • Maintain current high-level position.
  • Often corporately sponsored.
  • Content geared toward the executive level.

Disadvantages:

  • The cost, if you do not have a corporate sponsor.
  • Work/life balance.

My Preference: Given a choice, I would prefer to attend a full-time, in-residence MBA program. This is the direction I am currently leaning toward because it looks like it will give me the most valuable experience.

I prefer learning in a classroom environment, and I know I would gain a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience going through the MBA experience.

Many other factors are involved before I make my final decision, and the rest of this guide covers more options and their pros and cons.

In Part 1 we discussed how to decide if an MBA is for you, then looked at the most popular traditional tracks for mapping out your MBA in Part 2.

Now, let’s take a look at a trend growing in popularity, distance and online learning programs.

Distance and Online Learning MBA Programs

Like in-residence programs, many distance learning MBA programs have similar options to consider: full-time, part-time, or executive.

There are, however, other factors to keep in mind when considering the distance learning option. The first is how do you learn best?

Do you learn better in a classroom environment, or are you driven enough to learn primarily on your own?

The second consideration is the learning medium. Will classes be scheduled or on your own time, what technology will you need, how will tests be given, etc.?

The third major consideration is how distance learning programs compare to in-residence programs in terms of reputation, cost, convenience, and other factors.

Last, how do you determine which distance MBA programs are legitimate?

Distance Learning and Online MBA Programs:

Distance learning and Online MBA programs offer a lot of flexibility for MBA students. Consider these topics before deciding whether or not to pursue a distance MBA program.

  1. How do you learn best? Are you a self-driven individual who can take a book or assignment, do your research, write a paper, prepare a presentation, and take a test with only a set of dates and an outline to guide you? Or are you the type of person who needs a lot of direction and personal interaction? If you are the latter, I will tell you right now, that earning your MBA via the online format will be quite a challenge! Distance learning programs require discipline, self-motivation, and dedication to complete.
  2. Learning Mediums: Distance learning-based MBA programs often involve different mediums for instruction, including Internet, video, audio, text, proctored exams, etc. Most distance and online programs combine these learning mediums, but some programs are exclusive to only one of these elements. If you are not able to learn well only using these mediums, you might want to consider an in-residence program. If the program you are considering requires proctored exams, you need to find someone who will be qualified to give the exams to you.
  3. Distance learning programs compared to in-residence programs: The reputation of distance learning and online MBA programs is constantly changing and often it depends on how you wish to use your degree. If you want to delve into venture capitalism or hedge funds, you will be better off going to a top-tier, full-time, in-residence MBA program. However, a distance or online MBA may satisfy your needs if you are content in your current field and are only looking to advance within your company or industry.

Another important consideration is how a distance or online MBA will look in the eyes of a possible employer or recruiter. Many HR representatives openly admit to preferring in-residence MBAs. If you feel this may be important to you, you should research further into the criteria HR reps and recruiters use to evaluate MBAs.

The cost of online MBA programs is often comparable to many full-time, in-residence programs of similar stature and can be even less expensive. Another consideration is the convenience offered by these programs. With an online program, you may be able to learn late at night, early in the morning, on lunch breaks, on weekends, etc. You may not have to be in class at a certain time, which can be a definite benefit.

  1. How to determine if a program is legitimate: The most important factor to consider when looking at MBA programs is accreditation. Accreditation ensures institutions of higher education meet acceptable levels of quality. The most widely recognized accreditation for MBAs is the AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business). If a school is recognized by the AACSB, then you know the school is legitimate. Other quality accreditations include national and regional accreditation.

There are many good online programs, and I have considered attaining an MBA through one of them.

To meet my personal qualifications, the program has to be well respected (but not necessarily top-tier), flexible, and affordable (by MBA standards).

Here are a few online programs I have looked into for my MBA:

My personal list:

Arizona State University, Auburn University, and Colorado State University. The Colorado State University program also offers a 10% discount to military members and veterans.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Distance and Online MBA Programs

The advantages of taking a distance program include maintaining salary, working at your convenience (including late at night in your pajamas if you wish), and learning quality management material. Many employers also offer tuition assistance.

While there are many great distance MBA programs, I feel there are distinct disadvantages to an online program.

Many people believe the MBA experience revolves around working as a team and networking. Online participants do collaborate, but in my opinion, it is not the same as working together in person.

Some people also have a hard time learning in a virtual environment. I have taken online courses before, and while I can learn online, I get much more value from face to face interaction and discussion. Other disadvantages include perception of the program from potential employers/recruiters, and balancing MBA workload with work and life.

To recap:

Advantages of online MBA programs:

  • Flexibility – attend where/when you want.
  • Continue earning while working.
  • Possible employer tuition assistance.
  • Best for those continuing current career path.
  • Best for those who are disciplined, self-motivated, and dedicated.

Disadvantages of online MBA programs:

  • Reputation may not be as high in some people’s eyes – namely hiring managers and recruiters.
  • Limited forms of learning media in some programs.
  • Work/life balance may get difficult at times.
  • Not as beneficial for those planning career changes.

Should You Choose an In-Residence or Distance Learning MBA?

Just like any other major life decision, it depends on the individual.

Every person has a different situation including goals, experience, finances, etc. You should judge your decision based on your personal situation and desires.

My Preference: As stated before, I prefer in-residence classes because they fit my learning style better. I have successfully completed online college courses before and did well in them. I felt I fully learned the required material, but I also felt like I missed out on discussions and other viewpoints, and I would have learned more from a face-to-face classroom environment.

That said, both sides have several pros and cons, and I cannot fault anyone for choosing to pursue an MBA online.

I believe you will get from it what you put in.

Importance of Business School Rankings

As I previously emphasized, where you obtain your MBA matters to employers. It’s important to do your research when selecting a graduate program.

At this point, you may be wondering how important rankings are?

Let’s take a look.

Business school rankings can play a very important part in your post-MBA employment. The US’s three most widely accepted rankings are compiled by US News and World Report, The Wall Street Journal, and Business Week.

Each company uses its own criteria to determine its respective rankings, but they are often fairly consistent as far as which schools are included in the top 20-25 overall (generally considered top-tier programs).

Though the same schools are usually considered top-tier by each of the rankings, the exact ranking may vary between each company’s list.

The Role of MBA Rankings:

There are several different MBA ranking profiles for MBA programs, each of which plays a different role.

Employer’s View of Rankings: top-tier schools continually produce highly sought-after employees. The relationship each school has among certain industries and employers can significantly affect how sought after their students are. Employers also view MBA programs differently. Some of the larger banks, Fortune 500 companies, and investment firms will only hire out of top-ranked programs, while many regional and local companies have long-standing relationships with smaller MBA programs and hire extensively through those schools.

Recruiter’s View of Rankings: Companies hire recruiters to fill their needs, and recruiters are going to do what it takes to find a match for the company. Because recruiters only get paid if their referral gets hired, some recruiters will spend more time and energy on the person who is most likely to get hired quickly and for the highest salary (on which the recruiter’s commission is usually based). Often times, the more highly ranked the MBA program is, the easier it is to find a job. This is not always the case, however, as each student brings different skills and abilities to their job search.

Specialized Rankings: The rankings in the lists provided generally cover the entire MBA program, but there are specialized rankings as well. For example, instead of attending the highest ranked school they get accepted to, some people would be better off attending a B-school program ranking very high for their chosen specialization, such as accounting, entrepreneurship, IT, finance, marketing, strategy, operations, or logistics.

What are the top-ranked MBA programs in the US? Rankings vary depending on which ranking system you choose to read. The three most popular are:

Common Questions Regarding MBA Rankings

Will attending a top-tier MBA program help my career prospects? Yes, to a degree. But your diploma alone does not guarantee you will get the career you seek. The most important thing a top-tier MBA does for you is guarantee you access to some of the world’s brightest professors and programs and an extensive network. Your network will be invaluable when you begin your post-MBA job search and can also pay dividends throughout your career. Your degree can open doors to interviews, but as I said in Part 1,  it will not guarantee you a job or career progression.

Do you need to go to a top-ranked MBA program to get a good job? No. Attending a top-ranked MBA program is great for your career prospects, but it is hardly a prerequisite for a successful career. In 2006, BusinessWeek surveyed the 500 top paid executives from companies in the S&P 500. According to the article, Is the MBA Overrated?, fewer than ⅓ of the executives had an MBA, and fewer than half of those had an MBA from a top 10 school. However, many of these individuals did have other specialized degrees such as law or engineering.

The most important thing to remember is this:

People with talent and drive will often find a way to succeed no matter what their background or situation.

A top-tier MBA does not define success.

Is the MBA rank the most important factor in choosing a B-school? No. Each person has his or her own needs when deciding which program to choose. And there are many options to choose from. Just because a school is not considered top-tier does not mean the school does not provide a valuable learning experience. There are many different programs and specialties to choose from, ones which may meet your needs better than any top-tier school can.

The MBA program I want to attend is not on any of the top-tier lists. Should I go there? That is up to you. Many factors will determine which MBA program is the best for you. Stay tuned for Part 7 of this series when I will cover “Other Deciding Factors for Choosing Your Program.”

My Opinion: Rank is important but not the most important factor in choosing an MBA program. The most important thing to determine is which school is right for you and whether or not that school will help you achieve your goals. If you feel like a top-tier program will benefit you in reaching your goals, then you should place more emphasis in your application to top-tier schools. If you decide you only want an MBA for the knowledge you will get in the process, then a top-tier program may not be necessary for your situation.

Unpacking the Cost of an MBA Program

After reading the frequently asked questions about MBA rankings in Part 4, you may be wondering how much an MBA will cost you.

With that knowledge in mind, here’s Part 5, where I’ll be breaking down the cost of obtaining your MBA and providing tips for paying for your degree.

Now, let’s get down to business.

MBA programs all have one thing in common – they are expensive. Of course, the term expensive is relative. It is probably not expensive if you are awarded a full scholarship or your employer is paying for your MBA. But if you are paying out of pocket like a lot of learners, then chances are, you consider it expensive, too!

How Much Does an MBA Cost?

For two years, many top-tier MBA programs such as Harvard, Kellogg, Wharton, etc. cost around $75,000 per year. By the time you account for tuition, books, fees, and living expenses, the total is usually well over $100,000 per year. Some programs cost upward of $250,000 for the entire program.

While this is a lot of money, most people who graduate from these programs earn a substantial salary in their post-MBA employment.

There are several other levels of costs for MBA programs. I investigated several programs that cost around $20,000 per year and some that were around $10,000 per year.

Whether you go full-time or have other expenses, the entire cost for these MBA programs can range anywhere from $30,000-$250,000 for a two-year program. Keep in mind these are only averages; your mileage may vary.

So how much does an MBA cost? Anywhere from around $30,000 – 250,000.

How Will You Pay for Your MBA Program?

Assuming you don’t have the money in savings, have an employer footing the bill, or have a rich uncle who offers to pay your costs, here are some options to pay for your MBA:

Scholarships: Many schools offer robust scholarship packages based on merit or need. It is always a good idea to investigate the availability of scholarships. You may just get one!

Grants: Grants are wonderful because they do not have to be repaid. There are grants to be had from schools, as well as at the federal, state, and local levels. Most grants are need-based, but there are others that are not.

Work/Study Programs: These are a great way to help pay your tuition or living expenses while attending school. Some schools offer you the chance to teach an undergrad course or do other work in the school, which will lower your tuition and give you a stipend. These programs can be very competitive, so check out your program’s deadlines and steps for acquiring an assistantship.

Student Loans: Loans are the least favorable option from this list because you must repay them, and you may not qualify for a good interest rate. The good news is, many banks are willing to extend loans for MBA students because they know once you graduate, you should be in line for a nice payday.

GI Bill: This is only available to military members and veterans; if you qualify for it, this is a great source of college funds. While it will probably not cover the entire cost of your education, especially at a top-tier MBA program, it is definitely a nice benefit to have. There are two GI Bill programs, the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB and the Post-9/11 GI Bill. The MGIB gives the veteran a check each month the veteran is enrolled in school. This check can be used for tuition, books, fees, living expenses, or anything else. The Post-9/11 GI Bill makes the payments directly to the school, but provides the veteran with an annual book allowance and a monthly housing allowance.

Other financial aid: Sometimes you need to get creative to find other sources of money. The Internet and your admissions office will be the places to look.

Negotiate: Sometimes, your negotiation skills may help you pay your tuition. If you have been accepted to a school you would really like to go to, but they offer you a smaller financial aid package than another school, you may be able to negotiate. This route will not always work, but it can’t hurt to try.

How Much Will an MBA Cost and is it Worth it? The Bottom Line.

Asking how much an MBA program costs is like asking how much a car costs. It depends on the model you get. For an MBA program, you will likely spend between $20,000-100,000.

MBA programs can be very expensive, but if you work hard or are lucky, you may be able to find alternate sources of funding and graduate with little debt.

Now the question remains… is an MBA worth the cost? Read on as we tackle whether or not the MBA is actually worth your while in Part 6.

Determine the Return on Investment (ROI) of an MBA Program

Now that you have an idea of how much an MBA program can cost, we need to examine if an MBA is worth the cost.

How? By determining what kind of return on investment (ROI) will you get for your troubles.

To determine your ROI, you need to examine a few factors:

  • Cost of MBA program: Once you have decided on which program you wish to attend, you will know roughly how much it will cost.
  • Opportunity cost: This is the forgone salary while you attend your MBA program.
  • post-MBA salary: Of course, this is an unknown for you, but thankfully most MBA programs keep track of this information for past students. You may be able to make a reasonable estimate based on those numbers.

Example MBA ROI:

For example, let us assume you currently earn $50,000 per year, and the MBA program you have been accepted to costs $20,000 annually. Assuming this is a 2-year course, you will spend $40,000 on tuition and give up $100,000 in forgone salary. However, the total cost of your program is not just $40,000; it is really $140,000 because you missed out on your salary for two years*.

Next, you take your post-MBA salary and determine how long it will take to make up the $140,000 difference. Let us assume your post-MBA salary is $85,000. For easier math, let’s say your MBA is directly responsible for adding $35,000 to your annual salary.

With the additional salary of $35,000 per year, you will earn back your $140,000 in 4 years.

Although it will take you 4 years to earn back the cost of tuition and lost salary, everything you earn after that is “profit.”

This is where your return on investment comes in.

To determine your ROI, pick a time period and plug in the numbers.

*For this example, we will assume the salaries will remain constant. Raises and promotions are wild cards and lead to more difficult math.

Example 5-Year MBA ROI:

Again, assuming no raises, we can determine a 5-year ROI of $35,000. This number is determined by taking your post-MBA salary, subtracting your pre-MBA salary, and subtracting the total cost of the MBA (tuition and forgone salary).

Salary (5 * $85,000 = $425,000) – (5 * $50,000= $250,000) = $175,000

Total cost of MBA (tuition and forgone salary) = $140,000

Total ROI = Salary – Total cost of MBA = ($175,000 – $140,000) = $35,000.

For 10 years, we get $850,000 – $500,000 – $140,000 = $210,000.

This is only a rough way to determine your ROI because it does not take into account raises or promotions.

Which MBA Programs Have the Best ROI?

Many MBA ranking systems such as BusinessWeek or US News collect details including pre and post-MBA salary, cost of tuition, fees, and expenses, average time to pay off student debt, and other information which will help you determine how much it will cost, how much you might earn upon graduation, and how long it may take to pay off. Keep in mind, these numbers are only averages.

Sometimes the best ROI is not where you think it might be.

The Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) published this document, Examining the Value Added by Graduate Management Education, which mentioned the ROI for a top 10 school is dramatically lower than other schools.

It is interesting to examine where the best deals for an MBA can be found.

Is an MBA Worth the Investment?

In many cases, getting an MBA is definitely worth it. Is it worth it for your situation? Only you can answer that question.

In my opinion, a big decision requires more than just an examination of dollars and cents. How badly do you want an MBA? Is an MBA necessary for your chosen career path? Can you afford to take time away from work? Sometimes the raw numbers don’t give you the best answer for you.

After all, the best investment you can ever make is in yourself.

ROI is just one element to consider when deciding on an MBA program.

Other Deciding Factors for Choosing an MBA Program

Throughout the course of this post, we’ve looked at some concrete factors to consider in pursuing your MBA.

Ultimately, it all comes down to choosing which MBA program best fits each individual.

Just like where you work, live, or what kind of car you drive, choosing an MBA program is a very personal decision.

We have examined whether or not you need an MBA, Program Types, MBA program rankings, cost, and ROI.

Now I would like to outline those and a few other important factors to help decide which program is best. Here they are, in no particular order:

Factors in Choosing an MBA Program

  • Program Reputation: Your MBA will stay with you for the rest of your life. So will its reputation. When considering a program’s reputation, you may need to examine how well your prospective school is looked upon by international, national, regional, or local employers.
  • Program Specialization: Sometimes the rank of the school is not as important as how well the school specializes in certain fields. Common specializations include accounting, entrepreneurship, IT, finance, marketing, strategy, operations, or logistics.
  • Program Flexibility: Can you choose a specialty, do you have flexible class scheduling, is the program a lock-step program (meaning you work with the same group of people in a rigidly structured schedule)?
  • In-residence or Distance Learning? Where and how you learn is a very important consideration. You have to choose the program and learning style you will benefit from the most.
  • Full-time or Part-time: Do you want to complete your MBA with no interruptions? Can you afford to take time off from earning a salary? Do you have more time to devote to completing an MBA program if you elect to go part-time? These are important questions to ask yourself.
  • Recruiting: Many recruiters assist MBAs in finding their jobs after graduation. I’d be lying if I told you recruiters didn’t have a preference when it comes to the schools they prefer, so consider your school’s reputation in the decision-making process.
  • Job Placement Statistics: Let’s face it, everyone who goes to an MBA program does it so they can get either a better job or a job in a different field. Most MBA programs keep detailed statistics about how long it takes for their graduates to find work, what field the post-MBA job is in, and other detailed career information. Some schools also have a dedicated group who will assist their MBAs in finding work.
  • Network: Many say the most valuable part of an MBA program is the network you gain when attending an MBA school. Of course, each school gives an MBA access to a different network. Some, of course, are much better than others.
  • Expected Salary: Most MBA programs keep detailed statistics about how much their graduates earn upon graduation, and many even have statistics for how much they earn at certain benchmarks such as 5 or 10 years after graduation.
  • Employment Goals: What type of job do you want? Where you go to school, your program specialization, your network, and a host of other factors can have a striking effect on your post-MBA employment.
  • Accreditation: Please, please, please, make sure your MBA program is accredited. Regional and AACSB are the most widely recognized accreditations for MBA programs, but there are others. If you get an MBA without accreditation, you run the risk of your MBA being perceived as one from a diploma mill. Do your research here. It is worth it.
  • Desired Work Location: Some schools are more widely recognized in certain regions. Determine how well certain schools are looked upon in the region where you desire to work. You can find this information by researching program rankings, contacting recruiters, or even contacting HR reps for companies you may want to work for.

How to Apply to an MBA Program With Great Success

So you’ve selected your MBA program, and now you ask yourself, “How do I apply to an MBA school?”

Great question.

Applying for an MBA program can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be if you are organized.

This guide should help you understand a little more about the application process.

Application: This is your personal information which usually includes your biographical data, scholastic background, and work history.

There is usually room to include other pertinent information, including academic and professional recognition, professional certifications, community service, clubs or organizations you belong to, or other information that may give the Admissions Council insight into your personality and professional prospects.

Resume: Your resume gives the Admissions Council a peek at your professional history, including growth, tasks and responsibilities, and career path.

They want to see that you have progressed and have a clear career path. Don’t worry, there is no “best job” for MBA applicants. MBA programs like candidates from all backgrounds.

Official Transcripts: The Admissions Council at your prospective MBA program will want to see your work at your previous schools and, more importantly, how well you did it.

Keep in mind that the Admissions Council will want official transcripts from all universities attended, not just the degree-granting universities.

GMAT Scores: The GMAT is the standardized test for B-school applicants. This is arguably the most important element of your application.

If your scores don’t at least fall into the normal median for accepted applicants, you probably will not be accepted to the program you apply to.

Essays: The essays are your money maker! This is your chance to tell the Admissions Council who you are, what makes you tick, why you would be a benefit to their program (not why their program would be a benefit to you!), and what your strengths and weaknesses are.

Letters of Recommendation: It’s one thing for you to tell the Admissions Council who you are and what you do, but it’s another thing for someone else to tell them. Especially when that someone else was in a supervisory position over you.

Interviews: This is another chance to shine in front of the Admissions Council.

Treat this meeting like a job interview – be confident – not arrogant, dress well, and give thoughtful answers.

Application Fees: Don’t forget to pay your application fees; they are important!

Remember, getting into an MBA program is a very competitive and detailed process for everyone involved.

You want to ensure you get accepted into the best program you can, and the schools want to ensure they have the best and brightest students attending their MBA program because it directly reflects their reputation and standing in the business community.

Do your best to prove to the Admissions Council that not only are you good enough to attend their program but that you will be a good reflection of their school and traditions.

Good luck with your application!

Step 1. MBA Application Paperwork

The MBA application process contains multiple parts, and one of the first things you will have to accomplish is the application itself.

Many people think they can breeze through when filling out the application paperwork, but the reality is the application paperwork says a lot about the applicant and his/her goals.

You should take your time and ensure everything is filled out completely and accurately. The good news is that many programs request similar information.

Tips to Help You Fill Out Your MBA Application Effectively and Completely

Brainstorm / Gather Information. Before putting pen to paper, write down everything you have done throughout your scholastic and professional career.

This will save you time when completing your application and ensure you have complete answers.

Double Check Facts. Make sure you enter the correct information, especially for your previous schools, employers, etc.

Proofread! MBAs are expected to be the cream of the crop. It does not look good for an applicant to misspell words or leave sections blank.

Have someone double-check your entire application package. If you turn in an incomplete application, the Admissions Committee may place your application on hold until it is complete.

If this happens, you could miss out on your desired application round.

Information required for an MBA Application

Each MBA program may have its own requirements, but the following list should be fairly similar to most programs:

Contact info – be sure to use a professional email address (not hotpants43 @ email.com!). You can get a free email address from Yahoo!, Google, Live.com, and others.

Biographical Data – Programs collect applicant information on age, race, marital status, citizenship, etc. Some even ask for family information such as your parents’ level of education and where they attended school.

Program you’re applying for – Many MBA schools offer multiple program options such as an MBA only, or joint degrees such as MBA/JD or MBA/MD, etc.

Expected area of concentration – Applicants should know their professional goals and choose their preferred areas of concentration, such as accounting, economics, finance, international business, marketing, logistics, operations, strategic management, etc.

Academic Background – At the minimum, this information will include the institutions you attended and when you attended them. Many applications also request info on extracurricular activities you participated in.

Professional Designations – Include any professional designations such as CPA, PMP, CNC, etc. These show you meet certain professional criteria.

Employment history – Info usually requested includes: current employer, industry, job title, job function, dates of employment, starting/ending salaries, etc.

List every post-grad job.

Future employment goals – Many programs want to know which industry you desire to work in upon completion of your MBA.

While many of the included items in the application may seem very personal, the Admissions Committee wants to know as much about the applicant as they can in order to pick the best fit for their program.

Sometimes, the application paperwork is all the AdCom has to judge by if the student is not able to interview for the program.

The application paperwork may seem trivial, but trust me, it is not!

Step 2. Create an Attention-Grabbing Resume

The resume you use for your MBA application should speak volumes about your professional and/or academic career.

Your resume will represent your entire career and educational experience, so you need to carefully craft it to make sure it has the impact you need to gain the Admission Council’s attention.

Include your contact info. First and foremost, your resume should identify who you are. Be sure to include your name, address, telephone number, e-mail account, etc. (no silly or risque e-mail accounts or voice mail recordings!)

Use a clean, professional design. A professional-looking resume makes a big difference.

Type with a simple font, and use headings and bullets for organization, and print on plain white paper with black ink.

Be clear and concise. Write action words to state your accomplishments and roles, and highlight your leadership attributes.

Delete fluff words that do not add value.

Remove jargon. Don’t assume the person reading your resume has intimate knowledge of the words that are specific to your industry.

Most of the time, they won’t.

Write so that someone from outside your industry can easily understand what you did for your organization and how you did it.

Quantify statements when possible. Which sounds better?

  • Participated in making a new computer organization system to track all of our company’s inventory.
  • Led a 12-person team in developing a $3 million inventory tracking system responsible for maintaining information concerning the location and status of 287,000 company assets valued at $108 million.

Include your professional history. You should demonstrate leadership growth through promotions, tasks, projects managed, etc.

Don’t forget to include internships and other work experiences that took place in a professional environment.

Include professional certifications, awards, and accomplishments. These are important items that give the Admissions Council insight into your professional makeup and abilities.

Include extracurricular activities. List the professional organizations, clubs, volunteer groups, athletic teams, and other groups you participated in.

Be sure to highlight any leadership positions or offices held.

This is important to the Admissions Council because you demonstrate the ability to be part of a team and show them you are not just living a singular existence.

Items Not Necessary for Your MBA Resume

References – You will have reference letters to accomplish this. Instead, use the space for more valuable information about your professional and educational background.

Mission statement – The Admissions Council knows why you are applying, and you will have essays to tell your story.

Instead, use this valuable space to a write one-sentence summary statement of who you are and why you will be a valuable addition to their program.

For example, I have 8 years of experience developing statistical-based software models and leading teams in a project management-based environment.

How to Organize Your MBA Resume

Order your resume as follows:

  • Contact information
  • Summary Statement
  • Work history
  • Community Involvement and Activities (include awards, offices held)
  • Educational background

Bonus tip: If anything on your resume changes between the time you send in your application and the time the admissions committee makes their decision, you may consider sending in additional information.

I would only revise if a substantial change is relevant to your application – for example, you move to another company, receive a promotion, or win a substantial award.

Some programs do not accept additional information, so be sure to call your respective school’s admissions office for more details.

Step 3. Which Transcripts Are Needed When Applying for an MBA?

Applying for an MBA program is no easy task!

Why transcripts are important: The Admissions Committee at your prospective MBA program will want to see your work at your previous schools and, more importantly, how well you did it. Keep in mind that the Admissions Council will want official transcripts from all universities attended, not just the degree-granting universities.

You need official transcripts from each undergrad or graduate program you attended. This means you will need a transcript from a university or other institution even if you only went there for a short spring term or summer school session.

Don’t worry about your grades! At this point, there is not much you can do about your past grades. Your coursework is completed, and your grades are set in stone. Instead, focus your energies on creating the best application you can – score high on the GMAT, write stellar essays, and send in a complete and accurate application.

Tips:

  • Get an official transcript!!! This is the most important step to remember. Many universities will issue unofficial transcripts to students, and some universities issue transcripts that are official only as long as the envelope is sealed. Be sure you send official transcripts with your MBA application!
  • Request your transcripts with plenty of time to spare – it may take several weeks from the time you request your transcripts until your prior university will be able to issue it to you.
  • Be aware you may have to pay for your transcripts. The cost can easily be $5-20 per transcript. If you are sending applications to several MBA programs, this may add up quickly!
  • Know where to have the transcripts sent. Some MBA programs prefer the transcripts to be sent directly to them, while others prefer they be sent with the rest of the application package. Do your research and have the application sent exactly where it should go.

Remember, your grades are already set in stone.

At this point, just focus on getting an official copy of them to the MBA Admissions Committee and let the rest of your application speak for itself!

Step 4. GMAT Scores (or Equivalent Test)

Most top-tier MBA programs require applicants to take a GMAT or equivalent standardized test.

Some executive programs do not require these tests but will require the applicant to have applicable work experience.

You should take these tests seriously, as scoring in the lower ranges on the test may not do you any favors in being accepted into the MBA program of your dreams.

While your standardized test scores are important, you may not need to ace the exam to be accepted into your program of choice.

Most top-tier MBA programs are looking for more than just high test scores.

The administrators want to see someone whom they believe will excel in the program and add to their school’s legacy.

This is why it’s important to have a well-rounded work experience and a highly crafted resume before applying.

Your application is more likely to be approved if you can prove to the admission board that you can not only score well on a test but that you bring other highly sought-after skills to the table.

Step 5. Essays (if Required)

Not all MBA programs require essays. But if yours does, take the time to show off your communication skills.

Soft skills, such as communication, leadership, acting as a team member, speaking, and interacting with others have become increasingly important in today’s workforce.

Schools and businesses don’t have problems finding people with knowledge.

There are plenty of people who can read a book and spout off equations and definitions. Instead, schools and businesses want leaders and followers who are able to function as part of a highly skilled team.

Use your essay to communicate what separates you from the crowd.

This should include concrete examples of times when were you faced with a challenge and excelled – or failed, and what you learned from it. Or consider writing about how an experience changed how you live your life.

There are hundreds of directions you can take.

Just make sure you write from the heart and that your essay is memorable from the hundreds of essays the admissions board will read during the application season.

Step 6. MBA Program Letters of Recommendation

Your Letter of Recommendation shows the admissions board what the letter writer thinks of you and your ability to grow in your career.

An excellent Letter of Recommendation can go a long way toward accepting your application or rejecting.

Asking someone for a Letter of Recommendation can be intimidating.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Here are some tips to getting a stellar Letter of Recommendation:

Choose wisely: You don’t want to ask just anyone to write a Letter of Recommendation. Make sure you ask someone who knows you well and can speak to your work abilities, character, and qualifications. You should generally choose a current or former supervisor (your current supervisor is generally better than a former one).

Help them to help you: You want to prepare the letter writer by providing him or her with a copy of your resume, some projects you have worked with under their supervision, and any additional information which may be helpful when writing your letter.

You should also provide them with your goals for starting the MBA program, the school or schools you are applying to, and instructions for the Letter of Recommendation.

You will want to give them a deadline for the Letter of Recommendation and plenty of time to complete it.

Finally, it is good form to follow up with a written thank you note after the writer provides the Letter of Recommendation.

Step 7. MBA Interview

Many MBA programs require an in-person or online interview using Skype or similar video service. This is your chance to reiterate the strong points of your application and address any potential shortcomings.

You should perform some mock interviews ahead of time, if possible, and rehearse potential questions and your responses.

This practice will give you more confidence and help you be better prepared for the interview.

In many ways, this process is similar to a job interview, so these job interview tips will come in handy.

Be sure to take your time before answering questions and to thank the interviewers when you wrap up the interview.

Final Tips for Applying to an MBA Program

Keep these things in mind:

  • Make a checklist. And follow it!
  • Make a calendar highlighting important application dates. This is the best way to stay organized and on track.
  • Apply for tuition assistance. Business school is expensive! Be sure to apply through the financial aid office for possible aid or scholarships. Even though you may have earned a lot of money in the previous year, if you plan on going to school full-time, you may be earning next to nothing during the school year. Every bit of extra money helps. Also – fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). All government grants or scholarships are determined based up the FAFSA, and many graduate schools use the form as well.
  • Apply for scholarships. Not every MBA program offers scholarships, but many do. Research your prospective program and find out if you are eligible for any scholarships through the school. There are also many places to find private scholarships, some of which may cover full tuition.
  • Give your application package a thorough screening. Double check everything in your application package to ensure it is the representation of yourself that you want to show the admissions committee. When it’s good, send it in.
  • Breathe. You’ve sent in your application; now, all you have to do is wait. By the way, it generally takes a few weeks or even a couple of months, so relax. There’s not much else you can do!

Bonus tip: If anything changes between the time you send in your application and the time the admissions committee makes their decision, you may consider sending in additional information. Call your respective school’s admissions office for more details.

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About Ryan Guina

Ryan Guina is the founder and editor of Cash Money Life. He is a writer, small business owner, and entrepreneur. He served over 6 years on active duty in the USAF and is a current member of the IL Air National Guard.

Ryan started Cash Money Life in 2007 after separating from active duty military service and has been writing about financial, small business, and military benefits topics since then. He also writes about military money topics and military and veterans benefits at The Military Wallet.

Ryan uses Personal Capital to track and manage his finances. Personal Capital is a free software program that allows him to track his net worth, balance his investment portfolio, track his income and expenses, and much more. You can open a free account here.

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  1. Bulldog Gin Co. says

    An online MBA will DEVALUE your creditials #1.

    #2, always get your MBA part time so your employer pays for it.

  2. CarolinaHRGuy says

    Great points, but the truth is that we don’t have enough knowledge to make the call on if an MBA is right for this person. There are so many factors to consider, it comes down to personal choice and looking at what you want that degree to do for you. Maybe it’s strickly ROI through the paycheck, maybe it’s the passion for learning, advancement opportunities, heck, maybe it’s to be able to sustain life after college on loans until you can figure out what you want to do.

    I’m a Regional HR Manager, and I will tell you that it’s not uncommon for hiring managers to seek out those with a Masters-level degree…that being said, I’ve rarely…actually never… seen anyone say, “we must have an MBA”. What I have seen in that Masters-level degree be what seperates candidate A from B. In many situations I believe it speaks to employers that you are serious about your field, and you have taken some sort of ownership in your own personal development.

    Do you want to know what the most incredible response I’ve ever heard when I asked someone about why they pursued a MS degree?

    It was a 32 year old Production Supervisor…he said something to the effect of…I’d like to be the best at what I do and I focused on my Masters degree at XXX university because I researched costs, accredidation and the program and found that it was the most cost effective way for me to gain that knowledge. I paid 13K start to finish, and now feel comfortable sitting in meetings with individuals 3-4 steps above me and holding my own.

    Doesn’t that sound smart to you?

    • Ryan says

      Thanks for the comment, CarolinaHRGuy. The guy in the article is me, and for my situation, an MBA is no longer my goal. I desire to learn more and go through the personal challenge, but my life has changed in the last few years, and I know that an MBA is not necessary for me to achieve my goals.

      And you’re right, the person you are referring to knew exactly what he needed to do to achieve his goals and he was motivated to do it. He is the kind of person every employer is looking for.

      • Ryan says

        Not all employers will foot the bill for a $30,000 education, but if yours will do it and you have the time and inclination to pursue an advanced degree, then it can certainly be worth it!

        My current employer offers tuition reimbursement (enough to cover a decent, but not top tier MBA program). However, I don’t have the time or energy to pursue it at the moment. Nor do I feel like it will help me as much as I would want it to.

  3. Financial Samurai says

    There’s really only one practical way to go, and that’s getting your MBA part-time and letting your employer pay for everything.

    I was making about $250,000/yr at the time, and there was NO WAY I could give up that income. Instead, I went part-time to a good school and the employer paid the $30,000/yr tuition. In the meantime, I was promoted as well.

    Don’t go full-time unless you’re absolutely sick of your job, have no job, or are super rich already!

    My article is simply entitled “To MBA or Not To MBA”

  4. Financial Samurai says

    You guys can also read “10 Day MBA” if you want to get all the download skinny in a couple days. I read the book and it’s pretty good.

    I have to admit though… i do enjoy looking at my diploma hanging in my hallway every time I come upstairs at home, and thinking back on all the good times, hardships, and friendships created during that time period.

    • Ryan says

      Many people say the network you gain while getting your MBA can be jsut as valuable (or more valuable) than the MBA itself.

      Learning principles is good, but I prefer the hands on experience.

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