You’ve decided to go. Make a good plan! Part 1: Target the schools

It’s fall 2016 and you’re probably planning your application strategy for the rest of this year, and winter of next year.  You’ve been reading websites and articles about b-school overall, and are developing your target list of schools from your research.

It’s about time to move from thinking about b-school to doing something to make it happen.

How many should you apply to?  And how do you rule out schools that are total long-shot applications, and schools that aren’t worth your investment of time or money?

First, look carefully at your expected ROI from any school investment.  Go beyond the published numbers to figure this out for yourself looking at your forgone salary, what job you’re targeting out of school, etc.  ROI won’t be your only factor, but it’s good to know what to expect.

Second, don’t apply to any school that, if you were accepted, would make you sigh or feel disappointed to plan to go there.  If you can’t be totally pumped about your prospective school, keep looking until you find the school that’s right for you.

Third, unless your “safety school” is a school that you’d be totally stoked to attend, don’t apply to a “safety school”.  Apply to a stretch school if you like the school.  And apply to one to three target schools that you really like.  But there’s no need to get in somewhere just to be admitted.  Find some other, more effective and less expensive way to get the same knowledge.

Fourth, don’t complete more applications than you can really handle well.  I applied to three schools.  For most people, the right number is probably between three and six.  Ten is too many.

Fifth, understand the differences in the cultures and focuses of the schools.  Very broadly, there are general management focused schools, marketing focused schools, schools with a strong technology focus, and schools that are highly focused on quantitative analysis.  Within these categories, the schools have different feels from each other.  Harvard and Dartmouth are both general management schools, and are only a short distance apart on the map.  But your experience of attending either will be very different from attending the other.

Here’s how to pick the schools where you’ll apply.

1.       Read about the schools

2.       Reach out to as many alumni of the program you’re targeting as humanly possible.  Take many people to lunch, coffee, or drinks.  Set up phone calls with the others.  Your goal should be to meet with at least six to ten alumni of any school to which you are considering applying.  Think about it: You’re about to move your house, spend a quarter million dollars, set yourself on a particular career track, and change who you’re hanging out with.  If you don’t have time to do these informational meetings, you’re probably not yet serious enough about making the best decision!  Your agenda for these meetings:

a.       Are these the kind of people I want to emulate?

b.      How was their experience at school?

c.       How was their experience with recruiting through the school or through its alumni network?

d.      How do they reflect on the value that school added to their life and career since their graduation?

e.      Would they make the same decision again?  Why?

f.        What, if anything would they do differently?  Why?

3.       If possible, visit the schools where you plan to apply before your application.  First, this will give you the best information about how it feels to be there.  I followed this process for my visits: I’d set up the classroom visit through the admission office.  Then, through the alumni that I’d met in step two above, I’d ask for introductions to the current class.  While you’re on your visit, do info meetings with at least three current students.  In these meetings, see if there’s some activity going on that you can crash that evening: A party, a club event, a case competition, a notable speaker coming to campus.  Second, you’ll be able to reference your visit in your applications, citing specifics why you fit with the school and demonstrating a degree of commitment to that particular school.  The schools love themselves.  It helps if you can persuade the admissions committee that you love them too.

If after following this process you still want to apply, you’re probably ahead of most applicants in formulating your “why” for grad school.  Congratulations!

Matt Miner