Which business school should I apply to?
The answer to which school to apply to depends on many factors: curriculum; location of study or future employment; length of study; full time versus executive programme; start date (September, January or another time ); possibility of internship or placement; cost; quality of life; faculty, speakers, guest professors; quality and diversity of students; networking opportunities; partnerships with other schools, firms or industries; careers office.
However, arguably the most important of all is your career goals (short and long term) as this is basically the key reason why you need an MBA and a particular school to achieve them.
School Rankings & Reputation
It's unsurprising that the first things that many candidates look for, or prioritise in their choice is "a name", a reputation or where a school stands in the rankings (e.g. Financial Times, Business Week, US News and World Report, Economist, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, QS). Frankly, there must be few people in the world who haven't heard of top US educational institutions like Stanford, Wharton or Harvard, even if it's just from a side mention in a movie or a TV drama. Few people would turn down an offer from an elite school, given all the opportunities and the testament of your skills it gives you. However, whilst I would normally advise to aim as high as your experience, GMAT, and ambition allows, this is too simplistic for every person or candidate.
There are many great schools, and many great reasons to go to them, so although the highest ranking place or an historical eminence are key criteria for many, there are more. For example, in my role as admissions consultant for Kaplan, I recently worked with a candidate who had every attribute that a top 5 school could desire, yet he prioritised studying in a certain country to be close to a loved one; that school is coincidentally rising in the rankings. For other candidates it's more appropriate to apply to MBA schools that are seen as having a top offering and reputation in their specific chosen industry such as Cornell or Essec for Hospitality.
Even if you have all the attributes a top tier school is looking for, you might still prefer a different school for a multitude of reasons. You may find that your chances of being admitted increase, you have a better chance of winning a part or full scholarship, or you may graduate top in your class. This in turn should make you stand out during recruitment and interview time.
The world of the MBA school has become much more global in recent times for the obvious reasons of a more globalised economy and the associated needs of international business leaders. Previously, the US MBA was prized above all others; that has changed. Insead, with campuses in France, Singapore and Abu Dhabi is consistently seen in the top 10 (or even 5) of the Financial Times ranking, and all 3 top Spanish schools (IE, Esade and IESE) have seen their star and quality rise, whether from more people wanting to have the Spanish connection due to globalisation or that the school has strengthened its offering. China too is making a splash - for example CEIBS (China Europe International Business School) has shot up to a top 5 place with the FT ranking, and announced plans to launch a new Executive MBA program in Hospitality with École hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL).
Partnerships / Exchanges
Increasingly, schools are partnering with other schools to expand their offering and international experience. This offers great opportunities for students. Firstly, your MBA experience and education has expanded internationally and culturally; secondly, if you applied to one school and were rejected, you may still get the opportunity to study and network at that school through such a partnership. Columbia Business School for example has a wonderful variety of exchanges, including with London Business School, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Haas School of Business, to name a few.
As with financial investments, rankings go up and down, so on the whole, just look for the general location in the rankings to get an idea of the quality of programme. Frankly, rankings change annually, and different rankings are put together with different criteria so a couple of places either side each year is nothing really to worry about, but if the trend is downward by many points over several years, it's probably a good idea to look into why. Sometimes schools which have consistently topped the charts are seen to slide. This can be from a state of complacency or from competition from other schools, and reacting to a change in the MBA and global market may be associated with a lag (although arguably a top MBA school should be ahead of the curve as they are teaching these methods!)
Even though the application is made up of many parts, the GMAT often remains many people's way of deciding if they should even apply to a school, let alone get into a top school. Don't underestimate your other attributes though. A high GMAT score does not guarantee you a place, it just helps admissions remove doubt of verbal or quantitative ability. More than that, to get a good score generally requires dedication and an ability to manage your work and study time both attributes which are needed to excel on the MBA. Importantly, a high GMAT score can help address a low undergraduate grade and show your true academic potential. Kaplan’s GMAT specialists can tell you how to maximise your score.
During your school search, if possible, attend MBA Fairs, speak to alumni and current students, register for school visits and sit in on classes, if permitted. This will give you a "feel" for the right school for you. MBA Consultants, like myself, can also help if you finalize your list and give advice as well. Finally, do remember to keep a balanced view; one candidate I worked with many years ago visited their dream school of Wharton, and was initially put off by the area of Philadelphia in which Wharton is located, and which, at that time was just starting to be rejuvenated. I'm happy to say that the candidate was accepted, and she loved every minute of both her MBA and her life in the city where she studied.