Friday, March 23, 2007

Do not waste the $250 GMAT fee. Do some research!

The $250 you shell out for writing the GMAT includes sending your score to 5 schools. The usual attitude is to get the GMAT done away with before starting on school research. It might seem like it is too early to shortlist schools before your GMAT, especially if you take the test early in the year. But considering the hefty cost of applying to each school, it makes a lot of financial sense to decide on the schools you intend to apply to (at least 5 of them) before writing the GMAT and hence save on the cost of sending additional score reports. This post will mainly cover the kind of school research you can do along with your GMAT preparation to have a reasonably final list of schools on test day.

I would divide school research into 2 parts:
  • Reasearch to identify suitable programs that meet your needs
  • Research to show fit with the school and alignment of your requirements with the schools' individual offerings.

The second part is more about the specifics of your chosen schools/programs. This research will unearth the microscopic school-specific data that will go into your essays to demonstrate that this school is the perfect place for you :-) (A separate post on this later maybe).

The first part is more about you and your needs. This research is mainly aimed at deciding whether you would want to attend a particular school and it is the part you can do before your GMAT. The following aspects greatly help you decide if you want to go to a school or not:

1. Rankings/Reputation
Whether you like it or not rankings exist and applicants, schools and recruiters do bother themselves with the rank and reputation of b-schools. I know these things are relative and should not matter ideally. But we don't live in an ideal world. However, the importance of rankings varies from person to person. There are 5 rankings in order of importance:

Do keep in mind that rankings are based on fixed criteria which may not be exhaustive. So, while it it is reasonable to want to study in a well reputed B-School, using the rankings as the sole criteria for school selection is not a very wise thing to do.

2. School website
The school's website is arguably the best source of factual information about a school. After narrowing down to a list of say 10-15 schools based on rankings, I would advise you to spend considerable amount of time going through each school's website. They have truckloads of information about academics and the culture of the school. Some schools even have interactive forums in which you can get your questions answered by current students/adcom members. From the website you should be able to glean enough information to decide whether a school has the required academic offerings for your chosen specialization, whether a school has enough extracurricular activities in your area(s) or interest etc. The website also tells you a lot about the teaching methods of the school (E.g. 100% case based, 50-50 lecture-case model). Another important piece of information a school's website offers is about the culture of the school. You can easily figure out if a school encourages a lot of teamwork, if it focuses more on leadership development etc. All this information put together should give you a fair idea whether a school is right for you or not.

3. Talking to people/Blogs/School Visits
It might be a little difficult to find students/alumni to talk to. But it's definitely worth spending the time to find people to talk to, especially if you cannot visit the school. Visiting the school is the best way to get a load of the pulse of the school and to see first hand what the general attitude of the students is. Talking to a couple of students/alumni can give you an idea (albeit a narrow one) about what life at school is like. Alumni can also give valuable information about job opportunities available post MBA. Reaching out and getting to know people who have been through the experience can really help you decide if you will be happy in a school. You definitely don't want to spend 2 years amidst people you cannot bond with...

4. Recruitment statistics
The school's website is the best place to obtain recruitment statistics which is a very important consideration before you zero in on a school. When you think of an MBA you also think of ROI and these statistics indicate your likely ROI after 2 years. However do remember that the statistics will be a little skewed by the highest and lowest income figures :D. It is also a good idea to visit the websites of the companies you are targeting and/or speak to people from these companies to find out how they perceive your target schools when it comes to recruiting.

5. Personal preferences
An MBA is 2 years of your life and you should really enjoy it. This means you need to make many choices. Do you want to live in a city or suburbs, how big should your class be, should the school be pet friendly, is night life important to you, how big a loan are you ready to take, other family constraints that you need to take care of, the list is endless. I feel personal preferences are equally, if not more, important than some of the other criteria I have outlined above. So do evaluate them before you decide to apply to a school.

Research is time consuming. But what I have described above can be easily done between your hectic workload and rigorous preparation routine. Keep the detailed research about club activities, courses, professsors etc. for after your GMAT. I feel it is enough to get answers for the basic questions before you shortlist 5 schools to send your score for free. Even if you change your mind later, you can always add/change your target schools. After all it's just about money. So don't excessively pressurize yourself and shift your focus from the test.