Rescue Your Round-One MBA Application (Part III)

Continuing my Q&A with colleague Marlena (see also Parts I and II):

Anna: We hope this series is helping you get ready for Round One. But how do you decide where to send your applications?

Marlena: Let's talk about a kind of request that Anna and I sometimes get. A person we do not know will contact us by email with a question that gets straight to the point: Please name the MBA programs to which I should apply. Since several of you have written privately to ask for a list of programs, we know this question is on your minds. We appreciate your politeness and directness. Today we'd like to explain why this is not a question to which there is a quick and easy answer.

As an independent admissions counselor, my goal is to help you identify the programs that are the best programs for you. This is not the same as listing the best programs as such. Best—for what? For whom?

The best program for someone who wants to advance within his or her current company while studying part time in the city of X will not be the best program for someone who wants to change careers and double his or her income. Furthermore, the highest-ranked program may be a program for which you do not currently have the qualifications; so it would be pointless to say it is the best program for you.

That's why I need to get to know someone—his or her academic qualifications, grades, GMAT scores, work experience, recommenders, aspirations—and what the candidate is willing to do to achieve those goals—before I can begin to suggest MBA programs that are a match for that particular scenario.

Making a match depends also on soft factors, such as the culture of a program. Programs have personalities, much as people do. As an independent admissions counselor, I travel to schools to get a sense of the atmosphere on campus, in addition to hard data about, for example, recent placement records. I listen for news about what may be happening next year, not only what happened last year.

For all these reasons, it would be irresponsible of me to simply "name names." Anna, what do you think?

Anna: Agreed. That's also my philosophy when I'm counseling applicants. This also feeds into the topic of rankings, which we'll discuss in greater detail in another posting. Suffice it to say here that I don't think rankings are bad per se — they are often great starting points for applicants, but it's important for applicants to figure out what their own criteria are. Both you and I are "in the business," and even we are constantly learning more about programs out there.

You and I were just at a conference in New York where we visited NYU Stern and Columbia Business School, and last year I did visits to Kellogg and Chicago (now Chicago Booth). Any good admissions consultant is constantly educating herself and visiting schools because there's not one "right" program for everyone, and schools change over time, too.

For example, when we were at Stern a few weeks ago, I was very impressed with their special track for people interested in the film industry. I admit I had a personal interest. In my "former life" as an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles, I specialized in the financing of independent movies (with a lot of the funding coming from Germany because of a loophole in the German tax code — Hollywood movie deals often involve international finance). But aside from my professional nostalgia and trip down memory lane, I now know that I can happily and in good conscience recommend Stern to applicants who have career aspirations in that field. That's just one example. Is Stern at the top of everyone's list? Probably not. For someone seriously interested in the movie business, though, I would argue it should be at the top, or near the top. That's just one example.

I'll also point out that there are areas that we (Marlena and I) don't know as much about. For example, neither of us has much expertise in distance learning programs; the applicants we work with generally don't lean in that direction, and that's one of the reasons we love having people post their questions and experiences, because we can all "crowdsource" our knowledge. Our readers have lots of useful information, and we can learn a lot from each other.

Marlena: It was important for us to spend a little time examining the question, "What's the Best MBA Program?" I hope we've explained why the more meaningful question is, "What's the Best MBA Program for me?" In the next part of the series, we'll give you some information to get you started answering that question!


Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).