Things to consider before getting your MBA

February 15, 2011

U-M's Ross School of Business is a top business school right in our own backyard.

Getting your Master of Business Administration can be a pivotal tool for positioning your career for long-term success. The MBA is often a way to push one’s career to the next level, or to orchestrate a change in career from one field to another. MBAs are not just for those with a business background, but can be used by those in the creative, engineering, medical and other non-business fields to allow those professionals to move to more managerial roles within their organizations.

The biggest questions you have to ask yourself before getting an MBA are: “Why an MBA?” and “Why now?” You need to have a clear goal for what your MBA will achieve and know that now is the right time in your life to pursue this. I firmly view any degree as a means to an end (although an MBA can be a very busy, fun, and challenging means). If you can get from A to C without going through point B, the MBA, then I suggest doing so. If you want to get an MBA simply because you’re bored of your current situation, then perhaps you may way to do some soul searching before outlaying the level of cash and time it takes to participate in an MBA program.

If you decide that you are getting the MBA for the right reasons and that now is the best time in your life to do so, then the next step is to determine which MBA is right for you. This is important because the nature of which type of MBA to pursue is as key as the decision of whether to pursue one. The MBA is offered in full-time, part-time/weekend, accelerated, distance, and executive varieties, and there are hundreds of different schools to choose from.

Here is a breakdown of the different types of MBA programs:

Full time: The full-time MBA program is a traditional two-year education which totally immerses the student in the process. This level of commitment necessitates leaving one’s current job and jumping in with two feet. The advantages of a full-time program can be greater access to recruiters (in many schools, however, there are no special benefits for FT candidates), an opportunity for a summer internship, and high levels of bonding with classmates. For many, the close bonds with students dedicating nearly every waking hour to each other and their studies forms a robust and powerful network which is often a key source of value to the MBA.

Part time: The part-time MBA program is suited for individuals who want the benefits of an MBA education without having to leave their current job and income stream. This is ideal if you do not want to change careers, and thus don’t need an internship and networking/recruiting opportunities that would otherwise be necessary to break into a new job.

Accelerated: Growing in popularity is the accelerated 1-year MBA. This is a full-time degree, but is accelerated into a 1-year program. The downsides of this are less time to develop personal connections with your classmates, less time with professors in and out of class (necessarily as the program is simply shorter), and the lack of an opportunity for a summer internship. Nonetheless, you save the opportunity cost of 1 year’s pay and career development.

Distance: Online MBA programs are growing in popularity, as they allow for a flexible learning process. However, aside from the sheer technical knowledge, opportunities for networking and bonding among your peers are significantly impaired.

Executive: This program is designed for those individuals later in their career who are looking for the MBA polish that can move them forward. These are often part-time in nature, but programs offer varying formats.

Once you know what type of MBA you want to obtain, these are some factors to consider when deciding which particular school to attend:

Specialization: The MBA is a broad-based business degree, although concentrations exist at many schools and often certain schools will specialize in certain areas of study.

Recruiting: Any MBA program worth attending will publish a comprehensive career services report. I strongly suggest reviewing this to see the types of companies and industries hiring MBAs. Also check out the starting salaries of the MBAs in your field, as this can be used as a good starting point for expectations post-MBA.

Location: A major factor is the geographic location of the school, as this has a huge outcome on the recruiting opportunities, which are often strongest in the area local to the particular school.

Fit: You are joining a community of students for life. At a recent presentation for an MBA admit class, I was told “even wives and husbands come and go, but your MBA classmates are yours for life.” There are certain intangibles that go with the overall culture and attitude of each school. You can do research, but the best way to find out is to simply go and visit. Talk with students. Get a feel for the overall culture and see if you mesh well. Its difficult to quantify, but fit can be the most important factor to determine which school is right for you.

After determining the right type of MBA program and the right schools for you, its time to plot out your application strategy. Usually candidates are limited to applying to about 5 or 6 programs, as each requires comprehensive essays and letters of recommendation. A good rule of thumb is to apply to a couple of stretch schools, a couple of target schools, and a couple of safety schools to give yourself the best odds of getting into a program.

Before applying, see if your school requires first taking the GMAT (although some schools now accept the GRE, I suggest taking the GMAT unless you have a history of progress in academia). Most schools will post their average GMAT and a “middle 80%” range of scores which describe the majority of the school’s GMAT scores. Use this as a guide for what type of score you need to be shooting for.

The MBA is a huge commitment that has the power to fundamentally transform ones career. However, before jumping into just any program, make sure you’ve done the research to determine the best way of achieving your goals.

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