width=280Advice for applicants based on the results of TopMBA.com Research in 2005/6

Over 100,000 people a year choose to study for an MBA all over the world. With young professionals recognising that there are no jobs for life, an MBA can provide skills to make an individual more marketable and to provide greater career choice.

If you are interested in becoming an international manager you my soon join the ranks of qualified MBAs. But business schools are not all the same. You need to carefully research your choice of school to ensure that it matches your personal requirements. A systematic process for making your business school choice should be adopted. QS World MBA Tour and Topmba.com conduct annual research of 400 business schools, 50,000 MBA applicants and 500 MBA recruiters to assist you, and some of the findings are summarised below.

Step 1: Why should I take an MBA?

The very first step is to analyse your personal motivations for taking an MBA. Are you a career switcher, or a career progresser? Is a jump in salary what matters most, or do you seek international experience? Is your primary goal to broaden your education and your horizons, or to develop specialist skills for career enhancement? An honest self-assessment will save you a great deal of time and energy and help you make a more focused selection of schools. Our research demonstrates that MBA applicants around the world take an MBA for career related reasons. Consistently, career progression and skills development are the main motivators to take an MBA. A career change is the next primary reason, with salary enhancement less important. Few people take an MBA just for the education, though we have seen a jump amongst respondents selecting this option in our 2006 research.

MBA Study Motivation % 20042005
Enable a career change48.0%40.2%
Improve career prospects 83.4% 71.0% 
Boost salary 37.6% 29.4% 
Start own business 27.3% 24.8% 
Learn new skills 69.6% 54.8% 
Improve education 10.0% 



Step 2: Self-assessment to identify my career goals

The second thing to do when considering business school is to try to narrow down the types of career you might like to pursue, balanced by a realistic self-assessment of your current abilities and skills base. Examine your motives carefully. Determining where you want to work after your studies should be a major part of this process. Why ask these questions? For practical reasons, most business school application forms ask for your career aspirations. They want to see a clear, cogent explanation of where you want to be in the future and why that school can help you get there. For example, if you think you want to become a management consultant or an investment banker with a starting salary of over US$90,000, there are only 50 or 60 international business schools, of which 50% are in the US, where these companies actively recruit. If you wish to work in a particular country, you may well be better off taking your MBA in that county and accessing the school's local recruiter and alumni network.

Step 3: Budget and study mode

The full time MBA is still by far the most popular programme in terms of candidate numbers. Part time and executive MBAs are growing, but are still quite small by comparison. The standard period for an international full time MBA in the US is two years. Schools such as Wharton, Harvard and Stanford cost approximately US$35,000 for tuition per annum. In Europe, London Business School offers a two year programme, whereas IMD, INSEAD, Cranfield, Warwick and other leading programmes are one year. In Europe, the annual cost of an MBA can be as little as £5000 or as much as £31,000 for tuition, with books and living expenses a further cost. However, financial aid opportunities exist that can make the most costly programmes affordable. Scholarships are offered by a variety of organisations, and many local banks offer low-start loans for the period of your study. Individuals are advised to apply to the school of their choice and to make specific enquiries about funding options. If you wish to carry on working during your MBA, this will narrow down your choice of schools very quickly. Part time, executive MBA and distance learning study become the only options. (Candidates interested in executive MBAs should refer to TopExecEd Guide for details). For example, over 25,000 people are now using distance learning for an MBA or similar diploma with British institutions alone. Average costs for distance learning vary from £4,000 to £20,000 spread over 3 to 8 years. Within the Distance Learning arena, the schools most often referenced by HR Directors in The MBA Career Guide research include: Aston, Durham, Henley, Heriot-Watt, Manchester Business School, Open Business School, Strathclyde and Warwick.

Step 4: Determining the critieria for your choice of school?

Despite the media frenzy surrounding rankings, our research suggests that candidates vary significantly in terms of the criteria which matter to them in selecting a business school. During the World MBA Tour, candidates can review TopMBA Scorecard - a radically new applicant research tool which will allow them to apply their own weightings to a detailed set of selection criteria. Our research indicates that the most popular selection criteria for choosing a business school (all of which appear in TopMBA Scorecard) are the following: International reputation is the most important selection criterion - reputation amongst recruiters is an indicator of the quality of a programme. As a rule, the stronger the reputation of a school, the higher the salary at the end of the programme (but for weaker candidates this may be counterproductive, as overly high salary expectations can lead to a frustrating job search).

(% applicants rating each one very important)

B-School Selection criteria

1 International reputation/prestige    85%

2 Career placement record               81%

3 Return of investment                     80%

4 Scholarship availability                  75%

5 Specialisations & teaching style      71%

6 Recent school ranking                   65%

7 Quality of faculty research             59%

8 Profile of participants                    55%

9 Location                                       50%

10 Course length and flexibility         45%

Career placement record is second - helping candidates in their job search is a key component of the MBA. Each business school has a career service department. Some schools attract companies to come on campus to interview students. The Wharton School in Philadelphia attracts as many as 400 companies to campus, of which roughly 300 are US-based recruiters and 100 are international recruiters. INSEAD and LBS attract between 100 - 200 companies to campus, most of which are international recruiters. Today, the majority of MBAs find their jobs through an off-campus search and over 100 business schools subscribe to TopMBA/Careers, the leading online jobs network for MBA students. Return on investment is the third criteria - candidates are not looking for low cost MBAs (only 10% selected low cost). Generally they are looking for a long term career benefit measured by accelerated career progression and salary uplift - the problem is measuring this! Scholarship availability - most MBA applicants admit that a scholarship would be nice, but not essential to their choice of taking an MBA. However, receiving a partial or full scholarship can make a big difference to a candidate's choice of school. Anyone lucky enough to have a choice of schools can actively seek financial incentives. Specialisations and teaching style - as candidates become more familiar with the business school arena, they begin to narrow down their slection based on school strengths which match their own interests. Though many MBAs are general management programmes, an increasing number emphasise areas of particular strength. Rankings - exert an important influence on school reputation, but with the proliferation of rankings in recent years, there is evidence of growing scepticism and a desire on the part of applicants to dig deeper. Quality of faculty research - a school's reputation for producing original research influences overall prestige, but plays second fiddle if there is no obvious career benefit for the candidate. Profile of participants - longer average level of work experience, average GMAT score, percentage who are from overseas, educational background, languages required, success of alumni are all important differentiators. Location - as more and more candidates become internationally mobile, the choice of location is figuring ever more highly on candidate lists. This makes sense. Often a candidate is best advised to study in the region where he/she wishes to work, because the job search will be easier, and access to networks and alumni should be superior (subject to visa availability). Course length - the choice between one year and two years is never easy. Do you learn more if you study longer? - probably. Do you save money by taking a shorter course? - in the short term.

Step 5: Which information sources should I use?

MBA Applicants are faced with a large range of rankings and information sources. Rankings are a popular method for determining school reputation, but with so many rankings, all producing different results, it is becoming quite complex for applicants to judge which are the best schools. In the context of our MBA applicant research, respondents were asked which information courses they found very useful in their search. Face-to-face meetings with representatives of the schools proved to be the most popular information source for MBA applicants (80% of respondents found the QS World MBA Tour very useful). Business Week rankings and TopMBA Career Guide were the next most popular sources of information. University web sites and brochures were also popular, followed by various other published rankings.

Next Steps for MBA Applicants

For more information on business schools:

  • TopMBA Career Guide &
    TopMBA Scorecard - compare and contrast key facts about 200 different MBA programmes: costs, specialisations, entry requirements, reputation etc. The Guide and Scorecard are available at all World MBA Tour fairs. 
  • Global 100 Business Schools Research - asks MBA recruiters to identify the schools they target for MBA recruitment. This helps identify the 80 most popular schools in the US and Europe as well as the 20 most popular schools in Australasia and Latin America. In addition, a detailed report on MBA salaries, recruitment trends and school specialisations is provided. The report is available on the web site
    www.topmba.com/bookstore/ or at the fairs. 
  • QS World MBA Tour. One of the best ways to choose the right school is to actually meet with Admissions officers. Admissions offices of over 300 leading business schools will visit over 72 cities in 5 continents, with the QS World MBA Tour (in the Spring and Fall). Cranfield School of Management says, Schools rely on MBA fairs to reach the growing international audience, and for candidate and school alike, this remains the most important tool in the applications process. Beth Flye, Admissions Director of Kellogg agrees: these fairs attract the types of candidates we seek.