It's late February, already in the ebb of the current MBA admissions season.  As such, it's the perfect time for people considering applying next season to break out of hibernation and start tackling a part of the process that is often shortchanged: school selection.

In ten-plus years of MBA admissions consulting I have found that a large percentage of otherwise highly capable and focused people basically wing it when it comes to this list.  I'm just applying to all the top ten.  Top ten according to what source?  I realize now [after R2 deadlines have passed] I was overreaching.  Are there any good schools I can still apply to?  Probably.  I'm applying to H/S/W, with Duke as my safety.  Duke as your safety?   By starting to plan your list of prospective schools now, you can avoid these and similar problems (yes, these responses are all problems).

By taking a thoughtful, systematic approach to school selection, you will save time, money, and effort (even if you expend more of all initially).  You will save precious energy for the applications.  You will be able to start planning school visits and recommendations, two things that often get tangled up when approached in the heat of the application season.

Over the next month I will present a series of blog posts providing tips and approaches to developing a solid list of schools.  Each person's needs are unique, and there is no one formula that works for everyone, so it will be less a step-by-step process than a guide showing what questions to ask yourself, how to answer them, and make decisions accordingly.  We'll cover assessing your profile; determining your needs, wants, and dislikes; the role of rankings; how many schools to apply to; and other topics.  We'll also provide examples.

Ready?  Here are a couple of things you can and should do right now to get started on the school selection process for next season:

  • Capture on paper or whatever electronic medium you prefer those random thoughts that have been floating around in your head, e.g., top 10; friendly to older applicants; strong quant focus; need to be able to fly home to my ailing mother in an hour.
  • Read blogs of MBA students not just at schools you're already interested in but from a wider array, to get a subjective feel for different programs and your responses to them (pay attention to your responses!).
  • If possible talk to MBA students and ask them about their school selection process; what went well and what proved difficult or problematic; what they would do differently.
  • Visit schools now!  Visit schools you know you are interested in (you can always re-visit later), schools you might be interested in, even schools on the margins.  It's the perfect time: schools are in session, you're not pressed by the application process yet, and it's close enough to application time for your insights to be relevant if you discuss them in essays.  Take advantage of any travel you may do for business or pleasure to schedule a visit, rather than trying to cram everything in the fall - a time when you'll be even busier than usual with applications plus work.  Moreover, visiting now gives you time to digest and reflect on the experience.

By Cindy Tokumitsu, co-author of The Finance Professional's Guide to MBA Success, The Consultants' Guide to MBA Admission, The EMBA Edge, and author of numerous MBA articles and the free, email mini-course, Ace the EMBA.