Research is essential during the initial stage of your b-school application process.
By research, I do not mean that you should take a quick look at the rankings and select the top schools. You should do serious, firsthand research. If you rely on rankings, you might end up confused, as the rankings vary widely from school to school. There are many ways to research programs and I recommend a little bit of everything:
Schools publish their virtual brochures online. These should detail each program’s philosophies, special programs, recruiting statistics, professors, and more. It’s worth spending some time scouring each school’s site. You can also visit more general MBA informational sites for informal reviews, opinions, and false rumors. If you do peruse forums and unofficial sites, do so with caution.
There are often opportunities to attend larger events where many business schools come together to meet and greet prospective applicants. There you can chat informally with representatives, gather brochures, and view a large number of schools at once. These forums can be a good first step to help you narrow down your list of schools.
The school visit
I am frequently asked whether or not to visit target schools. A visit is certainly not necessary, and most schools will tell you that it has no impact on their decision. However, if it is financially feasible and fits into your schedule, I always recommend a visit. A visit can help you decide where to apply, and, should you decide to apply to a particular school, you'll have developed a better understanding of the school’s culture. You can then apply this knowledge to your essay and interview.
If you're unable to visit campus, or even if you can, business school information sessions can be a great way to learn more about a particular program and interact with admissions representatives, students, or alumni. These sessions dominate the calendar in the late summer and early fall, and my clients always want to know whether these are worth attending. They are.
Outside of formal school visits and information sessions, speaking with current students and alumni is very helpful. These individuals will, hopefully, be very honest in sharing their experience with you. They may describe an aspect of the school that they love, but might not appeal to you. Some applicants are fortunate, and are friends, or work with, students and alums from every school. Others will need to be more creative. You might network and speak with a friend of a friend. Call or email your target schools and ask to be connected with someone who has similar interests. You can also search online for contacts at relevant clubs and ask to speak with them.
The bottom line: Doing careful research on various business school programs upfront will ensure that you do not make a big mistake and attend the wrong program for you.