A Guide to choosing the right MBA program
Last updated on March 14th, 2017
One question that frequently pops up in a MBA aspirant’s mind is – ‘How do I go about choosing the right MBA program?’
This is probably the second most important decision of your life, after the one you make about whom to marry! ☺
In terms of your commitment, an MBA costs you 1 to 2 years, and between 50 lacs to 1 crore on an average ( including opportunity costs).
The difficulty of choosing the right MBA program is further aggravated by the fact that all the brochures and websites look the same and talk the same language!
But let us begin with a more fundamental question –
Why would anyone do an MBA?
There are two reasons we keep hearing again and again:
My job sucks: Many of us are stuck in jobs we don’t enjoy. Maybe the work is boring, maybe there is no easy way up, maybe we just want to start over. An MBA seems like a very alluring ticket out of boredom.
I want to make more money: For good or bad, we live in a capitalist market – and a lot of us seem to want to make more money and retire rich. An MBA seems like a good option to achieve this end.
But, these are reasons you would ( should not) not put down in your application.
If you were to look deeper, beyond just money, there are many valid, real reasons why an MBA will help your career.
In some positions, in order for you to reach a particular position, it is mandatory to have an MBA. If you look at a typical IT profile, you eventually become a project manager because of your skills. But after that, becoming a delivery manager or a VP is not as easy. What has taken you so far may not be enough to take you forward. What does it take to be successful at the start of your career? You need to be smart, hardworking and show results. After a point, once you reach middle management, you will realise that everyone else on the table has similar traits which is what bought them there. At this stage, an MBA could be your differentiator.
This is applicable for people who are still in the early stages of their career. ‘I got into IT, because there is no option but to do engineering- the only companies worth paying something those days were IT companies. When I looked at the package, I didn’t think I would end up doing mundane work. But now with experience, when I look forward, the future looks really bleak, my potential lies in something else.’
Does that sound like you?
An MBA gives you the pedestal to reach out to another career.
It’s not easy to switch careers after a certain number of professional years have passed. If you have 10 years of experience and you’re 32, your chances of breaking into the financial belt are slim. In fact, it may not be worth it because after 10 years of experience, you don’t want to start at the bottom of the ladder once again. But if you are aiming to shift your career after 2-3 years of working in one area, an MBA fits the bill perfectly.
An MBA is not really going to make you an expert in anything. Knowledge is important but how much of what you learnt in school or college do you remember? Probably very little. When you go to a Bschool, you have a better appreciation and perspective of the business world, but in terms of pure cold knowledge, you won’t learn much that you can’t learn from a book.
B-schools don’t want you to be an expert or manager, but a leader- a CEO. You’ll have a lot of people reporting to a CEO- HR, Sales & Marketing, Finance. On an average, the span of control of a CEO is not more than 6 reportees. The idea is that each one of them manages the entire vertical by themselves.
For example, in the technology field, is the CEO expected to understand technology and argue with the techie on why a particular architecture should be in that way? No. He only needs to understand what is the cloud and how it will affect the total cost of ownership of his solution, how to implement or leverage IT for whatever he’s doing.
Similarly, if you deal with Sales, you just can’t go and say to your salespeople “My next target for you is 5 million dollars.” They will tell you how the market is poor and give you dozens of reasons as to why the target can’t be met. As a CEO, can you stand, look eye to eye and say, “these are the numbers and this is how we’re going to do it. “
Take finance for example. This guy has a truck load of charted accountants working for him. Are you going to say that you know more accounting than him? Probably not right? However, you do need to know enough of finance, you need to know how equity is raised in a company, how underlying money is being utilised and so on. You need to know how to read a balance sheet and recognize patterns in it.
If you look at HR, one of the toughest jobs that a CEO has is the mandate that is usually given when he enters the company. The morale of the company is very low and you are expected to charge them to have a high performance team. It’s like you went to college, got 50000 graduates who have no clue why they’re there, put them on bench and you’re expected to somehow magically transform them on how they see the company and how they see the future. But that’s a challenge right. Sometimes the HR would say, “There’s no need to worry, some other company is having a 20% acquisition. We can have a 17% acquisition.” The right question to ask at this point would be, “Why should our company have 17% acquisition? “
So coming to the point, an MBA at best, is a general management program teaching you cross functional skills. It is not expected to make you an expert in any one field. You need to be a generalist rather than a specialist – this is the knowledge that an MBA imparts to you.
This is a word you keep hearing. So what is networking? Do I go to a B-school to build my network? How do I measure it? Do I measure it by the number of people that I add on Facebook? Or the number of connections I’ve made in LinkedIn?
I think a lot of people have a misconception that networking is the number of people that you directly know. But it’s not that. The way in which you need to probably look at this is how many people do you know who in turn know people who are important enough.
If I were to give an analogy, you are surrounded by 10 other powerful people who have large networks. If you have 500 such connections and each of them in turn have 500 connections, you actually have 250000 connections- the actual reach you can access.
How do I know each of these guys? Here’s the good news. When you graduate from a top B-school, the whole world acts like an old boys’ school association- that’s the truth. People like you not because they know you but because you went to the same school. How many times has it happened to us that we meet someone who happens to come from the same city as we do, or went to the same school and the first conversation that you strike up is “Hey, so good to see you. What happened to that guy? That teacher we had? Which dorm were you living in? and so on.
So the point is, people know you only because you graduated from the same school. They don’t know you because you added them on Facebook or LinkedIn. But eventually, if you were to add them – if you tell them you’re an alumnus from Stanford, they would become your friend. Now, how do you leverage that? Let’s say you’re a businessman. There are 180 places where HBS has an alumni association. If you go to Botswana and you want to set up your business over there, you just need to go to HBS Botswana chapter and you’ll probably find a couple of people who are going to help you deal with the government and the local policies.
Of course you need to know people, but it’s important to know people who are in turn powerful.
What does brand equity mean? It means the recognition or the value of your title. Let’s assume you were to come across someone who has an MBA from a top school – the moment you hear that the person has an MBA from Stanford, you automatically confer a high level of intelligence and smartness upon that person that would otherwise take a person a few months to prove.
A lot of times I’ve seen that in consulting when there is a client case, the manager would come in and say “Hey, we got the new associate on role. Don’t worry he’s a smart guy- he’s an MBA from Harvard.” The moment they say this to the client, the client is assured. He assumes that he’s perhaps got one on the best minds to work on his case. So brand equity definitely helps.
This is a question that usually comes when people have accumulated more than a few years of experience. Usually self-growth occurs when you start working- you spend a couple of years of doing the same thing. And then, one day you wake up and say- “Hey, you know what? I don’t want to wake up to the sound of the buzzing alarm and the grind of the traffic and get to work and sit in this little cubicle tucked away somewhere in some corner of my company’s premise. I’m looking for something a lot more fulfilling in my life.”
An MBA helps you take out 2 years of your life and give time to yourself. This is something that a lot of people won’t accept readily, but I think it’s a great way to think about an MBA. So think about all the financial instruments that you’ve invested when you probably started your career. Think of fixed deposits, think of the stock market.
Probably, the only financial instrument, if I could call that one, is your career. The biggest investment that you want to make is in yourself which is why self- growth is a very important aspect.
Probably the last time you had the freedom to learn and grow on your own time was when you were in college. At that point of time, you had the independence, but you did not have a perspective. Now, when you’re working, you have the perspective, but unfortunately you do not have the independence and the time.
What an MBA does is it gives you that independence along with the perspective because the next time that you’re going to get the same independence for a year or two is probably after 35 years – after you retire.
Change of Geography-
You have lived in India, worked in India and India’s been all that you have known, but let’s say you now want to go and work in the US. But, you don’t want to work as an entry level programmer and the chances of going through an Indian company through L1 seem to be very slim.
Whether you want to go to Singapore, Europe or the US, an MBA gives you an opportunity to explain to them that you’ve been in this culture for the last 2 years and you’ve have taken so much course work, you’ve worked with peers and professors, all of whom understand this culture. The entry-level barrier drops steeply when you have studied in the country you want to work in.
Choosing the right MBA program
Post MBA Goals-
The first thing you want to ask yourself is what is it that you want to do post your MBA? Can you specify which country you want to work, which industry you want to work in, what is the kind of title you’re looking at. It is very important that you look at your post-MBA goals and fit in the MBA program that will help you realise your goals. For example, if I want to be a consultant at McKinsey and I end up going to a B-school where McKinsey does not even come for interviews, then the chances of getting into McKinsey are next to zero. Be clear about your post MBA goals and how your MBA program fits into it.
1-year v/s 2-year courses-
The second question that I keep hearing a lot is whether I should go for a one-year program or a 2-year program. According to me, if you’re above 30, if you’re married, have kids, you already invested in a house, then probably a one year is meant for you.
If you’re 24, you have a couple of years of college experience and you don’t have any liabilities, probably you should be looking at a 2-year program. Especially if you’re deciding on a career change, a 2-year course is always preferable over a 1-year program.
Is there a thumb rule or a way in which I can decide whether a 1-year program or 2-year program is better? It’s like neither is better- it’s just a question of where you are. It’s a very subjective question. Usually what happens is, the people who are struggling with this question would be 28, about to get married – they are just around the threshold- they are not 22 and unmarried. Nor are they 32 and married with kids- they are somewhere in between – this zone is where the confusion is.
2 years is more expensive but you also have an opportunity to do your internship- it’s a lot easier on you mentally because you have time to assimilate the course. One year is obviously going to be relatively inexpensive because you finish it off in half the time but one complaint that I’ve heard from a lot of people who did a one-year course is that it got over so fast that they wished they had more time. So it’s a call that you need to take.
The third thing is that you need to also be very clear on the Geography. As I mentioned earlier, that if you want to work in the US, then probably you shouldn’t be doing an Indian MBA or MBA in Europe and vice versa. If you want to eventually work in India, why would you want to do an MBA from the US? So the question eventually becomes- India vs Foreign MBA.
Should I apply for ISB or Greatlakes or XLRI v/s should I apply for a top b-school abroad? According to me there are pros and cons so let’s look at the pros and then the cons.
So what works for an Indian MBA is – Most of the times you have a non-collateral loop- for example if you get into ISB, you probably have 8-9 nationalised banks waiting for you. You just have to hand over your degree certificates and whatever else they require to give you a complete loan for the course.
When you are to apply to a foreign b-school, it is a little tougher for you to get the loan. So, that’s one thing that you need to consider.
All your experience and education has been in India which means that your maximum network is in India and there are maximum chances for you to get a job. Because if you think about it, this is a culture that you understand, this is a culture that you very readily fit in and people know you. So that I think works for an Indian B-school.
I’m assuming that if you’re going to be applying to an Indian b-school, you’re an Indian citizen, then you don’t need to really worry about visa. Whereas if you were to look at the schools abroad, that usually becomes a very big problem.
If you go to US, while you’re studying there, you have an S1 visa. Post that, for a period of 12-24 months, it’s called the Optional training period (OTP) during which time you have to find an employer who can give you an H1B1 visa- H1is the work permit.
About 3 years ago, I used to think that UK is probably the easiest place for you to go post MBA to get a job but that has changed. They used to have something called as HSMP – Highly skilled migration program which is now being scrapped and now it is almost very tough. It is very hard to get a visa post your MBA in UK. So things keep changing.
On the flip side, here’s what works for an International b-school
So IIM and ISB, these are all great brands within India, but the fact is if you look at the global arena, it cannot really beat the brand equity that a Harvard or a Stanford or a Wharton MBA has. It is almost like a global passport that will take you anywhere that you want.
The second thing you need to consider for a foreign MBA is that most of these MBA’s – they have various departments. You can optionally take courses across these departments. So the variety of electives that they offer is mind boggling if you go to say, one of these top schools.
So Harvard means you also have access to Harvard law, it means you also have access to Harvard medicine and the alumni base of these institutes is huge. Every year Harvard churns out 1000 MBA’s and maybe 10-20000 other different streams which means that over a period of time because these schools are 100 years old, the kind of depth that you have in alumni in terms of internationalisation is pretty huge.
The third part that probably works for them is that it is really a passport to a global career and you have a very international mix. Lot of people want to do an MBA because they want exposure to different perspectives.
Although Indian b-schools have little variety in that sense, that they take people from different backgrounds, its predominantly Indians. If you go to an IIM or PGPX or if you go to an ISB, you can be guaranteed that majority are going to be Indians, but not true for example, a school called IMD in Switzerland- they have a batch of around 90 students and usually the nationalities represented are between 45-50 and even of the others, it is not necessarily an Indian staying in India. It could be an Indian staying in Singapore or US.
So the kind of diversity that you have in terms of culture is probably a lot more when you look at a foreign MBA.
Though it might sound a little contradictory to what I said earlier which is that MBA is a general management programme that provides you with a cross- functional exposure, the fact is you don’t become a CEO by becoming a deputy CEO or becoming associate CEO. There are no titles like associate CEO or deputy CEO. You essentially are going to end up becoming a CTO or Senior VP Sales or CFO or COO in order to become the CEO.
So MBA will essentially help you rise along these individual growth paths. So that’s what an MBA does, it helps you reach the pinnacle of these individual growth paths before you eventually end up thinking of becoming a CEO. If I were to choose between specialisation/expertise and the school ranking, I would probably choose school rankings.
For example, a school called Babson in the US specialises in entrepreneurship. If I get a choice between Babson and MIT, I would still go in for MIT because even if they don’t have a proclaimed specialisation, I know for a fact that MIT in terms of the brand, in terms of the network, in terms of the infrastructure and facilities would give me a far greater reach than Babson.
Just to give an idea, if I were to take all the companies that were started by MIT graduates and if that were to be a country, it would have the 5th largest GDP in the world. So you can imagine the size of something like MIT. But all things being equal, you know for a fact that Kellogg is good in marketing, you know that Columbia is good in finance, Wharton is good in finance, etc.
So there are some stereo typical specialisations that we want to consider which is aligned with what we plan to do.
This is one thing where you’ll have to be conscious. It is important that you do that and try to ask yourself, “Is this the class I really want to be in? Do I want these classmates to be the ones who I’m going to spend one or two years with?”
I’ll give a very simple example. Take IIM PGPX- the average age is 34 years and when you compare it with Stanford, the average age is 24. So not only do I have a question mark whether I’ll get into a program where the average age is a lot lower than my age, but I also want to know if I want to sit with people who are 34 and more mature, who probably can understand the conversation, who have the depth of experience that I have rather than with people who are just starting off their career- they are also equally smart.
On the other hand, if you’re 25, you probably want to sit in a class where the average age is around your age rather than sit with a bunch of oldies- if I could call 34 year olds that. Make sure your profile is fitting into what the school has to offer because at the end of the day, it’s what you learn from them which is more important and a coronary to that is also accepted. So be very clear that you don’t end up applying to 5 schools which are going to be very picky.
If I’m going to apply only to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Kellogg and MIT, then I’m going to tell myself that with my profile I may get in but there is a chance that I may not get in – in which case I choose not to do an MBA.
But if you’re very clear that you want to do an MBA this year and you’re ok to go to beyond the top 5 or 10, just pick 3 categories:
Dream schools– Schools that you really dream of getting into. E.g.: Harvard, Wharton’s
Reach category– I can get there, It’s a stretch but I can get there.
Safe category– Now what happens is its easy for me to get in but the question I have to ask myself is “Do I want to get in? Do I want to be in that school?” It’s very important that you don’t lay all your eggs in the same basket.
Typical Post MBA Career Paths
Product management & Marketing
Project & Delivery management
Hedge Fund & PE
Just one thing, be careful not to confuse IT consulting with strategy consulting. These are 2 different things so when you look at IT consulting, it is where the Accenture’s of the world come in and strategy consulting is where the Bains and McKinseys of the world come in. So they are slightly different in that orientation.
So lot of IT guys end up doing one of the 3 things. If you get to be the product manager of Microsoft or Google or any of these awesome IT companies that have pure product management or delivery management roles, you will end up taking care of large turnkey projects or you could get into IT consulting where typically you’re working with enterprise software such as CRM or SCM or ERP.
When it comes to finance, it requires a lot of background work to get into hedge funds, PE and venture capital. You need to very well networked and you already need to know key people before you get into a b-school.
But investment management and investment banking are two areas that you can get in; it requires a lot of quantitative skills especially something like investment banking which will require you to structure these but with obviously a knowledge of finance.
With regards to entrepreneurship, people ask if they should do an MBA before they get into a start-up. My personal opinion is probably not. You don’t want to start a business with a 100k loan on your head.
But if entrepreneurship is few years down the line then I definitely think you should consider it because that time your student loan would have gone, you would have got significant experience and built your network and you know exactly what you’re getting into . That’s also the right time to leverage the brand equity of your MBA.
I think sales has a lot to do with personality. So just ask yourself if you’re cut off on a sales role. Can you handle the pressure of taking a monthly quota, quarter after quarter? If that’s you, then an MBA is a great way to get into sales.
Marketing has digital marketing, offline, PR- there’s a whole bunch of things that come under marketing so these are all valid post-MBA careers.
You need to be very clear on what is it that you’re planning to do and how do I actually get there. These are 2 questions you need to ask yourself.
North American Schools
Land of opportunities
In North America the economy is still great. If you think about it, all the top IT companies, great product and service companies are there. It’s a land of opportunities- you really get a break, you can rise as far as your potential can take you. Not many countries can say that but the US and Canada can help you do that. It has great schools that has helped build MBA so they know what they’re talking.
M-7: Harvard, Wharton, Stanford, Sloan, Columbia, Booth, Kellogg
Top: Haas, Darden, Fuqua, Ross, Tuck, Duke
Mid: Marshall, Kelly, Krannert
Canada: Richard Ivey, Schulich, Rotman
Most of the programs in US are 2 year programs, whereas in Canada there are some great one year programs. In fact, in US I think there are only 3 programs which are 1 year- top programs like Cornell, which offers a one-year program for those who have a master’s degree. Then you have Kellogg which offers a one-year program if you’ve already completed a set of prerequisites. And you have Emory which provides you a one-year program if you have the relevant experience and background.
Closer to home
It helps since these schools are closer to home. Some of them are advanced countries but still growing. So lot of growth options are there. It is relatively inexpensive but it’s not going to be less than 20 lakhs or so.
Australia: Melbourne Business School, AGSM Sydney
Singapore: NUS, NTU
Others: HKUST Hongkong, AIM Manila, CEIBES China
Schools in Australia like MBS have started an accelerated one-year program. Other than NUS and NTU, SUM in Singapore is also there for people with a slightly higher level of experience.
One question that a lot of people ask is, “How good is AIM Manila?” The point is you can’t ask a very objective question. There is nothing like how good or how bad. It is subjective- what is it that you want to do? If it helps achieve your career goal, it’s a great school but if it doesn’t help achieve your goal, either you have to reset your expectations or you have to choose a different school.
So instead of asking that, ask yourself what is it that you want out of a program and whether the program will be able to deliver it. None of the programs can guarantee anything. There is nothing like 100% guarantee.
You will have a reasonably safe probability that you’ll end up doing something. So if you go to Harvard, you can have reasonably good probability that not now, but 10 years down the line the brand equity will help repay the loan.
Easier work permits
Great culture/ quality of life
What has changed over the past few years is the easy work permit. It isn’t as easy as it was earlier. It has a great culture. Just imagine, SDA Bacconi is in Italy- who doesn’t want to spend 2 years of their life in Italy – going to Rome and Milan and all these nice places.
Top: IMD, INSEAD, LBS
Mid: SAID, Judge
Others: SDA Baconni, Rotterdam, Eramus, IESE, ESADE, HEC
A lot of people ask if INSEAD is a Singapore college or French college. The idea is, INSEAD started its campus in France and even now the admission happens out of France. You can choose whether you want to be part of the French or Singapore campus. But you have to be good enough to get into INSEAD in the first place. So I’ll still put it as a European school.
The reason I put SAID Oxford and Judge Cambridge as mid-tier schools is not because they are mediocre. They are awesome schools- think about the brand that they carry. They carry the brand of Oxford and Cambridge – this is as gold plated brands you can possibly get.
Plus, they offer a one-year program if you’re interested. Probably what works against them is right now the economy and the fact that these are relatively US Schools. Oxford has been there since 1300 or 1400s, but these schools have started relatively recently so in terms of the alumni penetration and a lot of other things, they are probably not up there as some of the top US b-schools are.
IIM A PGPX
IIM B EPGP
IIM C PGPEX
IIM L PGDX
IIM B PGSEM
On our website, we have listed all the programs which take GMAT score, so you might want to check that list because this list constantly keeps getting updated as more and more schools have started to accept GMAT scores. ISB and the PGPX programmes offered by most of the top IIMs are pretty much the most preferred schools.
XLRI has a great 1-year general management programme. GLAKES started GLIMS- Great Lakes Institute of Management Studies, a one-year program in Chennai. SP Jain has an international global MBA with one campus in Dubai and another one in Singapore, so you actually get an option to do it in Dubai or Singapore.
You also have a part time course offered by IIM Bangalore called PGSEM, so those of you who have a few years’ experience and are okay with a part time MBA, would want to consider this. The forms of this are already out for this year and the deadline is around December and they take GMAT or CAT scores.
You can google for Businessweek MBA rankings or check the financial times for the current year rankings. With this list, you would be able to think about where is it that you should apply.