As far as picking schools goes, I don’t think that anything I have to say is groundbreaking. Below I’ve laid out the process the way I approached it. When I did this I skimped on step 2- I ended up getting lucky, but this could have been a big mistake. I didn’t apply to some schools that I should have, and I applied to at least one school that I probably shouldn’t have. Whatever you do, don’t rush through these five steps. If you take a couple of extra hours and pick the right schools it will make putting together convincing applications much easier. It will also save you from the regret you will feel if you apply to some of the wrong schools and don’t get lucky.
1. Get the lay of the land
To begin, you should get the lay of the land. If you know someone who recently applied, that’s where you should start. Give them a call, tell them why you want to go to bschool, list anything in particular that you are looking for in a program, and ask them where you should apply. Ask them why they are recommending the specific schools that they list and why they aren’t recommending other schools. This will give you a great list to work off of. If you more than one bschool student call them all. More viewpoints are better. And don’t take what these people say as set in stone; you are just using them to get a feel for the different schools out there.
If you don’t know any current students, I would suggest that you find a comfortable chair and spend a weekend on Poets and Quants. Just to be clear, I don’t mean a few hours; I mean an entire two-day weekend spent sitting and reading as much as you possibly can.
2. Make a list that describes your ideal school
At this point you should have some ideas. Make a list of everything you are looking for in a school. Consider size, location, teaching style, reputation, program strengths, etc. Really think about this. Then decide how important each of these factors is. Consider what you hope to achieve after business school, not just what you hope to get out of the two years you spend in business school. For example, if you want to be in LA but you also want to switch from an NGO to a big three consulting firm, you are going to need to know what’s more important. Should you be applying to UCLA or to Kellogg? You can only answer this question if you are very clear about what aspects of a business school are most important to you.
3. Find schools that you would want to attend
Next start looking into individual schools and seeing if they match. If you are one of the lucky ones with friends already in bschool than you should have a list of potential matches. Go through that list one by one and verify that it actually matches what you want. This could (should) take weeks. Talk to more people. Read blogs. Email current students at all of these schools. If you don’t know anyone email the admissions office and they’ll set you up with someone. If you have the time/money it is definitely worth it to go visit the schools. Make sure that all of the schools you keep on your list are schools you really want to attend. It would be silly to spend a lot of time on an application and a lot of money on an application fee only to be accepted and then realize that you don’t really want to go to the school. It might be better to reapply to perfect schools the next year than to go to a backup school that won’t give you what you want this year. When I applied I imagined that I was receiving the admissions call in December- if in my imagination I was jumping up and down and shouting and feeling like I was on top of the world then it meant that school was a match. If I felt just happy to get into any school but was secretly hoping I would get an acceptance call from elsewhere, then I knew the school wasn’t a match.
4. Narrow down your list to schools that you can get into
Now you have a list of dream schools. Go through the list again and see which ones you can actually get into. If you have a 2.0 GPA, a 600 GMAT, worked at your parents’ grocery store for the last 10 years, and have no good excuse for any of that, then you aren’t going to be getting into HBS. Be realistic. I think that it’s okay to have some reach schools but remember that it is expensive to apply, both in time and money. Why spend $300 and 20 hours of essay/application writing on a school that you have no chance at? You might want to do that at one school but not at 10 schools. Once you’ve gone through your list, take a look at the schools that are left. If they don’t excited you very much, consider taking a year to improve your application before applying. You can get a good tutor and retake the GMAT. You can take courses online or at a local college if you need to improve your GPA or show your quant ability. You can get involved in some extracurriculars to make your story stronger. Do whatever it takes to make sure that the schools you are applying to have a reason to want you. If it’s obvious to you that they wouldn’t want you this year, then don’t waste your time applying. Go work on your profile and try again next year.
5. Pick your favorites (3 to 5 schools)
Now it’s probably time to cut your list down. I applied to four schools and it was tough. I have heard of people applying to five or six. More than that would be really, really hard. I would suggest aiming for three to five schools. If your list is longer than that you might have trouble doing high quality work on all of the applications. As I’ve mentioned above, check one more time to make sure these are the right schools for you. They have to be able to help you fulfill your goals. They also should be schools that you have a shot at getting into. If you’ve thought all of these things through while picking schools (and not just picked the top five schools from some magazine ranking) then it will be much easier for you to convince admissions that you would be a good fit for the school. Now all you have to do is put together your applications.