Last year around this time I was looking for opinions on Darden vs. Duke and Darden vs. Ross. I applied to these schools in the first round and now had to decide between multiple offers of admission. Although I had already ranked the schools (my rankings), now that I was accepted I wanted to directly compare my options. This process was long and agonizing. I solicited input from dozens of people and scoured the internet for articles on “Darden vs. Michigan” and “Darden vs. Fuqua”. Here is a summary of the feedback I received:
Close friends and family – This group focused on the towns and communities rather than the MBA programs. Basically, my friends and family thought I should attend the school where my wife and I would be happiest over the next two years. Important considerations were my wife’s employment opportunities, the city’s attractiveness, and the community within the MBA program. Darden was favored here as the employment opportunities in Michigan were bleak and Durham (Duke) is not a very desirable city compared to Charlottesville (see City of Charlottesville Awards).
Coworkers – While applying to business school I was working for a management consulting firm and 90% of my coworkers already had an MBA. When I solicited opinions of coworkers, each would start by asking me several questions regarding my goals and then focus on helping me identify the programs that fit best with my development needs. I was a little surprised that none of my coworkers felt one program was any better than the other, and the rankings were never mentioned.
Web search – My search of blog posts and internet forums did not provide much insight. Many of the suggestions I found focused on one or two data points from the class profile and job placement data. For example, last week I found a post that recommended school X to an Indian student because it had 35% international students compared to 30% at school Y. However, in this case I happen to know that the international students at school Y are fairly diverse, whereas most international students at school X are from Asia. While the data in these online posts is generally accurate, it’s not always relevant. Also, employment data is biased towards the short term and generally provides very little insight on the long term career benefits of different MBA programs.
In hindsight, I had subconsciously picked my school months in advance and was only trying to reconcile my instinct with all the facts, logic, and opinions of others. Going through this reconciliation process was valuable as I was able to identify my logical rational for attending Darden such that I could easily explain my decisions to others. Based on my experience, here are some tips for deciding between business schools.
Trust your instinct– Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink discusses how our subconscious brain is more effective in making complicated multi-objective decisions then our conscious brain. The argument is that we can consciously identify the differences between options but do a terrible job of assessing the importance of each difference. The notion of “fit” is just another way of saying trust your instinct.
Visit the campus – this is the best way to assess how well you “fit” with the school. When on campus, don’t spend time gathering information that’s available through other sources. Instead, try to immerse yourself in the culture and gauge how well it “fits” with your own personality.
Don’t put too much weight in others’ opinions – these perspectives are the result of someone else’s goals, development needs, and values. When asking the opinions of others, try to follow up with questions that identify the underlying rationale of the position.
Forget about the rankings – they do not take individual preferences into account. Furthermore, they change every year. For example, Darden’s BusinessWeek ranking has fluctuated between 5 and 14 over the past ten years.
Think both short and long term – don’t make decisions based only on short term considerations such as if your target company recruits at the school. Getting a job is just the first use of an MBA; make sure to consider the 10-30 year time horizon.