Darden vs. XYZ

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.

8 Responses to “Darden vs. XYZ”

  1. Vika says:

    Wow, what a great post! How did you have time to write that with finals going on and all? Anyway, hope exams are going well! Just two more to go!

  2. JulyDream says:

    Great post and reference of Blink. I read that book a few years back and was fascinated by the subject. Hope finals are going well! 😀

  3. mandy lozano says:

    bill! great insights. i love how you highlight the value (or non?) of some numbers that get thrown around. a school can be #1 for a lot of people…but what is it for you? square peg; round hole. all the more reason to do what you suggest: visit, talk, listen, etc. love it.
    glad we’ve got some classes together this quarter.

  4. Oren says:

    Very nice post.

  5. DANROME says:

    this is not really a reply,but i intend to apply to Darden because of its dual MBA/PhD program.i know that Darden’s MBA program is world-class,the question is whether the PhD program is also world-class? is there someone out there who knows something about the latter or the dual MBA/PhD ?

  6. Himadri says:

    I enjoy reading your blog a lot since I'm also interested in operations strategy and considering applying to Darden. One thing you mentioned here is that don't give too much attention to rankings. But isn't it true that a firm like PRTM exclusively hires from the top 15 schools. Are you saying that it doesn't matter as long as its in the top 15?Thanks for a great blog.

  7. The best school is the one where your employer pays 100% of the tuition and you go full-time. Agree or disagree?


    • Bill Gray says:

      If you extend that logic, would you then say that if your employer refuses to pay any tuition then the best school would be the one with the lowest tuition?