According to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), there are more than 4,000 MBA programs in the United States, offered by 454 institutions. With such a large number of options for pursuing a graduate business degree, prospective students do not have the opportunity to conduct campus visits or take a "virtual campus tour" of all of them.
One way to start researching an MBA is by attending an MBA fair. Typically, 50 or more top tier business schools participate in these events. In the past, these candidate fairs began in late September or early October, but no longer: Many organizations, such as The MBA Tour, Kaplan, QS, and others, now begin hosting fairs in various cities starting in July.
[Get more advice on how to get into business school.]
To get the most out of an MBA fair, there are three essential questions to ask business schools:
1. What is the school's most important admissions criterion? The answer to this question tells candidates how the admissions committee manages the evaluation process and what it values as an institution. If grades and test scores are most important, rest assured that there's a cutoff for both. Candidates with strong GPAs or test scores are in good shape; other candidates will likely be denied before their essays are read.
Regardless of grades and test scores, applicants need to consider whether they want to attend a school that openly cares mostly about numbers. Nevertheless, knowing a school's No. 1 admissions requirement provides great insight in determining a target program list.
[Read more tips on how to write MBA application essays.]
2. Does the school conduct a student satisfaction survey? Remember, MBA students invest tens of thousands of dollars paying for graduate school, up to two years of their lives, and take on the rigors of an MBA—so knowing if the administration and faculty care about what students think is important. If the answer to this question is no, or if the institution does conduct student satisfaction surveys but is unwilling to share the results, it's a major red flag. However, if a school is willing to share the results, that's worth noting.
3. Does the school provide a list of students or recent grads? Student and alumni testimonials on a school's website are useful, but it's even more beneficial to find schools that provide a larger list of students and alums with whom candidates can speak. This is important because it lets applicants know how actively involved students and alumni are in helping to promote the school, and whether it matters to that program.
Simply relying on what the institution provides on its website, what a family member says, or how a school is ranked won't tell the real story from enrolled or recently graduated students. A key question to ask students or alumni: "If you had to do it over again, would you choose the same school?"
Another question to ask current students: Are they involved in helping the admissions office? If so, inquire about their take on how admissions decisions are made, and about how much time is spent reviewing an application.
[Learn more about the ins and outs of MBA fairs.]
One final tip: Candidates should visit at least 10 schools at an MBA fair. This is a golden opportunity, and there may never be another chance to meet with so many MBA programs. Candidates can always drop a school from their lists after checking it out; conversely, prospective students may be pleasantly surprised by a program they had previously not considered.
Dr. Don Martin, Ph.D., is a higher education admissions expert, author, and former admissions dean at Columbia University, Northwestern University, Wheaton College, and University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He has consulted with The MBA Tour. To learn more about graduate admissions, visit gradschoolroadmap.com.