Almost every business school poses the question to applicants: "Why an MBA, and why this program?" Some do so explicitly on the application, while others pose the question during the interview stage. Either way, you need to know enough about the schools you are applying to so you can answer the question properly.
Don't leave it to the various rankings to decide your list of schools for you. A lot of applicants forget that they are the customer—and should be the ones making the decision.
Schools are constantly tweaking their programs, printing cutting-edge brochures, and traveling from city to city to convince you—the prospective MBA—to consider their programs. Your personal ranking and fit with schools can differ widely from what the leading magazines and websites may suggest, so it's important to have at least some sense of what you are looking for before you start your research.
[Watch a video with tips for choosing an MBA program.]
Each MBA application will cost you a couple of hundred dollars and dozens of hours, so make sure the programs you choose to apply to have most of the things—both large and small—that you want from a school.
Are you looking for a program that is strong in general management and leadership? Or are you more interested in brushing up on your financial and accounting knowledge to complement your existing skillset?
To find answers to those questions, be proactive. Go to the information sessions and ask real questions. Many candidates try to use these sessions as a forum for impressing the admissions officers, which I don't believe is a very fruitful strategy. Call the admissions department and ask for the names of recent alumni in your area. Get in touch with one or more of those folks and take them out for a coffee.
When it comes to your essays, I can't tell you how many first drafts I've read that cite the "unmatched student body, world-class faculty, and committed alumni network" as the reasons the applicant has chosen a certain MBA program. This person has said nothing.
You need to get specific in order to demonstrate to admissions officials that you've taken the time to thoroughly research the school, and that you have some legitimate reasons why you think their program fits well with your professional needs.
[Check out 6 tips for getting to the heart of your MBA application.]
That said, don't hold yourself to too high a standard here; you're not going to blow the committee away with some statement that shows you are the figurative "soul mate" of their MBA program. I doubt any director of admissions has ever exclaimed, "My gosh, when she mentioned our emphasis on entrepreneurship, I just knew she had to be a part of our community!"
While you'll have to dive deep in preparation for interviews, you can effectively research schools in just a few hours. Read firsthand accounts of the schools through blogs and guest posts on popular websites.
Also place particular emphasis on the following offerings or traits of the school to see the ways they mesh with your professional goals, learning agenda, personality, and preferences:
• Program format: Explore aspects such as case study method vs. lecture; traditional vs. accelerated; opportunities for study abroad; and opportunities for "hands on learning."
• Academic offerings: Research specific classes in your areas of interest. Don't make a laundry list; find a couple of courses and show how they might impact you.
• Faculty: Cite specific professors that you might want meet with, help with research, etc.
[Learn how to contact professors as a grad school applicant.]
• Initiatives: Often schools will emphasize certain disciplines or issues for several years, and will host events and develop new classes on those topics. These series may have names like, "The Entrepreneurship Program," "The Healthcare Initiative," or "The Technology Roundtable."
• Field studies: Check out faculty support for independent research, business plan development, etc.
• Cross-registration opportunities: What other resources does this university have to offer?
• Clubs: Explore academic and extracurricular groups available at the school.
Four to six sentences of solid material on "Why our program?" should set you up nicely. If you have the time and means to schedule a campus visit beforehand, you'll have an even better sense of the program, allowing you to be more convincing when you discuss the school's fit. Successfully articulating how a particular program suits your needs is a crucial first step in the b-school application process.