How to Narrow Down Your B-School Application List

A few tips can help applicants get a picture of schools that’s larger than rankings and reputations.

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So you've decided you want an MBA. You've ordered transcripts, taken the GMAT or will soon do so, and thought about your career goals. Now it's time to start your school selection and research.

Most prospective MBA students spend a great deal of time agonizing over their school lists, the creation of which is the crucial first step before embarking on the application process. Both time and financial constraints generally dictate the length of one's list—applying to more than 10 schools really isn't feasible—so the process of creating the list requires careful consideration.

[See three reasons to choose a part-time MBA.]

Before you start researching programs, it will be helpful to understand your own criteria and preferences to take your school selection past the level of rankings or mere brand recognition. Do you want to be in the city or in a rural setting? What type of coursework are you most interested in? Do you prefer a close-knit class or a large network? Do you need to be near a particular location for personal or professional reasons?

Some applicants start with a long list of schools, and as they progress through the application process, some schools fall off while others remain, for all kinds of reasons. Some schools remain because they are viewed as safety schools; others because their programs are a good fit.

I'm a big believer in the portfolio theory when it comes to MBA applications: Apply to a reasonable number of schools (somewhere around four) and make sure they vary in competitiveness. They should all be schools you would be excited to attend, but you may include what's known as "super reach" or dream schools in addition to a few that are a safer bet. You never know what the application pool looks like in any given year, and at the end of the day, all you need is one admit, so spread some risk around.

[Learn how to map out your MBA timeline.]

When you have a target list of schools you're serious about, it's time to do the more qualitative research that will help you understand your fit with the program and community, and your interest in attending the school for two years of your life. Time and schedule permitting, a school visit is a great way to see classes for yourself, meet current students, and get a sense of the campus and city. 

If you plan ahead and contact the admissions office, you can set up a class visit, perhaps lunch with students, and attend an admissions information session. Allow enough time to walk around campus and explore in between participating in formal activities. Those who are able to visit before applying will likely get a better sense of the program and the campus, and be more convinced—and more convincing within their applications—about whether it's a fit.

If you can't make it to campus, be sure to find school information sessions in your area. Here, you'll have the chance to ask questions and also meet current students or alumni.

Speaking with students and alumni is a wonderful way to learn about a school, but try to avoid basing your entire impression of a school on a single graduate's experience. You want to speak to as many students and alumni as possible, because each person's experience is different.

[See a video with tips for choosing an MBA program.]

A few other things to consider:

1. Never apply to a school that you will not be happy to attend.

2. It's important to keep your dream school on your list. Otherwise, you may always wonder what might have happened.

3. There are plenty of great schools that can help you to reach your goals. Don't get caught up in stereotypes, rankings, and rumors. Approach this with an open mind.

4. If you are interested in working for specific companies after you graduate, call the companies directly and ask them where they recruit.

5. Start with one key school and allow your list to change as you go through this process of self discovery.

Every top school stands out for one or more features, whether it's teaching method, selectivity, ranking, or available specializations or programs. Even geography plays a huge role, which makes narrowing down your list such a challenge. Try to figure out how a particular school meets your personal and professional needs, and then turn the equation around to determine how or where you see yourself contributing to that community.

The school selection process is not a simple one, but it does provide a unique opportunity for self reflection. In the end, only you can decide which program is the right fit for your personality and goals.