Tuesday, October 04, 2011

How to choose an MBA program?

Some of my friends have been asking me about my personal experience in choosing an MBA program. I hereby make an attempt to write a short article about my thought in this subject. Hopefully it is useful to you.

MBA is a huge investment both in term of time and money. So it is important that you choose the right MBA program that best suits your personal goal. Personally I think the following decision process is quite useful.

Step One: Ask: Why do an MBA?

As making any other major decisions in life, the very first thing is to lay down the reasons why you want to do your MBA. In general, the clearer the answer of this question is, the easier it is for you to choose the right MBA later.

Some of the common reasons are:

1) Personal Advancement: For the sack of getting more knowledge, or for personal achievement.
2) Academic Advancement: For pure academic reasons. To prepare oneself for an academic career, or to qualify oneself for a PhD program.
3) Entrepreneur: To be better equip so that you can develop your own business better
4) Career Advancement: To move up the corporate ladder and earn more income.
5) Career Changes: To have a career change. There are two basic types of career change. Either you want to change your job portfolio (e.g. from Engineer to Manager) or you wan to change your industry (e.g. from Manufacturing to Investment Banking).

As different medicines are design to cure very different sickness, different MBA programs are also good for very different purposes. So do spend considerable amount of effort to know your own goal. The more precise your goals are, the better it is.

For example, if your goal is to have career advancement after your MBA program, it is not good enough to just say “I want to get a promotion after my MBA”. It is better if you can figure out something like “After my MBA, I want to get a middle management position in one of the top 5 investment banks in the world. I will like to work in foreign currency or future trading area, with special focus in the USA market. Ideally I will like to work in New York, Chicago or other major city in US. My starting yearly salary will be around US$50,000.”

This kind of precise and relatively comprehensive statement of purpose can be very helpful in choosing the right MBA program. For instance, if you know that you want to work in investment bank in New York, it does not make a lot of sense to do a MBA in Germany and major in operation management. Instead, you should try to find out which MBA program in New York are well known in their Finance courses, and try to get into the program.

Step Two: Design your decision criteria

Simply put, decision criteria are your personal guidelines in making a decision. These are some of the common decision criteria in choosing a MBA program.

1) Program Quality

I think the number one criteria are the program quality. Since you are planning to invest one to two years of your life in doing a MBA, it is important that you do not compromise on choosing a good quality MBA program (even it could means more financial investment). Needless to say, the quality of any MBA program is usually directly proportional to it price, duration and entrance requirement. For example, MIT Sloan MBA program take 2 years, cost US$62,000 (tuition fee alone), average 5 years working experiences and average GMAT score of 710 (which is extremely high). Despite the extremely expensive tuition fee, every year MIT Sloan still receives over 3000 application and they accept only about 300 students each year. Usually a candidate needs to apply at least 1 or 2 years in advance.

I know the MIT example sound a bit extreme, but my point is, when you are trying to manage your budget, it is important that you should only consider those MBA program that meet the minimum quality standard.

So you may ask, how do you know which MBA programs are good? In fact, there is a lot of useful information out there that deal with this subject. Basically those information sources can be classified into 3 major categories:

a) Business School Ranking by major newspapers and magazines

Some major newspapers and magazines publish their Business School Ranking every year. Usually those ranking are quite comprehensive and can serve as a very good guideline. Some of the most reputable ranking are:

Wall Street Journal Business School Ranking:


Financial Time Business School Ranking






b) MBA Association or Accreditation Organization

There are few reputable MBA associations that give “quality certificate” to high quality MBA program. A good example will be the London based Associations of MBAs, which is probably THE accreditation body in Europe. Usually the good accreditation bodies are very strict in awarding their accreditation. So I will say school listed by them are usually very good. Some of the most reputable accreditation bodies are:

The Association of MBAs (focus in UK and Europe)


European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD), (focus in Europe)


Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), (focus in US)


Unfortunately I don’t know any MBA Accreditation body in Asia.

c) MBA Guide Book

Another good source of information will be books about MBA program. I think one of the best MBA guidebook is:

Which MBA?: A Critical Guide to the World's Best MBAS, By George Bickerstaffe

I think the book publish a new edition every year. So the information is very up-to-date.

2) Course Content

All good MBA programs have a lot of similarity in term of their core module structure. Basically they should cover the following subjects:

(a) Accounting and Finance
(b) Marketing Management
(c) Organization Management
(d) Human Resources Management
(e) Operational Management
(f) Quantitative Methods
(g) Economic
(h) Strategy Management

However, what differentiate each MBA program are their areas of specialization. Some schools are more famous in certain fields. For example, Thunderbird – The American Graduate School of International Management is famous for the International MBA program. So it is important that you choose the school that is famous in the field that you will like to specialize in.

3) Reputable Professors

Good Professors make all the different between a good class and a bad class. However, it is rather difficult to conduct research on the teaching team of each and every business school. But generally speaking, good University usually does attract and retain good professors. So you can’t get too wrong by selecting a good business school.

4) Infrastructure – Hard and Soft

Libraries, lecture rooms, computer facilities, sport facilities, student association, career services, internship, seminars, exchange programs and etc are all important factors in choosing the right business school.

5) Alumni Network

Good school will usually have strong alumni network, which can be a very valuable assets for you.

6) Timing and Duration

Unless you are willing to wait, otherwise timing could be another important decision criteria. Business schools around the world start their MBA program at very different time. For example, business schools in South East Asia usually start in early March, business school in China will start in May, and business school in Europe will start in August or early September.

I think nowadays majority of the full time MBA can be complete in one year. However most good MBA program in USA, and a few good MBA in Europe and Asia will last for 1 and half years to 2 years. So be prepared.

7) Part time and distance learning

If you can afford it, I will recommend you to do your MBA in a full time basis. You will be more focus and probably learn a lot more.

Unless it is absolutely unavoidable, I do not recommend doing your MBA via distance learning (if there is such a program). In fact, vast majorities of the MBA material can only be learn via class participation and group assignment. You will not able to learn a lot by just reading your material at home.

8) Macro Environment of your study environment

Actually many people overlook this very important decision criteria. As the matter of fact, the location of where you are going to study has a very strategy impact on your future career plan. There are many reasons for that:

a) Content structure: For any good MBA program, the content structure is usually shaped by the need of the local and regional business communities. In many cases, the quality of the MBA program usually is highly correlated with the level of sophistication of the local industry.
b) Learn from the community: Business is about knowing the latest development of your industry and market. If you have a choice, it makes sense to study in a city that is very strong in the field/industry that you are interested in. For example, students who are doing their E-commerce MBA in Silicon Valley will definitely have more exposure to the subjects than MBA students in Malaysia.
c) Future career opportunity: Although recruiters do travel around the regions to look for the very best brains, but usually you will still have a better career opportunity in where you get your MBA degree. So if you plan to work in China after your MBA, it is not a bad idea to consider doing your MBA in Shanghai.
d) Business networking: While you are doing your MBA, it is also a good opportunity to build your business network. In that sense, you should take that into consideration when you choose your MBA program.

9) Cost

Well….what else can I say on this? Everybody has to work within his or her own set of constraints, and money is certain one of them. But as I mentioned earlier, when you are trying to manage your budget, it is important that you do not compromise on the quality of the MBA program.

Step Three: Shortlist, Evaluate and Choose

If you have done enough homework on step 1 and 2, step 3 is relatively straightforward.

It is very important to note that every business schools around the world have very different semester term and application deadline, some even require their applications to submit their completed application form 6-8 months before the semester start. So in order to make sure that you have plenty of time to select and apply for the right MBA programs, I strongly advise you should plan at least 6 months or 1 year ahead.

Besides, to avoid unnecessary bottleneck during your application, you should take for your GMAT test as early as possible. You can obtains more information on GMAT test from
http://www.mba.com (not http://www.mba.org, which is the Mahavaipulya Buddhist Association web site : ) )

Although there are people arguing that all MBA degree are more or less the same, but based on my own observation, a good MBA degree from a famous business school do make a huge different both in term program quality and future prospect for graduates. This is especially true if your goal is to secure a promising job in a multinational company. So if you are qualified and if you can afford it, do go to Harvard Business School!

That’s all I have to say at the moment. If you need further advise, please feel free to contact me.

Good luck!