So you think you want to get an MBA. The first thing you should do is ask yourself why.
"Is it so that you can earn a promotion within your current organization? Are you trying to start your own company? Do you dream of switching into a completely different field," asks Stacy Blackman, business school admissions consultant and author.
"Knowing where you want to be at the end, will help you decide which programs make the most sense for you."
GENERAL OR SPECIALIZED
The majority of business schools offer a general MBA program. Designed to allow students to develop knowledge and skills in management disciplines, it can be customized according to academic and professional interests through a variety of elective modules.
One way of filtering these programs, aside from looking at rankings and considering your preferred location, is by cost. Can you afford $126,000 (U.S.) in tuition fees for Harvard Business School, for example?
For those who are more certain of the direction they wish to take upon graduation, specialized MBA programs have become increasingly available. ENPC School of International Management in Paris now offers two specialized courses alongside its traditional MBA: the MBA in technology and entrepreneurship, and the MBA in enterprise risk management.
"General MBAs have been around for years, [which] the big players stick with," says Tawfik Jelassi, dean of ENPC. "But others, like us, believe in offering diversity and letting applicants decide."
Some admissions directors argue that it may be best to opt for a general MBA program, to avoid being too limited.
"I feel that a general MBA prepares you better to be a business leader, because running a business involves an understanding of all aspects of the business. [It] also allows networking and an exchange of ideas with all different types of people with different backgrounds and goals," Ms. Blackman says.
Mark Stewart, a professor and academic director of MBA programs at the Australian School of Business, says it is common for students to change career objectives during the course of their program, which a general MBA can accommodate relatively simply.
A change in career objectives can also be necessary after graduation.
"Should anything happen, like the recession; where students need to adapt, the skill set and network acquired on the MBA can be applied to a variety of fields and not just the specialization," says Maryke Luijendijk-Steenkamp, director of marketing and admissions at Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands.
However, if you are tending toward a specialized MBA, then Ms. Luijendijk-Steenkamp recommends asking the school why it offers that specialization – what was the gap in the market that convinced the school the specialization was needed? Knowing the answer to this may help with your decision.
A combined degree is another option that could be explored, particularly if you are keen to gain expertise in other disciplines aside from business. Stanford Graduate School of Business, for example, offers four joint degrees. Stanford also offers a range of dual degrees, with the School of Engineering and the School of Medicine.
But according to Elissa Ellis-Sangster, executive director of the Forté Foundation, a non-profit consortium of organizations and business schools, and a former director of the MBA program at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business, some recruiters can be wary of this type of degree. "They may think you don't know what you're trying to do and need more self-reflection."
But, as Ms. Blackman points out, a combined degree nonetheless signifies extra knowledge. "If you are unsure of your career plans and interests and have the time and money, the additional education does not necessarily hurt," she says.
CAMPUS OR ONLINE
It is also worth considering which learning style suits you best. Would you like to study on a campus or connect virtually, for example?
"An on-campus MBA enhances personal networking with peers, EMBA or exchange students, and interaction with professors. It makes it easier to be involved in team projects – and working with a team enhances your leadership skills, [which] is crucial," says Angel Garcia, an MBA student at Ceibs.
However, online degrees are evolving, with new technology emerging every day to promote interaction and team work – so much so that schools are increasing their initially low-cost fees to reflect the program's value. In July, 2011, for example, the Kenan-Flagler Business School of the University of North Carolina launched its MBA@UNC with fees of $89,000.
The increasing expansion of Massive Open Online Courses [Moocs] is also keeping the market competitive.
Nonetheless some remain skeptical and believe that students should be cautious if they do opt for an online program.
"My advice is to go with one affiliated with an established bricks-and-mortar-institution," says Ms. Ellis-Sangster. "Even if the program then finishes, you still have the institution there."
ONE OR TWO-YEAR
The decision to study for one or two years also depends on the learning style you prefer, as well as the amount of time and money you have.
"You need to decide what is most important to you. If time and money are tight, a one-year program is a brilliant solution. However, for many career changers, the two-year program is a better option as it allows for the summer internship, and more introspection and education in general," Ms. Blackman says.
A two-year program can also allow for study overseas. Second-year MBA students at Cornell University, for example, exchange places for a term with students selected by partner institutions based in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America.
FULL-TIME OR PART-TIME
The same considerations apply to whether you should study full- or part-time.
"A full-time MBA allows you to experience a much deeper transformational experience and concentrate on a possible career switch. If part-time, it is going to be difficult to switch [industries]; it would be more feasible to switch function inside the same organization," Mr. Garcia says.
A part-time program is also ideal for those who are keen to maintain a regular income while studying.
CURRICULUM AND NETWORKS
Once you begin to narrow down your list, it is a good idea to contact business schools directly to get a sense of their curriculum and networks. How diverse is the class? How many international students are there on average? What languages are required/recommended?
"The key top tip I would always give students is to always make sure you speak personally to school representatives and then cross reference that with the students from the program," Ms. Luijendijk-Steenkamp says. "And if the school refrains from putting you in contact with their students, then you really want to know why."
Online forums are also a good source of information, as are clubs and groups on campus. And for those who aim to remain in the country in which the program is based, it is helpful to speak to alumni who did the same – find out how they secured visas, employment etc.
Eventually, you may decide that a full-time MBA program is not the right fit for you.
"An MBA is a great, general degree that can prepare you for many paths. However, it is not right for everyone. One of the biggest mistakes I see is people applying for an MBA and their career goals are not a match for that type of graduate program. There are definitely careers that will benefit from a masters [for example], as opposed to an MBA," says Ms. Blackman. For more mature students, Executive MBAs – MBAs for working executives – are available.
Ultimately, when choosing an MBA program, focusing on personal goals is important.
"The hardest part for most people is doing a self-assessment," Ms. Ellis-Sangster says. "They get sidetracked by the 'best school' or 'closest school.' Write a list that you can constantly refer to during your search and the rest should be a lot easier."