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International MBA: Making the decision
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October 30, 2008

Part I: Why I did an MBA abroad
Part II: Where should I do my MBA?

Questions, answers, and then more questions! The whole affair with the foreign MBA seemed to involve more and more decisions as one went along. As soon as I'd figured out why I wanted to do an MBA, I had to decide where to do it from. No sooner had I got that nailed than I had to decide which business school to apply to. And the more time I spent in answering that question, the larger the number of variables got, making my task tougher with each additional one!

But, that's where I brought my work experience as a consultant into play -- I structured the process as best as I could. I first focussed on the critical factors in the decision. Then I laid out the constraints. Finally, after assigning weights to each variable, I did the qualitative additions and subtractions to arrive at a target list. Essentially, I believe I used a framework that I would like to call "the four Ps of b-school decision making". The four Ps (no connection to Jerome McCarthy's theory on marketing) are Programme, Prospects, Price and People.

I had seen many of my fellow applicants recite B-school rankings at the drop of a hat. Rankings, thus, seemed like the logical place to start the investigation. Since the brand value of an MBA is one of the key components of the money you spend on the MBA, I felt that the total value of the programme would be reflected, to a great extent, in the rankings.

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However, to ensure that I was not swayed by the "one-year wonders" (schools that suddenly peaked in one year and slipped off the rankings thereafter), I tabulated rankings for schools over three or four years. To make sure that my impression was correct, I also looked at rankings from about five publications. The emerging pattern showed that certain schools maintained a respectable position consistently, about 15 of which I put up on my shortlist.

Then I considered the specifics of the programme itself such as whether it had a one-year or two-year format or anything in between, assigning a higher weightage to those of shorter durations. I pored over the brochures to glean information on the specialisations the programmes were known for. I attached a marginally higher weightage to those with strengths in corporate finance, my main area of interest.

I jotted down the flexibility available in choice of electives. I also performed a reality check by noting the acceptance rate at the shortlisted schools. The best schools would also have the highest number of candidates competing for them, right?

In the case of business schools from non-English speaking native regions, an additional (cultural) feature caught my attention and my fancy -- the bilingual study methods -- ensuring that every participant would have an advanced (business) level of proficiency in the local language. This was peculiar to some European programmes and given my personal interest in languages, I gave them an additional vote.

The purpose of the MBA, at least in the immediate term, was to accelerate my career path, which subsumed the aspiration for a more lucrative work opportunity. Therefore, the work prospects after the programme would be a key determinant of my decision. I examined the employment/ recruitment statistics at the shortlisted schools -- the percentage of students placed through the school's career services, the major sectoral groups that recruited them, the range of remuneration they were offered, and the locations they were offered positions at.

This consolidated picture told me which schools were preferred by which employers for what type of candidates at what locations and for how much money. It also suggested to me the extent of personal initiative an international candidate might have to take to balance the support provided by the schools' career offices in job search.

Having spelt out the critical determinants, the value proposition and the payoff, I decided to flip the coin and take stock of the constraining factor -- the moolah! What price would I be paying for the payoff?

Expectedly, the schools higher on the rankings tended to command a higher price. With US schools dominating the rankings, they happened to be the most expensive at least in terms of tuition fees. The European schools, in general, were more cost effective because of the shorter durations of programmes, which also offset the opportunity cost of an extra year of education that one would go through at North American schools. However, they were more expensive in terms of living costs (think London [Images] or Paris). The Australian and Singaporean schools were, by far, the cheapest options.

Funding options only at the best schools in the US, UK and Europe were sympathetic to international students. That also meant tougher competition, with every candidate vying for the handful of MBA scholarships, teaching assistantships or university jobs. At the very least, I had to get an acceptance to be eligible for a loan under the funding programmes co-sponsored by the schools and reputed banks. Schools with these options got additional points on my personal ranking system.

I also did a quick calculation of visa requirements, fees and timelines for visa processing. Australia [Images] suddenly started to seem more distant, courtesy the stringent visa norms. Of course, USA had not got any friendlier to students in the aftermath of the September 11 bombings. I remained apprehensive about the US schools but retained a couple on my shortlist.

Finally, I had to rely on my overall feel of the programme. In my research on B-schools, I had made it a point to speak with as many alumni as I could contact from as many schools as possible, to understand their own motivations for doing an MBA, especially from the chosen school. Most times, I contacted the schools directly to gain correspondence details of alumni and/ or current students. From the responses that I received from schools (some were very prompt and open, others elusive and guarded) and the actual conversations with the ex/ current students, I learnt about the culture and the people, apart from the typical programme-related information, at the various schools. After all, an MBA was not meant to be only about study; it needed to have a 'fun' element too.

In my book, one of the greatest take-aways from the MBA experience would be the alumni network that I would become part of. One impact of this conclusion was that the school needed to have a sizeable alumni network. Also necessary was the composition of my class, an important factor in determining whether I would thrive or not. Having learnt through personal experience that a diverse group usually makes for greater learning, I championed the diversity cause at every opportunity I got. Having a fairly diverse profile myself (non-engineer ie economist, law graduate, financial services professional, female) made the cause seem even more worthy.

I, therefore, assigned high weightage schools that had a high 'diversity quotient'. I defined this score based on an amalgam of several factors such as the ratio of men to women in a batch, the proportion of international students in the batch, the number of countries represented in the class, and the type of backgrounds students came from.

In general, the European schools tended to score much higher on these counts than North American or Australian/ Singaporean schools. This was partly due to the fact that the small size of the home country mandated attracting larger proportions of students from outside the country. However, a more interesting and important characteristic was that these schools had slightly older students than the others -- the average age at a European school being 29 or 30 years as compared to 26 or 27 at others -- which also meant that they had greater work experience. Although I would have been an outlier on the (lower) range of ages in the class, I was more attracted to the mature profile of students at the European schools.

My interactions with alumni showed that this factor played a great role in the way applications were evaluated by the Admissions Committees of schools. In general, at schools with a younger candidate pool, the relative shortage of work experience and work-related achievements forces the AdComs to focus more heavily on academic performance and GMAT scores of candidates. However, at schools with a more mature candidate pool, there is more for applicants to talk about in terms of their experiences at work, and a sharper articulation of their motivations for pursuing an MBA. Thus, the AdComs indulge in a well-rounded evaluation of the entire application.

This realisation meant two things to me: (1) that a more mature class would provide me with a wider opportunity to learn from and share with my peer-group and (2) that my application would get a balanced reading, improving my chances of acceptance to the programme.

The Final Countdown
In those 10-odd months before I began the application process, I had been through enough literature on an international MBA to last me a few years. It was time to make a decision. My rather complex database and evaluation model threw up the suspects:

With this eclectic mix of eight schools on my target list, I braced myself for the next phase -- figuring out the details of application and funding.

Prospective students, if the foregoing ramblings make the rigmarole seem like a labyrinthine process that presents a risk of getting more entangled rather than a solution to getting sorted out, do not despair! As you immerse yourself into it, you will realise that several options have a tendency towards self-elimination because of the sub-conscious bias or preference you have towards certain attributes of a school. The true test comes only after you have arrived at your target list of 6-10 schools and must decide which ones to dedicate application resources to. Until then, you may as well bask in the attention when a colleague or peer taps your knowledge bank for advice on deciding which B-school to choose.

This article from is the third in a series of five articles focussing on pursuing an MBA abroad. This article has been authored for by Maithilee Shirgaonkar, who has done her MBA from Said Business School, University Of Oxford. provides complete, comprehensive online preparation for CAT, XAT, FMS. In addition to solved papers of last three CATs, the user friendly website has free iCATs, puzzles, Question of the Day, Daily Vocabulary List, Interactive Learning Games and Ask-a-Doubt.

Part I: Why I did an MBA abroad
Part II: Where should I do my MBA?

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