Finding the Best Business School Fit

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Tuesday, June 18, 2019
By Barbara Coward
Photo by iStock
When searching for a business school, you'll often hear that you should consider where you "fit" best. But what exactly does "fit" mean?

When you’re considering a graduate business degree, it’s not uncommon for your inner circle to offer countless opinions on where you should go. After all, people don’t always hold back from giving advice.

The added interest can be energizing as you embark on your business school journey—until it becomes overwhelming.

Person A tells you to go here. Person B says to go there.

As you sort through all the suggestions of where you should go, business school admissions officers want you to consider the importance of fit.

But what exactly do they mean by “fit”?”

We spoke with admissions officers from some of the best business schools in the world to find out what you need to know when you’re preparing to make your final decision.

How do admissions officers define fit?

“It is very hard to put the finger on what that really means in practice, but mutual attraction is probably a crucial component,” says Pascal Michels, director of MBA admissions and executive coach at IESE Business School. “Picking a school is a life-changing decision. However much as we might like the fundamentals of a candidate (test scores, GPA, achievements, international exposure, etc.), if that person appears to be lukewarm or even reluctant about joining the program, then that's probably a fit issue.”

However, Michels notes that even though the fundamentals of a potential student are important, fit can potentially surpass these elements.

“Sometimes admissions committee members, during the interview or in more informal settings, just get this strong feeling that a person would be right for the program and the program right for them. When that ‘click’ is corroborated by other members, the admissions committee can be pretty forgiving about fundamentals (within reason, of course).”

Why is fit so important?

“I liken ‘fit’ to buying a house or finding the perfect apartment,” says Jeff Jewett, director of graduate recruitment and enrollment at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Business Administration. “You may not be able to put it into words why a particular school feels right, but the interactions you have will determine the right fit—so trust your judgment and gut. The right fit for you may not be the highest ranked program or the most affordable option, but your experience will be a better one at the school that fits your needs both personally and professionally.”

Does fit matter more for the applicant or the school?

“Fit is a two-way street,” explains Kelly Wilson, executive director for master’s admissions at Carnegie Mellon University,’s Tepper School of Business. “While schools are assessing the application to determine if the candidate is a good fit for the school, the candidate should be doing the same thing. Joining an MBA program is a big investment, and two months into the program, you don’t want to scratch your head and wonder why on earth you thought this was the right school.”

What’s the best way to figure out fit?

“Without question, speaking with current students and alumni is a great way to find out what the atmosphere in the classroom and on campus is like for each school,” says Brandon Kirby, director of marketing and admissions at Erasmus University’s Rotterdam School of Management. “Asking questions about the personality of the cohort, the vibe in the hallways, and how the professors interact with students is a great place to start. After a few conversations, a candidate can then reflect on who they are as a person and determine if they will fit the culture of the school.”

How important is fit for career outcomes?

“Practically speaking, fit leads to return on investment,” suggests Erin O’Brien, assistant dean at the University at Buffalo School of Management. “If you’re going to jump into something where you are throwing in all your money, time, and effort, working 80 to 100 hours a week for two years, you’d better fit it and it had better fit you, otherwise you will not be maximizing your investment.”

What makes fit so hard to figure out, and how can you tell when you’ve finally found it?

“Though candidates and admissions officers both talk regularly about the importance of fit, it truly is something that is really hard to bottle or package,” explains Stacey Dorang Peeler, managing director of Pennsylvania State University’s online MBA. “Fit is very much a feeling in your gut when you know something is right. While you can look at data and assess the pros and cons of a program on paper all day, in the end, it’s often something you need to assess first-hand through conversation, campus visits, and genuine connections with a school and its students. In the end, you’ll likely ‘just know’ when the fit is right for you.”

How do rankings and the prestige of a program relate to fit?

“A prestigious name or a high ranking might carry cache, but if you won’t get the tools you need to progress on the career track and have the experience you want, those things are meaningless,” says Dorang Peeler. “If what is offered and what you need are in sync, the program could be the right one for you.”

“Applicants have a choice when applying to a program and, sure, there are brand differences among the schools, but at our core, we are the same: accounting is governed by generally accepted principles, statistics are always statistics, and the laws of supply and demand do not change between schools,” adds O’Brien.

What else should you keep in mind?

“As a candidate, you should consider the brand of the school, its location, its student body profile, the strengths or availability of specific academic components like concentrations, and the reach and composition of its network,” says Petia Whitmore, managing director of the MBA Tour and former dean of graduate admissions at Babson College’s F.W. Olin Graduate School.

“Much more difficult to discern, but so deeply critical, is the cultural or emotional fit. And by that, I don’t simply mean a place where you can be happy. You need to go beyond that and look for an environment that will inspire you, challenge you, and ultimately make you proud. That’s the part that will keep you going when the going gets tough during finance class. That’s what will serve you well beyond your first post-MBA job. That’s what you will remember years down the road. Go with what moves you.”

Looking for a program that best fits your needs, goals, and personality? Get started by visiting our school search page to connect with schools.

Barbara Coward
Founder, Enrollment Strategies
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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