MBA Schools: What’s in a name?

A conversation with a Hult student last week reminded me of an interesting dilemma a number of MBA applicants face during the application process: how important is a B-School’s name and reputation when choosing where to study and when planning your next move at the end of the course?

Like most students, my application process began attempting to understand the major ranking lists produced by companies such as the Economist and FT.com. For an international student who wasn’t versed in the history and reputation of the majority of the (American) schools on the list, this can be a very daunting task with many unfamiliar names in a surprising number of unfamiliar places.

When speaking to my Hult colleague last week, it seemed her friend was undecided about where her best option lay- with a mid-600 GMAT and a strong career in the finance industry, should she try her luck at the top schools, or instead aim for somewhere slightly further down the list but still within the Top 50? Should she go for an established school whose name was well known, or should she look into a newer school with a more dynamic approach? How important really is a name?

A schools name is essentially its brand. It stands for its heritage, its quality and its mission. It takes a lifetime to build but just a moment to shatter. Many people aspire to study in the top-ranked schools and ignore the ones they have never heard of, which makes sense to them. But think of it like this… Would you really write off working for a company you haven’t heard of before without trying to find out more?

It goes without saying that each applicant should really assess their choices on a case by case basis, but here are some reasons why you shouldn’t write off the schools you have never heard of just yet:

1. The small fish/big pond problem- going to a big name school might be great… But how are you going to stand out in a class of 700+ students? Everyone is smart in B-School in my experience, so consider where you are likely to get more of the opportunities that employers covet? I have been fortunate enough to write research white papers for Boston management consultancies and co-write case studies to be used in MBA courses, to name just two examples. Back in October, I had the chance to pitch for $1 million in seed capital through the Hult Prize- all because I attend a so-called ‘second tier’ business school. Not only have these experiences helped me develop skills to a higher level than I could have dreamed of, they have also given me something very unique to put on my resume. I doubt very much if that would have happened for me had I gone to the Ivy League schools, great as I’m sure they are.

2. Timing is everything- not everyone plans their MBA two years in advance of it starting- I’m not sure why the big-name schools haven’t understood this yet. Closing applications in November is fine for those who have scheduled their MBA in well in advance, but most people realize that life doesn’t always work out that way. Although I had always planned to take the course at some point in the future, personally I could never have predicted that things would work out the way they did for me. I have previously written on this blog that I wasn’t prepared to wait another year to change my path, and I am truly glad that I had the conviction to follow my instincts rather than wait for the next application year to come around.

3. The International Context- this point may be specific to business schools such as Hult and Insead, but for me it is certainly a differentiator between the experience I have received here and the one I wold have had elsewhere. Travel has always been a huge part of my life, so the opportunity to combine that with my studies has been invaluable. Hult’s program is such that students can spend up to 3 months of the one-year MBA at another campus, spanning all of the major continents across the globe excepting Africa (at present). In my book, that counts for a lot. Add to that the experience of working daily with students from every corner of the globe, and being forced to consider your own assumptions about that which is seemingly obvious to you is a real eye opener that is hard to match elsewhere. On a wider scale, you will find that business schools you can’t name off the top of your head will almost always offer you something unusual in order to differentiate themselves- your job is to figure out if that adds value to you or not.

4. Names matter, but it’s what to do with it that counts- this point summarizes more than any other the truth that you should not write off business schools you haven’t heard of before until you find out more about them. There is no denying that an MBA from Harvard, Stanford or Cornell doesn’t look impressive on a resume. There is also no denying that an MBA from one of those schools may well get you interviews and other opportunities that others may not. One thing you can be sure of though, is that if you don’t stack up in an interview and prove that you can make a difference to that company, they won’t hire you (nepotism notwithstanding!). As a Hult student I certainly have to push myself out into the networking community more than students from most of the other Boston schools because the name is only 6 years old, and it can be frustrating having to explain to a lot of people what Hult is and what it does. Once I realized however, that this was also an opportunity to spread the word in a way that I saw fit, I felt liberated. There are no misconceptions about my school because hardly anyone has heard of it yet… I am sure I have made a couple about the Ivy League schools in this article, despite my best efforts.

Personally, having the ability to be part of the message is inspiring, assuming I can achieve positive things in my time in Boston. I love telling people about the incredible things I have had chance to be a part of since starting in September, and I won’t be stopping anytime soon. Yes there are areas for improvement, but helping to build something great by being part of the solution is far more fun than being ‘just another number’ elsewhere.

In short… Don’t be a B-School snob until you have done the research. There’s far more too a Business School than a name, you know.