October 9, 2008

Find Your Perfect Match

By Diana Hinds

THE RIGHT CHOICE A search for the right business school will involve websites, blogs, even podcasts. But there's no substitute for visiting in person, says Diana Hinds

"I am the only blonde in the MBA class," writes 27-year-old Morgan Witkin from Miami in a September blog post. "This happens to be the first time in my life I am a minority... and I am LOVING it."

Witkin embarked in August on an MBA course at Esade in Barcelona, and her blog, which she began earlier this year, now charts the ups and downs of her life in Spain, as well as the demands of her course and her struggles to get to grips with hours of managerial statistics. She already receives 10 to 20 emails a day in response to her blog, at least half of them from people she has never met.

"My blog is not just for my friends, but for people who may be thinking about an MBA or living abroad," she says. "I want to show people that there is someone like them. I want to give them some inspiration as well as some commiseration - because it's not all easy."

Blogging is an increasingly popular sport with MBA students, attracting the interest of students in business schools worldwide as well as of those contemplating an MBA. But how reliable are MBA bloggers, in terms of the information they provide about a business school?

"Schools have been saying to us that they are quite worried about blogging, because there's no regulation of it," says Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs (Amba). "It only takes two unhappy students to create a lot of hysteria about a business school. I would be very wary."

One leading business school, for instance, discovered that a Thai student who had failed his MBA had alleged in his blog that this was because "all the lecturers are racist".

At Insead business school, in Fontainebleau, near Paris, there are now eight or 10 student bloggers at any one time, according to Caroline Diarte Edwards, director of MBA admissions, but she feels that blogs are a useful resource for students.

"The fact that they sometimes say things that are not entirely positive lends more credibility to the blog," she says. "Our instinct is to want to control messages that are put out about this institution - but you can't control it, and it's not in our interest to control it. It's a positive development."

Insead, like many other business schools, also produces its own podcasts - showing academics talking about their areas of interest, for example - which students can download. But all schools emphasise that when it comes to choosing an MBA, there is nothing to beat actually visiting the school. Next best thing, says Jeanette Purcell, is to track down an alumnus of the school (Amba can help here) and contact them by phone or e-mail.

Making the right choice is particularly critical in a period of economic instability, given that this is one of the largest investments any student will ever make. "Ironically, economic downturns are very good for business schools," says Dr Gareth Griffiths, MBA director of Aston Business School (soon to be MBA director at Bangor University Business School). It can be a good time for people to take a year out of their career and invest in their future, he says. A full-time MBA course can also be a profitable way to spend redundancy money, as well as plugging a gap on a CV.

For those with family commitments, part-time and distance learning MBAs - which are plentiful in the UK - are the lowest risk option, offering a useful mixture of work and study.

Given the fluctuating exchange rate, an MBA in mainland Europe could be more expensive than previously. Griffiths, who is also an international assessor for Amba, encourages students wanting a truly global experience, as well as a considerably cheaper course, to consider an MBA in China, India or South America.

Accreditation is an important factor in choosing a school - predominantly Amba for UK schools, AACSB for US schools and Equis for European schools, although top international schools now like to have all three. Rankings are another factor, although as Jeanette Purcell stresses, a top-ranking school is not necessarily the right place for every student.

The crucial thing is to find a school that is the right match for you, in terms of location, cost, programme content, and to make sure that an MBA from that school has currency in the market in which you hope to work.

Applicants must be clear about looking for something specific that will help to develop them and boost their cv, says George Burt, head of MBA programmes at Strathclyde Graduate Business School. "An MBA is only as good as the person who has the MBA. The more people can develop themselves the better - but you can only do this if you know what you're looking for."

'I wanted to move into strategic tasks in a bigger company'

Bjorn Anders, 30, from Hanover, has just completed an MBA at Aston Business School.

"I wanted to do an MBA to get international experience and to make faster progress in my career. I had been working in sales in the packaging industry, and I wanted to move towards strategic tasks in a bigger, more international company.

I chose the UK because of its long tradition in business education and because I wanted to improve my English.

I went to the MBA World Tour in Frankfurt. That was definitely useful, because I could talk to representatives from different schools and compare the culture and the programme content. I was looking for reputation in terms of teaching and research, as well as an international mix of staff and students.

I applied to Aston Business School, because it had a high ranking and because there was a connection between Aston and the private university I went to in Germany.

I looked at material provided by Aston, including DVDs of lectures and a report written by students, and I also talked to an alumnus about his experience at Aston. Visiting Aston would have been a good idea, but I decided against it because of the cost. I was happy with the course.

I really appreciated the team work approach and the very good atmosphere in the student body."

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