Decision time: Which MBA program offer should you accept?

BY Sydney LakeApril 08, 2022, 12:33 PM
A man takes pictures of the snow on campus at Harvard University during a snowstorm, as seen in January 2022 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A snowstorm at Harvard, in Cambridge, Mass., January 2022.
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The seemingly hard part is done. You’ve polished your MBA applications, prepared for and crushed your interviews, and nailed down stellar letters of recommendation. Admissions decisions are now starting to flood your inbox. Maybe you knew exactly what your top-choice school was, but more likely, it’s time to get down to the tough decisions. 

“The mentality is very different when you actually have that secure option,” says Harvard Business School (HBS) graduate Shaifali Aggarwal, founder and CEO of Ivy Groupe, an MBA admissions consulting firm. Aggarwal tells clients to apply to between five and eight business schools because those who do are typically admitted to about half that number. And still, business school applicants will have tough decisions to make. 

While it’s an exciting time, choosing which school to ultimately attend requires careful thought. Fortune spoke with a couple of business school admissions experts to learn what candidates should consider ahead of formally accepting a spot. 

Get to know the school 

Deciding which business schools to apply to requires a great deal of research, but decision time takes a more in-depth look at what life at the program will look like. That’s why business school candidates should think about “the four C’s” when choosing which business school to attend, Nellie Gaynor, a former associate director of admissions for the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, tells Fortune. Those four C’s are: career, curriculum, culture and community, and cost, she adds.

“Much like the admissions process, choosing which business school to attend is uniquely aligned to your career goals,” says Gaynor, who now works with admissions consultancy IvyWise. It’s important to question whether the program will help you to achieve your career goals, develop the skills you’re looking for, and give you the return on investment you seek, she adds. 

One way to answer these questions and really get to know the programs on a deeper level is to speak with alumni, Aggarwal says. Many schools will host events for admitted students where you’ll have the chance to connect with alumni and other students.

“You can be a little more frank in your questions,” Aggarwal says. “You don’t necessarily always have to talk about all of the positive elements.”

Harder-hitting questions might address what alumni would change about the program or didn’t particularly like, she notes. 

Know your scholarship options

As Gaynor suggests, the cost of an MBA program is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing a business school. Earning an MBA can cost, on average between $50,000 and $100,000, but some of the t0p-ranked business schools will have a total price tag of more than than $200,000. 

HBS, which Fortune ranks as having the top business school in the country, has a yearly price tag of about $111,000; Stanford Graduate School of Business (ranked No. 2) costs more than $119,000 per year; and Wharton (ranked No. 3) is more than $115,000 per year. 

Many business schools, however, offer financial aid and scholarships to soften the blow of those hefty price tags. Harvard offers need-based scholarships of $40,000 to $80,000 total, according to its financial aid office. Merit-based scholarships are a little bit harder to come by, though, at Harvard and Stanford, Aggarwal says. 

Some of the other M7 schools—which include Wharton, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Columbia University—will offer some merit-based financial aid. Business school candidates who receive financial aid packages from schools that may not be ranked in the M7 or top 20 could leverage those offers to try to get more funding from a top business school they’ve been admitted to through a process called matching.

If a candidate has an offer in hand from one business school for, say, a $40,000 scholarship, that candidate could turn around to another program asking for the same amount, or a “match.” While the program may not be able to offer the same amount, you could end up receiving at least a better financial aid package. 

“If done politely, it never hurts to just ask,” Aggarwal says.

Gut check

While prestige and school names can certainly sway students to apply, it shouldn’t be the only reason to commit. 

“Prestige is only one piece of the larger puzzle when deciding between business school offers,” Gaynor says. “Students who are motivated, goal-oriented, ambitious, and know what they want to achieve in their business career are more likely to look at the overall package that is being presented to them, including academics, student life, location, ‘fit,’ and other important factors.”

It’s also crucial to look at the city where you’ll be completing your MBA program—but even more imperative to really evaluate your goals again.

“Ultimately, I do think it comes down to that gut feeling,” Aggarwal says. Looking at employer reports, talking to career services, and visiting the school again can help with your decision-making, she adds. 

“Do a gut-check and make sure the business school you decide on is the one your instincts are leading you to as well,” Gaynor agrees. “This is a personal, self-reflective process as much as it is a logical one.”

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best business analytics programsdata science programs, and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.