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Navigating the MBA Research Process, Part 1

Navigating the MBA Research Process, Part 1

By Dr. Don Martin, Former Dean of Admissions at Chicago Booth

Hello to our prospective students around the world!  It is a pleasure to meet you.  I have spent my entire career in the admissions space, including 11 years as Associate Dean for the Full-time MBA Program at Chicago Booth.  During that time I personally made the final admission decision on over 80,000 applications.  I have also published a book on the graduate school research and application process (2008 and 2018).  So what you will be reading below is based 28 years as an enrollment management professional.  

This blog has to do with the following: 

  1. Two important tips for researching MBA programs; 
  2. The biggest mistake prospective business/graduate school students make; 
  3. Doing your due diligence before submitting your MBA applications;
  4. The mind of the American admissions director/committee.  

. Two important tips. Here are two very important tips for you to keep in mind as you navigate the MBA research process.

Tip One: My best advice for prospective international business/graduate school students is actually the same as for U.S. prospective students: Do not place so much emphasis on the ranking and prestige of U.S. business schools. During my years working in full-time MBA admissions, it was extremely disheartening to witness the excessively high level of attention given to rankings/prestige. In extreme cases, this was the only criterion used to determine where to apply. As a Dean of Students at three top-tier institutions, it was my unfortunate experience to sit across the desk from many a student (both international and domestic) who was very unhappy with their choice of Chicago Booth, Columbia or Northwestern. But they were already enrolled and felt they would lose too much if they withdrew. When asked what contributed to their decision to apply and enroll, the answer in many instances was, “It is very highly ranked.” Obviously, they had done little research beyond that. 

My intention here is not to discredit rankings. They do serve a purpose. But they should never be used as the sole or primary determinant of where to apply or enroll. At best they should be part of a very long list of considerations used to determine what institutions/programs are the best matches for you. Please read or re-read the 12- month checklist found in Chapter One of my book, Road Map for Graduate Study: A Guide for Prospective Graduate Students ( Doing so will be of tremendous help to you. Pay particular attention to the tips on what to do 12, 11 and 10 months before you apply. It could make all the difference in selecting, being admitted to, enrolling at, and receiving your MBA from the business school of your dreams.  

In the final analysis, your success in life is not dependent on the ranking or prestige of your graduate institution. It is dependent on your level of persistence and determination, and also, on your genuine demonstration of the “Three C’s:” Character, Credibility, and Communication skills. If you are going to focus on something, that is it.  

Tip two: My second piece of advice is that this is your life, your education, your journey, and no one else’s. While there are obligations to others, the first person to whom you owe allegiance is you. Be careful that you do not place too much emphasis on pleasing others, and in the process forget yourself. 


2. By far, the biggest mistake prospective business/graduate school students make is not doing adequate research/preparation before submitting their applications. Business school is not something to take lightly.  It involves a major investment personally, intellectually, socially, emotionally, and financially.  For international students it often involves living in another country for the first time, and adjusting to all that this entails.  Be sure to allow yourself enough time to do your “due diligence” and get all of the information you want and need.  


3. Doing your homework. As mentioned above, Chapter One of my book is all about the research process.  Included is a 12-month checklist of activities and tasks you should be completing each month before you apply.  For example, here is what you should be doing 12 months out:

  • Do an initial web-based search to identify at least 30 MBA programs on which you will conduct research.  One excellent resource for this type of inquiry is The MBA Tour or 
  • Once you have done a thorough search, make an alphabetical list of all your options, regardless of what you presently know/have heard about them.  Write them all down or put them on a spreadsheet.  REMEMBER:  PERCEPTION IS REALITY – IT’S WHERE YOU END UP, NOT WHERE YOU START OUT.  Be very careful about accepting word of mouth or what you think you know as final at this point in the search process.  We are individuals, and as such, have different needs, expectations and experiences.  This is YOUR educational experience – not someone else’s.  You need to start by gathering a list of options.  Do not eliminate any of them at this point.  You want to get as much information as possible so you can decide what options are most appealing.  
  • Go online and do some initial research on all the business schools you have on your list.  Assess not only the content of material on websites, but look at the way in which it is presented.  Is information easy to find?  Is the tone friendly and inviting?  Are there easy and quick ways to request more information?  Speaking of which, this would be a good time to request written/electronic information from each institution.  This will enable you to review what you receive any time you want.  It will also provide you an opportunity to find out just how responsive admissions offices are to you.  This can be very telling, and may shed light on the general level of responsiveness of those institutions about which you have made inquiry.  Give each institution a grade on their website, and on the timing quality of their response if you contacted them. 


 4. The mind of the American admissions director/committee.  My 28 years of experience in higher education (University of Chicago, Columbia and Northwestern) included evaluating and making final decisions on tens of thousands of applications (over 70,000 at Chicago Booth). In addition, on many occasions it was my privilege to attend conferences with other admissions and enrollment professionals. During these events we would have an opportunity to discuss our approaches to evaluating applications, and of course, that included applications submitted by international students. Here are some ideas about what is going through the mind of someone who is evaluating and/or making a final decision on an application submitted by a citizen of another country: 

  • The first thing on the mind of the admissions director is meeting the enrollment goals of the institution. Often times these goals are set without the input of the admissions director. They are most often set by the senior administration, and in lesser instances by the faculty. It is rare that the admissions director has input in the setting of these goals, yet s/he is responsible for reaching them. Many factors are considered in the determination of enrollment goals – the number of men, the number of women, the number of U.S. minority students, the number of international students, average GPA, average for standardized tests, and more. While the enrollment goals may not always seem understandable from a strictly objective point of view, there are usually sound reasons for each and every one of them. 
  • As mentioned above, there will almost always be an international student enrollment target number provided to the director. Sometimes this number will be flexible; most of the time it is set in stone. Let’s say, for instance, that the enrollment goal for incoming international MBA students is 20%, and the overall incoming class size goal is 450. That means the director will be responsible for the enrollment of 90 international MBA students at the start of the academic year. If that number is 80 or lower, or 100 or higher, the administration will most likely not be happy. And let’s say that between 500 and 600 international students make application for that incoming target of 90. This means a very difficult selection process for that director/committee.  They will most likely have to deny many more than can be admitted.   
  • Among committees/directors of admission there is a generally positive impression of international applicants. They are seen as being extremely motivated, committed, hard working and flexible. This impression was and is certainly my own. International students consider studying abroad to be a real privilege and they are committed to making the most of that opportunity. There is also a general impression that international students will make every effort to become part of the educational environment they join. The perception is that international students take great pains to “fit in,” make friends, and become part of the institutional “family.” 
  • In most cases it is assumed that international students complete good applications, and that they are able to follow directions well. This is extremely important.  In the mind of an admissions committee member and/or the admissions director, someone who cannot follow directions as an applicant will be less likely to follow directions as a student. 

Stay tuned for my next three blogs, which will focus directly on the MBA Application Process. 


Dr. Don Martin is an expert on the business/graduate school research and application process.  He spent 28 years as a Dean of Admissions/Dean of Students at three top U.S. universities – University of Chicago, Columbia and Northwestern.  In 2008 he founded Grad School Road Map, and has coached over 350 business/graduate school applicants, with a 97% acceptance rate.  The second edition of his book was released in July 2018.  Please check out for further information.   

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