Choosing a Business School: Is Harvard the best MBA program in the world?

While selecting bschools, variations of this question pop up in the minds of MBA applicants. Other queries falling in a similar category are as follows.

– Which is the best 2 year (or 1 year) MBA program?
– Are US universities better than those in the UK or Europe?
– Should I choose international business schools over Indian MBA colleges?

All of these questions are natural to have and justified, considering how much you would be investing in the program. Ask most Indian applicants and most would have a standard answer. Most would say IIM Ahmedabad (IIM-A) is the best Indian MBA program in the 2-year format. Or ISB is the best GMAT-based Indian MBA program. Or Harvard is the best 2-year MBA course in the world.

But if you really look beyond the popular public opinion, for many of these questions, there are no absolute answers really. There’s one basic quality that applies to bschools – uniqueness. All MBA programs are not created equal.

Contrast this to the GMAT test, where the objective for all test takers is exactly the same – score a (balanced and) very high GMAT score. The GMAT syllabus is fixed. The duration of the test is fixed. How you study for the GMAT might vary – self-study using GMAT books, online GMAT course, classroom based GMAT coaching or one-on-one tutoring for specific GMAT topics (e.g. verbal). But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s exactly one goal for everyone. Knock the crap out of the test and come out victorious.
For Adcoms too, it’s a like-to-like comparison to find out which GMAT score is better. A 780 score is better than a 700 score. No debate there.

However, consider the bigger picture now for the MBA degree. Almost everything about it is variable. Apart from the three letter acronym that you’ll get on your resume, everything that goes into getting it varies. The duration of the MBA program, the syllabus, the teaching methodology (mix of classroom based lectures, group assignements, presentations, case studies). Most importantly, the takeaways from the MBA experience are different for every single person.

Not everyone wants to be an Investment banker (or a management consultant).
Not everyone wants to work in the US (or India or Europe).
Not everyone wants to spend 2 years in a classroom (or maybe a single day).
Not every is there for the academic knowledge (which you could get from books anyway).
Not every wants to earn a lot of money and buy a home in the Bahamas.

Well, on second thoughts, ignore that last point for now.

In such a situation where almost all parameters that you could compare vary so dramatically, can you really compare two schools and say one is better than the other. MBA rankings try to do exactly that, and I think many of them raise more eyebrows than provide solutions (global truths) that would make everyone happy.

Rashmi Bansal, the author of the best-seller Stay Hungry Stay Foolish, recently interviewed me for her blog (read it –> here). I use Harvard as an example to illustrate the point. I greatly respect the brand, but I just can’t afford it. Whether they’d take me is a different story, but apart from MBA financing issues, there was no way I could’ve met my post-MBA goal (voluntary retirement from corporate life before I turn 40) if I had gone to Harvard.

So let’s ignore the general public vote and re-phrase the original question.
Which is the best business school in the world…for YOU?

And to arrive at the answer you’ll have to ask yourself a whole lot of questions about where you are in your career right now, why you are unhappy, where you want to go from here and which MBA can get you there in the most painless possible manner. In our MBA Mock Application Process (MBA MAP), this is precisely what we spend a lot of time on. Rather than providing magical solutions, we push applicants into coming up with their own answers.

If something as formal as the MBA MAP is not on your to-do list, no worries. You can identify many of the gaps & issues and come up with the answers on your own. The key is to start early, have access to the right data/information and design a customised application strategy plan (covering bschools, positioning your profile, planning out the post-MBA career etc) that works for YOU.

Hope you get into Harvard the bschool of your dreams.

Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball | Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors Connect with me on Google+ | Twitter @mba_cb | Facebook

2 Comments

  1. Crystal says:

    Nice thoughts.

    I am a big fan of going to the best school where you want to work. If you have decided to live and work in US forever, then go to best possible US school you can get into. But most of the indian applicants to US schools fall into a different bucket – want to work in US for few years and get back to India.

    Don’t look down upon IIMs(some do actually, which is surprising to me) or ISBs. In India, supply of students is way more than demand. So Indian schools can’t accomodate all. We tend to look outside India. Global does not mean US alone. Have you ever seen American students flocking schools(MBA or not) in other countres? They do exchange program at best. It is not mandatory to study or live in different countries to thrive in your country. It is good to be aware of surroundings though.

    Instead of solely focussing on US schools, there are many good schools out there, NUS, SAID etc. People some how discount all these options and try for US schools only. In my view, US schools hook you into their system and they also know how to sell themselves well. They have good features such as soft skills, network etc. Remember, you are learning to talk about NFL. You are learning how to schmooze recruiter in US, which is not a bad thing. I highly doubt if they are transferable skill sets to India. If you return to India after 3 years of US experience, there is no reason for Indian recruters to pay you more than they do to IIM or ISB grads. You have not lead people here, not done business here or dealt with clients here. You dont have any network here. If you have always dreamt of studying in US, go for it by all means. But be realistic about what awaits you in India when you return. To be blunt, in US, your IIM or IIT was not as well recognised. Why do you expect Indian recruiters to value your US degree?

    If you attend top 3 or 5 US schools, the brand name is strong enough that recruiter will open the door for you. If you attend top 10-15 schools, you are going to be a case of worst of both worlds. You neither went to best schools in India nor in USA. Again students somehow believe that their top 10-15 schools brand name is strong in India. It is not. Those schools are very very US centric and regionally focused at best.

    My point is, if you are looking beyond India, dont focus only on US. There are excellent options that provide awesome education.

    Still you have decided to study in US and have multiple admits to schools here. Usually in US, schools in lower 10 use this fit theory and its students have stories about how hard it was for them to choose between Stanford and their school(top 10 -15). At the end they decided to go with top 10-15 school because they saw good fit with it. In most of the cases, only students from these schools seem to have hard time finding differences but recruiters dont seem to struggle as much and they know what student body exists at each of these schools.

    Came across these from web during my research about b-schools, from A Dukie – he attends top 6 US b-school, from a Tuckie – he attends top 5 US b-school, from a Rossie – top 1 US b-school. (No offence to any of these schools but just quoting what I noticed). Are rankings so subjective that all of us can have our own rankings? While comparing similarly ranked schools, you can use fit. But not when comparing schools as widely distributed as H/S/W and top 10-15 schools, especially as an international student. You are scrutinized more by recruiters. You are way better off going to a school that is deemed best by recruiters and students. This will result in better opportunities for you.

    Sorry for long rant. Just to educate my fellow applicants or students.

  2. Sameer Kamat says:

    Thanks for sharing your perspective. You raise a very interesting point about why Indian recruiters should value a US degree.

    The MBA brand can help to an extent. Beyond that it’s all about what skills you have and how much the market values them.