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How to know if you ‘Fit’ an MBA program and Business School

Sudershan ‘Suds’ Tirumala (Regional Director, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth), sheds some light on the elusive term ‘Fit’ that most Admissions Officers use in their presentations but not many applicants really understand.

Survival Of The ‘Fit’test – Fittingly Enough, It’s All About Fit

Top 10 MBA Admissions Officer - SudsNow that you’ve had an opportunity to internalize the message in the earlier post (Differentiating your MBA Application), it’s time to take the next step, and talk about something that’s probably given the least importance by Indian applicants when taking that decision to apply to business school. Fit.

What does ‘fit’ mean??
Does it even matter?
It’s a bunch of balderdash!
I can fit anywhere – I’m a flexible guy…

These are not random statements – I’ve been involved in conversations where applicants have posed these rhetorical questions alongside some off-the-cuff remarks. But really, what is fit? What’s all the hoopla about?

Let’s take a sartorial example. Because you’re a very busy person normally, you don’t have too much time to spend in the departmental store. Let’s say you hop into the store, simply pick up clothes that you think might fit you without first trying them on.

Better yet, let’s say you just bought some clothes from an e-commerce site. Until the stuff is shipped home and you try them on, you’d have no idea whether the clothes you ordered pass the “wear-worthy” test.

In the event the clothes are either too tight fitting or too loose fitting, would you be comfortable going out in those clothes to a party?

Or will you do whatever it takes – move your schedule around, figure out other websites, etc. – to ensure you’re ultimately the owner of great fitting clothes and not the ones you had bought earlier in tremendous hurry?

My guess is you’d do the latter.

If you’re willing to do whatever it takes to wear clothes you will look good in, why are you ignoring the same question when it comes to business school – the cloak and the degree you’ll be wearing on you for the rest of your life?

Why aren’t you asking yourself and your near and dear ones, these questions:

Does this school fit me well?
Am I a good fit for this school?
If everything seems to be falling in place, how do I demonstrate my fit to the admissions committee?

The beauty of figuring out fit is, if you get the answers to the first two questions above, the last question automatically gets answered and you don’t even have to struggle to demonstrate fit!

That brings us back to the question: “What’s FIT and what’s the big deal?

At the risk of gross generalization, Indian applicants tend to think of business school rankings and career outcomes as proxies for fit.

As long as they have a decent GMAT score, they think they’ll be able to fit anywhere, and believe they just have to get through a couple of years of MBA studies, in order to be set up with a rewarding career.

But is it really that simple? Why that extraordinary focus on the destination to the extent that you’re conveniently forgetting the journey?

Isn’t it the journey that makes the destination so much more meaningful?

Shouldn’t you be looking for a business school experience that’s truly transformative for you – in whichever facet of life – something that enables the quantum leap you’re looking for?

Granted you’re looking for an MBA degree no matter which business school you’re targeting.

Granted the career outcomes you want are broadly categorized as
– Consulting,
– Banking/finance,
– General management,
– Non-profit,
– Entrepreneurship

If you’re looking at schools in the US, every region has its own uniqueness
– Pacific Northwest,
– West Coast,
– East Coast,
– Northeast,
– Midwest,
– Mid South,
– Mid Atlantic.

And if you’re looking at international schools, they’re culturally different from each other.
– Europe (and within Europe, the various countries and their schools),
– South East Asia,
– China,
– India.

And then there are the MBA flavors – accelerated one-year MBA and the two-year residential MBA.

Hark back to the idea of buying clothes online without being able to try them on.

Purely online research of business schools is nothing different. Everything looks great online, and the human brain is such a fantastic machine that it will lull you into thinking that you’re best fit for that school.

If you visited ten different business school sites, odds are you’ve already felt you’ll fit in all or most of them – especially when the only source of your information is pure, unadulterated online research!

Now, it’s your turn to separate the wheat from the ubiquitous chaff – figure out which are those elusive schools that really speak to you and where you really feel like you belong.

And those revelations happen when you talk to people from that school – faculty, staff, administrators, students, alumni – and get a sense of the community.

No amount of online research will throw as much light on a school as will a half hour conversation with someone associated with that school.

More than anything else, you owe it to yourself to do that due diligence to figure out whether it’s a community you’d like to be associated with, for the rest of your life.

Make no mistake, every school is trying to sell its product – the MBA program – and attract the best talent from around the world, just as much as there are applicants trying to showcase themselves as the perfect candidate for that school.

If there’s a confluence of thoughts, then there’s no looking further!

Just one more point to clarify. I mentioned above that if the first two questions regarding fit are answered, the third is automatically answered. You may be wondering how that’s possible.

Here’s how:

When you have conversations with real people associated with the school of your choice, your “fit” will either get reinforced or stripped away.

Assuming it gets reinforced, your body language changes without your knowledge. You start speaking like a current student.

You’re already imagining yourself as part of the community. You can’t get enough of that conversation you just had.

You’re suddenly connecting with more people from that school than you ever imagined.

You’ve internalized that school’s culture so much, that the thoughts automatically flow into your essays and demonstrate the genuineness of your research.

Once you’re able to get through to the admissions committee with your compelling essays, the interview will follow in due course.

And what do you do in the interview? You simply channel all the research you’ve done, all those conversations that were so fundamental to your beliefs about the school, and you simply speak your heart during the interview. That’s it. Game. Set. Match.

I was giving a talk recently at one of the MBA Tour events, as were people from 30+ business schools from around the world.

At the end of the talk, one of the prospective applicants came up to me and said, “Suds, I’ve heard admissions officers from every school talk about their school, but this is the first time I’ve heard someone speak from the applicant’s perspective. Now, I understand the meaning of ‘fit,’ which I have chosen to ignore up until now. I was wrong, and I’m going to do a lot more research and figure out which school will make me truly happy.

That’s absolutely right. Figure out where you will be truly happy, in every sense of that word. That place is the right fit for you.
Read more posts from Suds on MBA admissions and careers.

You may also find this helpful – How to research business school and MBA programs

Also read this student blog, Fashion industry professional, and Simon MBA admit with scholarship, shares application and MBA Program selection tips

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Sudershan Tirumala
About Sudershan Tirumala
Suds' association with the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth (an Ivy League university) as Regional Director has given him rich & unique insights about international & Indian applicants that very few admissions officers have. In an exclusive series for MBA Crystal Ball, he writes on a wide range of topics from MBA admissions to careers.

14 thoughts on “How to know if you ‘Fit’ an MBA program and Business School”

  1. Hello Sudarshan,

    I think you bring up great points about the whole thought process that goes behind MBA application process for an Indian applicant.(Me being one!). I can say few points you mentioned did go in my SOP’s during my MS applications!!.
    Now after working almost 5 years in US, I think I need a new dimension and a new challenge to my professional and personal career. I have decided to purse MBA (Dont know when, yet) in near future. Currently, I am trying to understand what that will entail in terms new opportunities, new outlook towards professional life, whole new experience etc.I guess I have a simple question for you, since I am in reach of few good schools, is it advisable to try to contact and meet any admissions committee members this early (if I can) or try to develop a communication with the school of my choice?
    Just a background: I came to pursue MS right after my Engineering degree from India and I have stated working in my current company right after I finished my MS in Mechanical Engineering and so per-say I dont have any educational “gaps” on my resume. Does that make a good difference on my application or it depends how I highlight the “no” gaps?

    I really enjoyed reading your post,I hope you write more on such interesting topics!
    Thank you

    • Sanjay,

      Thanks for your comment. Glad to hear you’re thinking of doing an MBA to further your career ambitions. I’ll say you absolutely should try and reach out to Admissions Committees of the schools you’re evaluating.

      Now, since this is typically a very busy time of the year, there might be a bit of a delay in their getting back to you, but that shouldn’t stop you from doing your research. At the very least, nothing stops you from getting in touch with current students and get a sense of their experiences.

      Regarding your question on there being no gaps in your education, that doesn’t by itself make for a better or worse application. I’d rather you focus on what you think really differentiates you as a candidate. I’ll address the question of gap in a future blog. Stay tuned.


  2. Hello sudarshan
    I m an engineer working in oil and gas industry since last 13 years. Require ur suggestion that will doing a one year MBA help my career growth. I want to continue in same industry.


    • Hi Anjum,

      Thanks for your question. Typically, one-year MBA programs are geared towards people who have been in a specific industry and want to go back to the same industry (or even the same company, for that matter). Not sure if you want to be in the same company and whether the company is going to sponsor you, but a good number of one-year MBA programs (at least the ones in the US) end up having students who are being sponsored by their employers. The downside of the one-year MBA is the limited opportunity to do an internship, but that’s the whole point. If you already know you’re going to be in the same industry, do you really need to prove yourself in an internship all over again?

      I’d say go for it, if you’re sure this is the industry in which you see yourself continuing to grow professionally. Adding business credentials on top of it won’t hurt!


  3. While I am sure there is good reason and sufficient empirical evidence to support this article, ESP since it coming from an adcom member of a top 10 b-school, I find it hard to understand how one determines this so called fit?

    The article mentions that Indian students only look at GMAT and think they can fit in anywhere. But it’s not just Indians, students from all Nationalities feel the same way. If you spend 30 minutes in a chat room at GMATCLUB, where identities are protected and opinions fly carefree, you can see that every student is looking for the best school that will take them.

    And I don’t blame them. Even after speaking to professors, students, adcoms, and attending several events of several schools, guess what – they all have the same message : “We are diverse. We are international. We are collaborative.”

    If B-schools really want to differentiate themselves beyond location and employment trends, and want students to identify that separation (and thus subsequently determine fit), then they must make the differentiation far more tangible. There is no nutrition in such advice, where you ask someone to get a sense of the community.

    Communities around the world are essentially the same – we are tribal, self preservationist, compassionate and anxious all at the same time, from time to time 🙂 Which is to say, we are human. I’ve lived in 4 cities over that past 10 years, spanning 3 continents. Every one of them took months of complete immersion to understand the nuances of community and culture.

    There is no sales pitch for culture, and no amount of research can get you that feel. What we can do is be true to our goals and aspirations. And present them in a way that is true to the one culture we know best – our mind! And then it would be up to the school to select that mind or not.

    Applicants should be themselves, try their best. But adcoms should not expect applicants to determine fit on the front end, it’s simply not a nutritious endeavour, it’s too fugazi!

    Sorry to drone on. I only wanted to share my disagreement respectfully. Hope I have achieved that. Cheers.

    • Bitun,

      Thanks for your comment.

      The point I was trying to make in the above post was less about how schools evaluate candidates and more about how candidates should evaluate schools – primarily to understand which school meets their expectations best, and where they will thrive the most.

      As you put it, every school talks about being diverse, international, and collaborative. Given this, should one be simply taking those statements on face value? Shouldn’t the applicant be doing more “due diligence” to understand whether she fits the school and whether the school fits her? That’s the point I was trying to make. Maybe the sartorial example was a bit lost, so let me try something closer home.

      When someone wants to buy stock in a publicly listed company, would she simply:
      a) go and buy the shares of any company out there, or,
      b) buy shares in a company since she heard about it from someone else, or
      c) would she do due diligence on a number of companies and figure out which one she thinks will give her the best “experience” in terms of return or dividends or portfolio growth or any number of other attributes?

      All of the above are acceptable ways of buying stock, but option c) has a higher probability of living up to your expectations. Evaluating whether she will thrive in a given business school is no different. She should gather information from a number of sources out there, including speaking to people from the school and coming to a more informed conclusion that this is the place for her.

      The idea is to make the effort to get as well informed as one can, so the applicant in a good place when the time comes to decide where she wants to be.

      Hope that helps.


      • Hi Suds,

        Sorry for the late response – didn’t know you had replied 🙂

        I agree with you that due diligence is necessary, not just for Bschool applications, but for every endeavor in life. As you mentioned, buying stock, buying a house/car – anything.

        But that can only be for tangible statistical things – when buying a car, I will evaluate the consistency of performance of its manufacturer, what specifications I need, what size, etc.

        As long as the evaluation is about tangible data points, that is a fair exercise to expect.

        But to expect to understand cultural fit seems like a near impossible task, unless you are already immersed in it.

        Furthermore, isn’t it better to approach it the other way? For students to be themselves and adcoms to gauge whether this guy/girl fits in here?

        That was my point – applicants should absolutely know the program inside out, have interacted with students, club members, alumni in areas of interest, faculty.

        But beyond that, what else can we do? And doing these things doesn’t necessarily achieve any core value identification/resonance with the school right? Just opportunity identification.



  4. Suds & Bitun, this discussion is certainly very valid.
    Being an MBA applicant myself, I have been trying to make sense of HOW to evaluate different schools. Looking for tangible points has been mostly a miss, and not hit for me. As a person who has closely seen how websites are developed, I have come to not trust them. Not unless I find supporting data on another website. And then not until I can ascertain that the other website has no commercial relationship with the first website. Authenticity of the data available online is a huge problem.

    I tried was visiting MBA fairs where persons from Adcoms of various schools came in to sell the MBA programs. Here, getting tangible unbiased data was nearly impossible. However, it was possible to differentiate Canadian culture from American culture, in the way in which the interactions occurred. Again, this wasn’t tangible. It was more on ‘feel’ basis.

    I have to agree with Bitun on the point about not being able to know cultural differences without allowing yourself to immerse in those cultures. Hence people from those cultures know their culture better, and thus should select the candidates that ‘fit’ (and not the other way round). Knowing those nuances takes time. However, I disagree with this point slightly in how do the Adcoms get to know the nuances about the candidates? I understand they are looking for trigger points, and possibly with years of experience, they develop a good ‘feel’ for this, but still, how do they do it?

    Suds, is it possible for you to possibly link up your thoughts presented in this article with some tangible trigger points an applicant can look out for, and that can help distinguish between biased & unbiased information on various schools present on various online sources?

  5. Hi SamBha,

    You are right that visiting the school and attending events does give a “feel” for the culure – especially the former.

    When I went to Dartmouth this year, I could sense the entire campus and the Hanover community was very well connected. It’s a different vibe to that of a city school, and you have to be there to feel it.

    For internationals, I would look at the engagement with the career center and the strength of the clubs – all schools have different focuses, so that might be something that helps gauge the right fit for you.

    It takes a long time to get this “feeling” – I think it took me almost a whole year to understand what it takes, and I also think every person will have their own interpretation of this qualitative assessment.

    For the international events, some schools will have a short presentation and a few alums who talk to the 200 attendees, while others will stay for 4-5 hours, late into the night to speak to every single potential applicant. That is something that stays with you.

    Hope this helps, I know it’s still less tangible than maybe you would like, but some check points at least.

  6. I agree that it would be great to get the feel of the fit. But what are the options to do this for international applicants?
    How can I interact with alumini? Are there any platforms available?

    • Vineet,

      Thanks for your note. Usually, the best way to reach out to alums is asking the school’s admissions team to connect you with alumni. The other possibility is looking up LinkedIn profiles and sending requests which run the risk of being ignored. Perhaps the easiest opportunity is by attending the admissions events hosted by schools. Almost always, there are alumni present at these events and are eager to share their own experiences. You can take your conversations forward with them.

      Hope that helps. Good luck with your next steps.


  7. Hello, I really liked the way you’ve written the article. It’s crisp and clears out a confusion, every student has. I want to ask you one thing, being an international student (from India), how can i interact with the admissions team, way before my gmat or while preparing for my gmat ?
    In my case, i have been working 7 days, everyday in my business and i am planning to pursue my mba just out of it, so the schedule is really tight for my studies to fit in, so i have to be off social networking sites for the preparations.

    • Shrey,

      Thanks for your note. It’s pretty easy to connect with the Admissions Committees at business schools, whether or not you’ve already given your GMAT/TOEFL etc. Just write to them and ask to be connected or meet them in person when they’re visiting the country as part of a broader business school fair or hosting exclusive admissions receptions/coffee chats.

      As for how hectic your schedule is, are you sure you’re not overestimating the “busy”ness? Can you take a half hour out of your day (or night) to get on a call with an Admissions Committee member? Can you spend a few minutes sending out emails and setting up those conversations? Can you attend these fairs and get to know the schools better?

      I think it’d be a missed opportunity if you’re shooting for an MBA, but not making the effort to connect with the very people who you’ll need to convince that you’re the right candidate for that program.

      Good luck with your GMAT preparation, outreach efforts, and application process!



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