This article by Charanpreet Singh appeared on PaGaLGuY.com – India’s biggest MBA resources website offering a well frequented forum for applicants from all over the world.
You are done with the CAT, are probably lining yourself up for some of the other admission tests, and preparing yourself for the last mile – the Group Discussion, Essay Writing and Interview processes. This is a good time to focus some attention towards getting a fix over an increasingly complex piece of the puzzle – which B-school do you trust two very critical years of your life to?
One way to solve the puzzle is to win admission to one of the top 5 -10 top institutes of the country – but that makes you part of a very small minority. For most other mortals, making this choice is tough.
There is nothing that excites more debate among the MBA aspirant community than the issue of assessing, comparing or ranking b-schools. Sadly, a large part of this debate is based on speculation, fuzzy impressions and market-created noise. It is useful, therefore, to recognise the key factors that define the quality of a business school.
Why is choosing a b-school such a big deal?
The immediate, tangible evidence of the value of a b-school is the ‘campus placement’ opportunity offered by most of the business schools of the country. India is the only country where campus placements are seen as an entitlement by candidates and in most cases become the only reason to pursue an MBA. With more than 3,000 management schools jostling for space, their marketing pitches are typically queered toward ‘placement records’ with terms like ‘100% placements’ and ‘average salary’ emerging as the defining parameters.
There is significant media participation as well, with all major publications releasing ranking-lists of the institutes. The third contributor to this confusion is the community of self-styled experts and consultants who are a little too ready with their advice and prescription. And finally being an Indian you are always blessed with overenthusiastic friends, family and fools who know exactly what you should be doing with your life. This is pretty much the backdrop against which you have to make your decision – not an easy task, but one which does have significant consequences.
I would advise young MBA aspirants to remember the following while going about the business of choosing an institution for business studies.
1. A b-school is as good (or bad) as its faculty
Conrad Hilton, who started the Hilton chain of hotels, famously remarked that the three Ls of a successful hotel are location, location and location. To me, the three Ls of a good business school are learning, learning and learning. The enabler of this learning, the faculty, remains the most important factor for judging the quality of a b-school. And how does one define and verify quality of faculty? Check out the academic pedigree, the level and quality of industry exposure and the reputation the faculty member enjoys inside and outside the institution. Bright people study in good institutions – that’s how they learn how to build one. A good b-school will, therefore, have a faculty team with a strong academic background.
Secondly, business education needs to blend theory with practice and is enriched by a faculty team that brings significant industry experience to the classroom. And finally, the reputation of good professors spreads quickly through word-of-mouth – so figuring this out will not be tough. The critical point is that the quality of faculty will decide to a large extent the kind of value you derive from your program. Ask yourself the question – would I want this team to teach, mentor and guide me? If the answer is yes, go right ahead.
2. I learn as much (if not more) from my peers and seniors as I do from the professors
The quality of your peer group is almost as important as the quality of faculty, simply because you end up learning as much from your batchmates and seniors as you do from your professors. Your peers will compete with you, collaborate with you on projects and assignments and engage you in discussions on topics across functions and domains. The strength of the program, and hence the learning, derives from the quality and diversity of the people participating in the program which in turn fashions the strength of the network that you become a part of, for life. So, you have to pick a b-school with good students from diverse academic, cultural and geographic backgrounds. If the school has clearly stated selection guidelines, selects students from across the country and rejects students that it thinks do not fit in, it is probably a school you should look at.
This, therefore, immediately eliminates institutes that send you messages that you have been ‘directly’ called for an interview (even without having applied).
3. An MBA does not entitle me to a job; I need to be trained well for the industry
If we accept that b-schools are preparing you largely for corporate careers ahead, their pedagogy has to align itself to serve this objective. There are three parts to this – the curriculum content, the delivery methodology and the assessment methods. Having the right quality of faculty on board is winning half the battle; in addition, a b-school has to empower its faculty to keep the curriculum topical through frequent revisions. The content has to reflect what the industry needs, not what the faculty know best.
The typical delivery options would be lectures, case studies, practice based learning. A primarily lecture-based pedagogy will typically fail to create the right learning ecosystem for a management class. And finally, assessment – does the school practise continual assessment, does the examination test the students’ thinking prowess or memory? You need to understand what simulates a real management situation better – a closed book exam where you have no sources of information except your memory, or an open book exam where you can have all the information you want, but you still have to assimilate it to solve the problems posed? All of these have an impact on your learning experience and hence your readiness for the career ahead. These are thus important features that you need to assess before picking the school you want to go to.
4. This is probably my last chance to ‘live a campus life’
Make this opportunity count.
I personally have a healthy bias for the residential model with hostels throbbing with life – my best learning and memories are tied to the years I spent in campuses at the IIT and at Iowa in the US. If you have the choice, pick an institute that offers a residential program. In addition to what you learn in class, you will get to live with your peers and pick up life skills that are so essential for success, both at the personal and professional fronts. It is also much more fun – let’s not underestimate the importance of fun in the overall b-school experience – midnight birthday parties, working overnight on assignments and projects, the adda in the night canteen.
Staying in an apartment close to the institute is not half as good as having a hostel within the college grounds.
5 The deeper my interface with the industry, the better my readiness for it
Most business schools claim to have a strong interface with the industry. But you need to verify this claim.
Industry interaction can be as superficial as a bunch of guest lectures by people from the industry to as intense as working on live industry projects and being taught courses co-designed and co-delivered by the industry. Some schools partner closely with the industry – as a student you stand to gain immensely from such associations. The faculty members play a key role here as well – they offer consultancy services, conduct management development programs and collaborate with industry to design and deliver programs. Check out the extent to which the school actually connects with the industry.
6. I need a good start to my career – a sturdy launching pad
And finally, placements! This is the most hyped and the most misleading part of the b-school story. Instead of going by average salaries and ‘100% placement’ tags, look for the critical things such as: which firms recruit from the school, at which level and for what kind of work (profile)?
For example, someone like ICICI Bank would be recruiting from a whole band of b-schools starting with the top IIMs and going up to second or third tier b-schools. The difference would in the profiles they offer and the level at which they recruit. Talk to seniors and understand this nuance simply because it’s the most important component of placements.
Average salary is not a very good parameter to go by. For one, firms vary a lot in the way they quote their ‘cost to company’ (CTC) numbers; and it’s difficult to verify if the average quoted by the institute is real or inflated – statistics, you would agree, cover more than they reveal. A good indicator is the detail with which a b-school reports its placements – shows that the school is confident and transparent.
7. There is a lot of noise in the market – most of it irrelevant
I have a few favourites here – the size and number of advertisements, the offer of free laptops, tie-ups with foreign universities you haven’t heard of, guarantee of 100% placements (it is illogical to believe that an educational institute can guarantee anyone a job – the jobs are offered by the industry). On a more serious note, the location of the college is also not a key parameter – else IIM Ahmedabad would not have ranked number one in the country. Non-metros are as likely to house a good b-school as metros; once you graduate, you are anyway more likely to get an assignment in one of the top metros – so you don’t need to be in a tearing hurry to get there now. Stick to the fundamentals when you exercise your choice.
8. The best source of information is the customer – the past and current students of the school
The weakest sources of information are institute-sponsored advertisements. The digital medium is fast evolving as a more reliable medium; well-governed sites like PaGaLGuY are a good bet. The best people to ask about an institute are its students – current and past. As a community, students do not lie; there would always be exceptions who take their passion for their school a little too far, but on the whole you are safer.
I believe this is an important decision and it makes a lot of sense to visit a couple of campuses before you make the final decision. The campus has a ‘feel’ to it – once you visit the campus, meet the students and faculty members, you will get a feel for the kind of energy the campus nurtures – whether the institute is student-friendly and student-oriented. You will also get an idea of the quality of the faculty and student communities – and answer that most important question of all – would I want to spend the next two years of my life in this campus, with these people? If the answer is yes, you have got the school you wanted.
In summary, look for the things that really matter – quality of faculty, peer-group, pedagogy, infrastructure and industry-interface – placements are a natural outcome of other things falling in place. Research thoroughly – current and past students are the best people to talk to. It’s a good idea to visit the campus of the school you wish to join – this is a small investment considering the magnitude of the decision. And once you get admission to the school of your choice, make sure you get the most out of the time you spend there. All the best!