So you’ve decided you want an MBA. You’ve taken the GMAT, ordered transcripts and thought about career goals. Now it’s time to start your school selection process. Before you start researching programs, make sure you understand your own criteria and preferences so that you can take your school selection beyond mere rankings or brand recognition. What type of coursework are you most interested in? Are you looking for a program that is strong in general management and leadership? Or are you more interested in brushing up on your financial and accounting knowledge to complement your existing skill-set? If investment banking or management consulting is your dream career path, then stick with the sterling b-school brands. If you’re looking to switch careers, a top-tier program will get you there faster. People typically pursue an MBA because they want to improve their career opportunities and increase their future income. What some applicants don't consider is that you can achieve both of those objectives even if you don't make it into the business programs at Harvard, Wharton or Stanford. Different schools have different specialties, so take your research a step further by exploring the departments in your areas of interest and browse the list of available classes posted online. Also take into account what type of teaching method is most common—Case Method, experiential, lecture-based—and whether it is a good fit for your personality and learning style. Whether it’s a joint-degree program, study abroad offerings, or unique experiential learning opportunities, finding a specific program that is truly tailored to your interests can make for a unique MBA experience, and turn a school from marginally attractive into your top choice. Do you want to be in the city or in a rural setting? Do you need to be near a particular location for personal or professional reasons? Aside from weather considerations, geography plays a big role in recruiting as most industries have strong connections to certain regions: New York or London for finance; Silicon Valley for entrepreneurship; media and entertainment in Los Angeles; energy sector jobs in Texas. Even if companies have multiple offices across the country and around the globe, you will always have the highest exposure to jobs in your geographic area, so keep that in mind. A great starting point for any applicant trying to narrow down their school list is connecting with students and alumni at the schools you are considering. Call the admissions department and ask for the names of recent alumni in your area. Get in touch with one or more of those folks and take them out for a coffee. They can offer the inside scoop on student life and what makes their school unique. However, don’t base your entire impression of a school on a single alum's experience. You’ll want to speak to as many students and alums as possible because each person's experience is different. Utilizing your own network of MBA alumni is another great way to learn more about your schools. If you aren’t part of a typical MBA profession, you can ask around at work and among your family and friends to see if anyone knows an alum of your target programs. Once you have some contact names, reach out to see if you can ask a few questions. Following networking best practices like asking for additional contacts and sending thank you notes after every meeting is a smart way to expand your knowledge and establish a network of support for your MBA application process. If you are faced with distance or time constraints, admissions events are another way to have an in-person touch point with your chosen schools. Top MBA programs host numerous events around the world each year, so plan on attending those nearest you in order to meet admissions officers, alumni and current students, and to gain valuable application advice. Participating in online information sessions and virtual webinars is another valuable way for candidates to get a better sense of the school's culture. Once you’ve winnowed down your school list to a handful of exciting possibilities, it’s time to start planning your campus visit. Be sure to sit in on a class to get a sense of the academic environment at the school. Details such as whether students mingle before or after class, chat with the professor during break, and the amount of thought-provoking discussion all provide valuable clues to help you understand what the MBA experience is really like at that school. Try to speak with students during lunch or between classes, and don’t forget to allow time to walk around campus and explore between scheduled activities. Visits not only show your interest to schools, but also provide you with a lot of personal details that you can then reference in your essays to bolster your argument that you and the school are a perfect fit. Once you have researched all of your target programs, the most important thing is figuring out which schools will help you meet your professional goals. A hefty dose of self-reflection is the first step toward finding which MBA program is the best fit for YOU. Founded in 2001, Stacy Blackman Consulting has helped thousands of MBA applicants gain admission to the most selective business schools in the world. The Stacy Blackman team, comprised of MBA graduates, former admissions officers and expert writers, editors and marketers, helps clients develop and implement a winning marketing strategy. Stacy Blackman clients have a significantly increased probability of admission to top schools and are frequent recipients of merit scholarships.