The first thing one has to understand here is that everyone cannot be comfortable in ANY school. Just like our clothes, we'd be comfortable only in a school where we FIT in. And this FIT is the collective result of the answer to the "Why MBA?" question. It is important for everyone to find the schools that fit their requirement and not fall to the name or fame of the different schools.
If an individual has to avoid making mistakes in school selection, the first and the biggest thing he has to do will be to appreciate the fact that each school is different in a particular way. In many factors, we cannot actually "rank" top schools. They will all score very highly in most of the key features on would want to see or have in a school. But they are different from one another in a few ways and as an applicant, we have to spot these differences. Instead of calling them differences, we should call them uniqueness - we really have to figure out what makes this particular school unique.
When i started looking schools, i categorized my expectations from a school into the following:
- Inside the Classroom
- Outside the Classroom
- Immediately after Graduation
- The long run...
I am a career changer. So it was very important for me that i get solid education and experience in the theories and practices related to my target job function or the target industry at large. This might sound like a no-brainer, but it is important to know what kind of classes u wanna have at school. Just because i had a clear plan about my short and long term career, i knew i wanted this particular type of education. But this does not apply to everyone. There are lots of people who go to B school with an open mind - they want to explore. They will probably have a broader set of classroom expectation, but less specific. It is hence the responsibility of the applicant to realize what he/she expects from the education point of view.
Apart from the education alone, there might be special requirements. Do you want to take a particular paper? Do you want to specialise in a topic that is not available in all schools? Do have particular professors in mind? Does a particular (out of the ordinary) teaching method excite you? What kind of a study group do you want to be a member of? There could be many such factors. The key here is, when u read information about a school, think on the lines of "Can there be an alternative to this approach? If yes - will that suit me more that the one followed by this school? If yes, now which schools follow this diff approach?". List out all factors you feel are important and then do all that you can to obtain information about these aspect. Then compare. There will of course be no cookie cutter result - but you'll realize where you'll be more comfortable or at least you'll know the trade-offs you might have to do in picking school X over school Y.
Outside the Classroom
This is where, in my opinion, the fit comes in :)
Chicago GSB, in their admit letter, said "We take students based on a FIT". I am sure all schools do that. The AdComms, in my opinion, also factor in the "kind" or "type" of students they admit each year. In all probability, these are the flag bearers of the school and all that it stands for, for the entire life of the students. They'd definitely want to rope in those kind of students, who they think are in line with the values and beliefs of the school.
Similarly, it hence becomes the responsibility of the applicant to look for these criterion about a school. What are the school's values, what does the school propose, what kind of a student body they have, what kind of alum represent the school, what clubs are most active, what clubs have been recently started, what does the school's brochure say, what do the students feel about the school (they are the ones who experience what the school stands for. So their opinion, though influenced by their personal experiences, are very important), what kind of professors teach in the school - there are many ways to know the school. Visiting the school is another great way to feel the "vibe" of the school. If you happen to be an international applicant who cannot afford to visit a school, attend all possible events. If you happen to have issues traveling (like i did) make sure u speak to other applicants who attend these meetings (again, like i did). The more you know about the "personal" side of the school, the better for your decision making process - either while applying or while selecting an admit.
Immediately after graduation
Simply put - will i get that dream job if i study in this school???
All top schools have absolutely wonderful career services teams. Period. You cannot really differentiate school X from school Y based on the strength of the career services team - you'll end up seeing two really successful teams. If there is any way to differentiate between two schools in this particular aspect, it is the answer to "Will the school cater to my specific employment needs???".
You really don't get any time to rest once school starts. You register for CORE and then hit the ground running - to get that darned summer offer in you dream company. So you need to be sure of the statistics :)
All schools release placement statistics - for both summer offers and final placements. Check the % of students placed in ur target industry, target company & target job function. Check whether the school brings in particular companies to campus. Check if these companies have openings in ur target job functions (this might change y-o-y based on the needs of a company at that particular time). Speak to people (in school and in the industry) to check how the school is valued in the target industry (like Chicago GSB is considered a "core" school @ Wall Street). There are many ways to find this answer out - speaking to alums is another way.
There might be special cases where your target jobs profile or company will be a unique situation. So check out if the school has courses related to this. Check out how active the career services is in bringing new companies to schools (schools release this figure - but i think it will only be open to students. so ask them). Speak to students to see how receptive the career services guys are if you come out with a unique request. There will be these kind of students every year, check how hard career services work with them to help them find that job. You need a lot of inside info on this - so speaking to students, admissions team or even the career services team will be of immense help.
The long run...
This was very important for me. In all probability, this is the last time I'm going to school (even though the thought of returning as an academician lingers) In other words, this is the brand i will live with the rest of my life. Unless i go to school again, i will be the Chicago GSB grad. Of course, this will vanish the moment u hit some gold mine in ur job and then people call you the Million Dollar Baby or something like that. But even then, there will a line in ur profile that says "this MDB is a grad of ABC school" - making both you and the school proud :) And people very often check out the grad school one came from, to know what kind of education you've had. The point about "market reception" again surfaces and i definitely believe different schools make diff kind of impressions in diff markets :) So make sure if this is the brand u wanna get associated with.
I really should speak about the rankings here, because i wouldn't have known 90% of the schools i know today without the rankings. Even though there are pros and cons abt all the rankings that exist these days, rankings are an effective tool in a sense that they try to quantify the quality of the schools, withing a particular set of criterion, and help you compare between schools in these areas. But then, since rankings only involve a subset of the qualities a school might possess, applicants should be careful to analyse the ranking methodology before analysing the rank list. This way, you would get a clear picture of why school X ranks ahead of school Y or school Z. You should then go back to prev ranking lists to see whether the surprises and shocks u see are either momentary highs/lows or a result of continuous improvement or otherwise. A single rank list never gives the complete picture.
I used many rankings - and used them to gather a pool of schools i wud then go on to investigate. I remember selecting around 10 different schools, all of which i then investigated for a month or so. I checked websites, i wrote to people, i ordered brochures (free!!!), i read profiles in many websites - and i was eliminating schools from my list slowly till i ended up with the 5 i applied to in Round 1.
School selection is a LONG process. I think i started with the rankings in Feb 2006 and ended up with the final list in August 2006. It might be long, but not boring at all. If anyone selects target schools in a short time and tells u he did a good job of it - he's lying or I'm too slow :)