Once an applicant has finished the GMAT, all that is left now is to fill the applications and knock at the door steps of your target business schools. Assuming the applicant has shortlisted the business schools of his liking, he/she will now have a smaller list of schools which he/she has to analyze in a more detailed and "closer" way. In my opinion, no one ends up applying to ALL schools shortlisted earlier. What happens is that we end up prioritizing the schools and apply to few schools in different rounds, based on how we feel about each school.
The whole process here can be defined as "reaching out". We can actually name the six months from July to December as the "Reaching Out Months", because that is exactly what both schools and applicants do in these months. Schools plan and organize information sessions, informal meets, participate in MBA fairs, send out brochures to interested students and probably do many other things to catch the attention of potential applicants. Applicants, apart from participating in these events, also tap information about the schools in all ways open to them.
These events are a great way to know about the schools and meet people. But always remember, these events do hide behind a bit of marketing fanfare. Everything you see here will be behind a layer of gloss, and there is nothing wrong in that because schools will try to present their best face here, just like we always send a glossy resume to potential employers (or BSchools). What i am saying is, don't fall for the gloss. Instead, try to obtain as much factual information as possible and leave the rest to ur judgement.
There are different ways to reach out and gather information about the BSchool of your liking. But none of them beats the school's website. Schools spend lot of time (and money) in preparing and organizing their websites, not without good reason. I can actually go on to say that it is possible to succeed in the application process with only the information from the schools' website. But don't try that :) When you visit the website, please do not ignore any corner of the website. I see people who visit the Full Time - MBA page and return. But in reality, the website has tonnes of information about everything that happens in a business school - from course contents to professors to club activities to Thursday Night Drinking Parties. I prepared a 3 page information sheet, for both my interviews, with only the information from the websites. If one spends enough time in all possible segments of a schools website, he/she will definitely get a good feel of the culture in the school. While it is definitely not like seeing things in person, it is a good start and perhaps the most important resource for international applicants who cannot travel to the school.
Once you have browsed the schools website and tapped as much information as you can, it is time to turn to the human side of the school - the people related to the school. Typically, after you have browsed the website, you will be full of questions - which i think can be (and must be) answered by the people related to the school. Now there are many kind of people in the school and it is probably good to think that everyone is accessible. In fact, in my experience, i have found that everyone will be glad to answer your questions provided we ask the right questions to them.
Talking to students is probably the most obvious thing an applicant can do. The students are accessible through different means and for different reasons. You will meet students in the school events and make sure you ask your questions to them. There will be occasions when they will not be able to answer your questions. In those situations, ask their email ids (the students generally give their ids to everyone) and follow up your questions with mails. If they are not the right people to answer your questions, the students will put you through to other students who are best suited to answer them. The student body is the most current reflection of the culture of the school and try to interact with as many as u can. One thing though, don't ask questions just for the heck of it. They are busy at school. Appreciate the fact that they are willing to take time out of their schedules, to help us applicants and respect the time they give us. Use it wisely :) A very important group of students will be "chairs" or "co-chairs" of the numerous clubs. They are the thought and action leaders in the school and might be able to give u information on club activities and the thought process that goes into these clubs or any other specific queries u might have about clubs.
Based on your industry experience, relevant exposure to target careers, educational background and probably something else - you will have specific queries about the course, the curriculum, individual papers, test procedures, work load, etc etc etc. The students will be able to give them a lot of their views about these topics, but individual professors might also be open for discussion. A good way to know about this would be to ask the students, instead of shooting a mail to the profs straight away. Only remember that when you speak with profs, the questions must be more to the point and reasonable.
Don't ever forget the other staff in the school - they are sources of information as well. From the people in the Admissions Committee, to the Career Services team, to the Housing Staff, to the Dean's Office - everyone is a source of information. If you have specific questions, always try to see if you can find some one who is willing speak to you. Chances are, someone will be. As they say, it is always better to hear it from the horses mouth. So talk to as many horses as possible :)
When you discuss with as many people, you will get a better hold of the school's culture, principles and values and more importantly - the kind of community the schools is made of. At some level, this community will be a deciding factor for you to apply to a school or, at a later point of time, accept of deny an offer. Also, once you know this human side of the school you will feel more comfortable in picking up qualities from your profile which you want to project in your application essays.
The last group of people who can offer you information about the school are the alumni. Getting in touch with them is kind of tricky, because the school will not come forward to give their email ids. There are alumni websites for schools, which will probably give you email ids. Else you start using your existing network and ask your friends, superiors etc about people they know who graduated from Bschools. The advantage of speaking to alums is that you will get to meet finished products, albeit a few yrs older. They will not ride on that "in school" emotion and will probably give you more subjective opinions (not to say all opinions of students are high on emotional quotient) about the school and life in the school/school's location. Also, you can get to know the market value of the school, how the school's students are looked at by the companies and stuff like that. These are the best people to ask about "long term returns" of your MBA from this particular school.
Finally, present applicants are another source of information. Applicant blogs aside, use your networking skills to reach out to fellow applicants and keep in touch with them. As such the application process is tiring and long. It will only help you to have some companions through the journey :) And believe me, it feels really good to know ur classmates even before u both get admits :)
Last but not the least, try your best to visit the schools. School visits are very good and perhaps the most straight forward (i call it "personal") way to find out information about the school. The best thing about a school visit is that you can interact with almost all the people i have mentioned above and set up contacts. It will be easy to go back to home and send individual mails to each of these people and clarify your doubts from these people. Also, you get the opportunity to sit in a class, which will also help you look at the academic side of the student community. It is like those "one day in the life of a consultant" posts. You get to see "one day in the life of a ABC School student" and being so is much much better than reading about or seeing what it is to be a student in ABC school. For me, a typical school visit will include meeting people from different departments of the school, apart from the many students one might want to meet, check out the school facilities, the school neighborhood, what's happening at school and what's not happening at school - many many things that wont be available in the brochure :) For me, at the end of a school visit if you feel like "I'd love to spend my next two years in this place", the school's succeeded in impressing you :)
Typically, after reaching out to schools and after participating in the reach out events organized by the schools, you will feel more strongly towards applying to certain schools and less certain about some other schools. You will see changes in the list you had made earlier. It is important to time this stage well, because the essay writing process will take quite some time and in my view you'll need at least two months to work on the essays. Of course, this will vary, based on the number of schools you decide to apply. After a month or so of doing this, you will have to sit down and decide on the timing of your applications - schools you want to apply in round 1 and those you want to apply in round 2.
Also, you will have enough information to start writing your essays and fill the applications - which is the topic of my next post :)