Admissions consultant gives expert advice on how to choose a business school

SOURCE: Robyn Beck / AFP
The MBA market has moved so aggressively in recent years that some business schools are evaluating the need for a full-time MBA programme.

By Geetha Bai 

Read all stories

For many professionals who are considering attending business school to improve their career prospects and have reached a certain point in their careers feel compelled to enrol in a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA programme), to equip themselves with the right knowledge and skills to take on higher management positions.

It is undeniable that an MBA can add specific business skills to your toolkit that can all work in your favour. Additionally, MBA programmes have been helpful in opening new and bigger career opportunities and promotions that lead to improved remuneration and compensation. However, MBA programmes come at a sometimes hefty financial and time investment.

U2B reached out to Duncan Chapple, “MBA nerd”, business school admissions consultant and is a researcher at the University of Edinburgh Business School. Chapple has a track record of matching professionals to the right MBA and the right business school for years.

Chapple holds a BA degree with honours from the University of Manchester and completed his master’s studies at three University of London colleges, City; King’s College; and London Business School. He was a fellow at Nottingham Business School and, until 2017, served on the London Business School international alumni council. Chapple is also the co-founder of the Institute for Industry Analyst Relations and co-authored three books on relationship marketing.


MBA programme
Chapple is also the co-founder of the Institute for Industry Analyst Relations and co-authored three books on relationship marketing.

How would you define an MBA?

An MBA is a master’s degree in business administration. In most of the world, it is a degree that is taken by people who have a few years of work experience and want to get a broad overview of management skills.

What is the difference between an MBA and other types of master’s in business or master’s in management qualifications?

There are other kinds of master’s degrees in business schools.

The best-known is the master’s in management which is like an MBA in its academic content, but it is for people who do not have much work experience and so need a different pedagogical approach, including more specific skills training.

The other kind of management degree is the specialised masters. for example, there are master’s degrees in finance, marketing, or management of the supply chain.

What is the difference between an MBA and executive education?

The major activity for many business schools is executive education. That is the providing of training programs that increase professionals’ value in the workplace rather than leading to academic degrees.

Considering the high costs of a master’s degree, not only in terms of board and tuition but also in terms of lost income during the study period, why should somebody stop working and do an MBA? What is the appropriate moment to do one?

Most master’s degrees are excellent investments. I have been working with people early in their careers and want to take master’s degrees in business schools for almost 20-years. Normally their investment in their degree will repay itself several times over. For most people, it will be the best investment for them.


What are some of the factors that distinguish an excellent MBA programme from its poorer counterparts?

Well, I think there are two ways to approach this. One is generically for almost anybody. What is the difference between good and bad MBAs? And then secondly, you for you as an individual, what is the right MBA programme for you?

So, if we look at the best MBAs, well, the best MBAs are the ones that have been identified in rankings. If you look at the rankings from, from the financial times, from US News and world report from business week, from, from QS, and so on. Oh, all the good business schools are recognised in these rankings.

There are no excellent business schools that are not recognised by these rankings. So, I think if you are looking at an excellent MBA or a good MBA, then I think a sign of an excellent MBA programme is that it’s performing well in many of these ones. And a good MBA is probably going to be present in one of these rankings, and it is probably also going to have accreditation from one of the three main bodies such as AACSB from Equis or from AMBA.

A mediocre MBA would be an MBA that does have any of those rankings and does have any of those accreditations but was a real MBA from a legally recognised university that had the right to award degrees in its own country.

And a terrible MBA would be something that really was not an MBA at all. So, one thing that I see, especially here in Europe, are businesses that are not recognised as universities legally in their own country who have bought themselves accreditation from some tiny accreditation body that nobody has known.

And they are producing pieces of paper, which say MBA, but these organisations are not universities.

They are not recognised in the countries where they operate as being that universities and, and these things are terrible because they really do not have any legal status.

There is another problem with these terrible MBAs, which is that they also are a signal that you are bad at making decisions.

If you have a terrible MBA it shows that you are not very good at doing your research or not very good at evaluating information, not very good at thinking critically. So, for me, it’s a sign of somebody not well prepared for a management career if they make such a bad decision about something which is so important for their own future. It really could be one of the most important decisions they make in their life.

It is a very worrying sign to make such a bad choice.


What is your advice for someone who has a poorly ranked MBA qualification and is unsure what to do?

Well, I think the first thing to do is to evaluate what kind of asset is this degree on your resume or on your CV. A mediocre MBA probably just shows that you did not have the resources that you needed to get into an excellent one.

But if you have a terrible MBA, something which is a real embarrassment, that just isn’t recognised as an MBA at all, then probably you’re better off not mentioning it except in situations where you absolutely have to, but if you can get away with not mentioning something, which makes you seem worse, then that seems like a good idea.

I think what you can also consider is getting a supplementary qualification which will look better. Online MBAs now are available very inexpensively.


Is there any alternative to the MBA for professionals who cannot commit the time and cost of an MBA programme?
What are the alternatives with an equivalent professional outcome?

There are not many alternatives that are going to give you the same outcomes as an excellent MBA programme. A full-time MBA programme develops many soft skills and transferable skills in addition to the knowledge that you can more easily get in an online programme.

But there are some qualifications that I would draw attention to which I think are typically very strong.

One of these is the CIMA qualification in management accounting. I have known colleagues who have taken management accounting qualifications, and these are very good.

They really give a strong outline of managerial problems and touch on a wide range of challenges for businesses

And then finally, I would look at specialisation certificates and micromasters that are taught by the online education platforms, TEDx and Coursera. These also offer very strong certificates; some can often be transferred for credit in institutions later. These demonstrate that you can complete demanding coursework.


How can a prospective MBA student choose a school that will last and avoid enrolling into programmes or even schools that are discontinued down the line?

Over the last 20 years, we have seen lots of changes in the, in the business education market. The full-time MBA used to be the dominant way of getting a master’s degree in business administration. And now that is not the case, many schools here in the UK have got many more students who are taking MBAs in a non-traditional format than in the traditional, full time, on-campus experience.

They have many more students in non-traditional MBA pathways. And in many countries, the MBA market has moved so aggressively that some schools must be questioning whether it makes sense for them to have a full-time MBA anymore.

I think if a school closes its full-time MBA, that does not necessarily mean the school is weaker. It often means that it is found a far more effective way to go to market. So, if you look at Illinois for example, or Iowa, that closed, its full time, on-campus MBA, that that doesn’t really reflect a defeat. It just reflects a shift, in the business model.

I think what we have also seen is that there are some schools that have had moments of advantage. Bradford for example, was, had a very successful full-time MBA during a period when it was easier for international students to be able to get work permits in the UK. That situation has changed in the UK and in the US and some other countries.

And it means that schools that were especially strong at helping foreigners to develop international mobility have found themselves in a less strong position. I think it can be hard to avoid that. A school that has got, you know, an unusual and distinctive business model seems to be vulnerable if it is dependent on an external factor like that.

One easy way to pick a school that will last is to pick a school that has been around for a long time and it is very well established. And if you go to a business school that rises very fast, maybe it was not very strong ten or 20 years ago, it is a riskier proposition because it is more volatile.


What should be done by an MBA student to get the most out of the programme?

I think the most important thing is to start with the end in mind. Yeah. I think if you understand what you want out of the MBA, then you can decide how to allocate your time differently. What you can’t do is try to do everything at 100%.

So for example, if you want to be on the Dean’s list or if you want to be, you know, recognised in some way as, being one of the people whose academic performance is most notable, then you’ll have to make some choices. You will have to do less time networking, spend less time attending academic events.

You will probably have to take electives where it’s going to be easier if you had to get high marks because the materials are more familiar to you. On the other hand, if you’re focusing on making a career transition then maybe you might be more focused on taking courses that are more challenging for you that you are less familiar with, where you might get lower marks.

Maybe we’ll be more focused on networking with students and employers that are from the market, where you’re less familiar and you might need to work harder in order to offer value to them, to make them, don’t want to spend, spend time with you. So, I do not think is just one good way to behave.

In an MBA, I think you must focus on your goals. Start with the end in mind. Think about the resources that the MBA programme provides you, and then focus on the ones that are going to deliver the best outcomes for you.


While completing your MBA programme, it better to focus on good grades or on networking?

There are three ways that you can do networking.

One is through the students that, you mean, one is through the other people that you meet on campus. And then thirdly, you have got networking through alumni. Firstly, in terms of networking with your classmates, they are going to go to different countries, and they are going to go into different roles.

So, the power of these people as a network, it can be seen not only in the connections they have already. You know, so they may be able to introduce you to people in companies that they have worked with or companies that they have worked at. They might be able to give you some insight or knowledge that helps you in applying for, for work, but also later on in their careers, they’re going to move into more powerful managerial roles and it’s worth staying in touch with them because of the value that they can bring you.

Secondly, you mean lots of other people when, when you’re on campus, you know, you, you meet employers, you meet faculty, you meet people who are studying on, on, on other programs, at the, at the school. And I found LinkedIn to be a powerful way of turning shallow connections into lifelong, lifelong connections that can deliver value when you need to access information or resources that those people might have access to. But finally, networking into the alumni network is a powerful skill.

And I’ve seen that being able to attend alumni events, being able to reach out to alumni on, on LinkedIn, this can be, again, very powerful. I did people who have got some insight that can help you, connections, that can help you in that situation.

It is so important to try to offer value to them first, and that’s why I’ve got a personal branding topic. Such an effective technique. If you can find ways to share your values, share your insights through blogs, through social media, and use that to as podcasts, whatever. If you’re able to build up your profile to build up the perception of the value that you are giving to people, you really are giving people value.

They will be much more likely to help you in the future.


Some MBA graduates from top schools that have not got much from their MBA or master’s in management in terms of career progression.
What should they do to get the most of their diploma?

If people have taken MBAs and not turned it into career progression, that is probably because they have been presented with lots of choices and options.

They’ve probably made the right choices for themselves. I do not think you can assume that somebody who does the MBA and then decides to become a Buddhist monk or to open a cooperative or go and work in a non-profit or to take a little-known path.

I do not think we should assume that those people have failed. They have made choices for themselves and maybe they would not have been able to make them if they had not gone to a business school.

So for example, maybe somebody has set up a small lifestyle business that has financially not produced very much for them, but it has given them the flexibility that they need to, to be a better parent or a better family member, or to focus on becoming an artist or to, you know, to be able to move country and to make some other transition.

That might not be reflected in financial success or in something that looks like career progress by moving into big organisations or moving up in the hierarchy, but probably they have been successful. I do not meet many people from top business schools who have not been able to accomplish the goals that they have set themselves unless big life events got in the way.

If they have worked out plans and, and then adjust themselves to their plan, then they probably got there or decided to change course.

I think there is an exception there: some people don’t have goals and just think the MBA sorts everything out. Some people misunderstood the way that the MBA works in the country where they have taken their MBA. But as a rule of thumb, it is not very hard to make your goals happen at the end of a top MBA programme.

You just must start with the end in mind and then really work on a plan. And I think that is the key.

But that is the challenge I often see with people who do not think they’ve been successful from their business school career is that actually they didn’t have a very specific goal in mind. You know, they just wanted to earn more money, but they did not have a very specific idea about their career strategy or the steps they needed to take to get there.