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Does It Really Matter Where You Get Your MBA?

As a prospective MBA student, one factor influencing what program you apply to may be the reputation of the university and its graduate business school ranking. But to what extent do future employers consider these factors when making hiring decisions?

For Eric Chen, assistant professor of business administration at Saint Joseph College in West Hartford, Conn., it matters where you obtain your MBA.

"Getting an MBA is an education," says Chen. "It's also an investment. Certain MBA programs are known for a particular expertise."

For example, Chen cites MIT's Sloane School, which has a reputation for operations, while Northwestern's Kellogg School is known for marketing.

"If employers are looking for particular skills, they should look at the specialties that a job candidate's education might offer," he says.

Todd Rhoad, managing director of BT Consulting in Atlanta, agrees.

"The prestige factor is important, mostly to those with similar credentials or those who desire those credentials," says Rhoad. "I coach my clients to examine the backgrounds of the executives of a company before determining the value of their MBA."

A measure of differentiation

Since many universities offer a graduate business school, more students are graduating with a master's degree in business.

"Those going to a prestigious school automatically differentiate themselves," says Mark Lyden, author of College Students: DO THIS! GET HIRED! and Veterans: DO THIS! GET HIRED!. "Having an MBA from an Ivy League school is something that immediately stands out to the employer. In the sea of MBA's that are out there, this is an easy way for employers to count someone in or out when there are many candidates to pick from."

Depending on the industry you are trying to find employment in, Roy Cohen, a New York City-based career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide, says that there is often MBA elitism.

"Wall Street and consulting firms tend to only recruit at the top 10 schools," he says. "Although it's possible with the right connections to finagle a way in, companies in these industries just don't recruit elsewhere. In a market where there are far more students than entry level positions there's no need to devote energy, resources and time to interview schedules at the second- and third-tier schools."

For large corporate organizations in cities where there are no-name MBA programs such as Seattle, Portland, or Atlanta, the reputation or stature of the program doesn't matter as much as its content.

"They also look to these programs to provide part-time and evening programs to support their employees' professional development," says Cohen.

Competing against top-tier programs

Lower-tier business programs can compete if they have a balance of experience and class work.

"MBA programs that encourage real life experience at an internship or co-op while in grad school have a leg up on those that don't," says Lyden. "This experience is very valuable to companies because they know the more practical experience a candidate has, the faster they will be able to contribute. In MBA terms, that means a better return on investment."

Still, despite these factors, Chen says that over the course of his professional career, he has found that his best students--and his best employees--have been those who were hungry.

"Those from top schools often have a sense of entitlement about them," he says. "They think that things should be handed to them. I've found the greatest success in employees who are from no-name schools. These kids did whatever it took to be successful. There was no job they wouldn't do. You would ask them to jump and they would ask how high."

At Saint Joseph College, Chen and his colleagues have implemented a hands-on curriculum that features real-life cases and experiences for their students to work. For example, in his finance class, students must work cases from his own past.

"Working these real-life examples in simulated real-world situations makes our students better prepared to deliver value to employers," he explains. "While I know that I cannot give my students an Ivy League degree, I can give them the real-world tools to be successful."

Rhoad suggests that graduates who didn't go to top-tier schools demonstrate their abilities through successful activities that they can talk about and put on their resume.

"Lower-tier degrees don't have the brand power and can't stand alone, so graduates have to demonstrate that they have the skills and have used them," he says.

For example, some of his clients have started their own companies, written books and started nonprofit groups and associations.

"Lower-tier students should be working on these big achievements while they are in school by doing great things in internships, leading student groups and associations, and making major contributions to society," he says. "Other certifications are nice, but you are a lot better off putting the skills to work and creating success stories that you can tell during an interview and on your resume."