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How to Simplify Your MBA Search

According to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, there are more than 3,500 MBA programs worldwide, ranging from large online schools to small specialty programs. And there are piles of data out there about these MBA programs, including graduation rates, business school rankings and tuition costs. But crunching those numbers can leave you with a case of sticker shock.

If you are looking for ways to cut through all the data and find the right match, here are five ways to streamline your search for the right MBA program.

5 tips to simplify your MBA search

1. Take your hunt online

To get an initial feel for MBA programs, try networking online at MBA events such as those sponsored by The Economist (Sept. 7-8) or the Graduate Management Admission Council. Once you have narrowed down potential schools, consider joining their online communities on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Joining online groups can help you learn more about developments in particular MBA programs and to connect with business school staff, students and alumni. You can also get a sense of how students, faculty and staff communicate. Using these online networking tools helps you join an MBA community no matter where you are located.

"If they're overseas and can't come in, they can join our social media group and feel free to chat with current students and alumni," said Maria Reis, assistant director of MBA admissions at the Wisconsin MBA program of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

2. Organize your search using apps

Applications for mobile phones or tablets can help you learn more about business school requirements as well as organize information you find during you search.

With the free Which MBA? app you can view The Economist's ranking of the world's top 100 business schools. You can also access profiles of schools, including application details, career statistics and program specialties, and formats. You can bookmark your favorite MBA programs, and with the paid version of the application ($9.99), you can enter personal requirements to create your own MBA ranking.

Another free app, the MBA Toolkit, provides business school rankings and news, GMAT and essay information, and reference materials to facilitate the admissions process. You can mark your favorite MBA programs and read school, student and alumni comments as well.

3. Throw out your checklist

Once you have settled on a short list of MBA programs, put aside all that carefully collected data and try to get a feel for potential schools through a personal visit, if you can.

Admissions officers put great importance on campus visits as they provide an opportunity for prospective candidates and business school representatives to evaluate whether they are a match.

MBA programs may host individual visits, where you can attend classes, have lunch with MBA students and meet professors and administrators. MBA programs may also have in place organized visits for prospective students or targeted groups such as women interested in pursuing MBAs and multicultural students.

Brian Precious, director of admissions at the Illinois MBA program of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said candidates should focus on finding a place that is a good fit.

"Do you get a good vibe when you walk through the student lounge?" he asked.

4. Focus on your end goal: A job

No matter how great the student lounge or how new the library, you are attending business school to further your career. Seek out advice from mentors in your fields of interest or prospective employers in your area. Find out what they think of graduates from the schools on your list.

Also review course offerings with an eye on in-demand career specialties.

The Wisconsin MBA program, for example, is designed around career specializations as opposed to more general academic majors. The idea is to better prepare students to make a difference in their chosen fields. As business schools become more focused on helping students prepare for the job market, they are looking for an emphasis on career goals at the application stage as well.

"Admissions committees [are] increasingly focusing on employability," according to Jon Frank, founder and CEO of Precision Essay, an MBA consulting and mentoring company.

5. Apply at the right time

Presenting a strong application to business school means having a total package: a solid education, good work experience and a compelling essay. You have the best shot of getting into your dream school if you have all these pieces, which may mean waiting a year until you've gained more work experience or just holding on to that essay draft for another couple weeks while you polish it.

"Applicants should not apply until they feel they can present their best application," Reis said.

Just like you are, business schools are also looking for a good match between school and student. At the end of the day, applicants who successfully articulate why they want to pursue an MBA at a particular school can improve their chances of earning a seat in next year's class.