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August 05, 2008

The Portfolio Approach to Graduate School Application Strategy

In this post, I will provide some suggestions for how to develop a portfolio approach to graduate school application. Below you can find sample portfolios for MBA applicants. Similar types of portfolios could be developed for other graduate degree programs.

I have previously blogged about school selection in terms of general selection strategy, ranking, location, financing your education, academic fit, prestige, and career prospects. In addition, I have analyzed the difficulty of admission into top US LL.M. programs. And most recently, I have analyzed MBA program ranking through a series of posts. All of these posts, like the one below, have been written with the express purpose of helping applicants determine where to apply.

Once you go through your own evaluation process, you will ultimately have to draw up a list of programs to apply to. To me there are ultimately two rules for determining that list.

Rule One: Decide how much risk you want to take.
Just as if one was selecting an investment portfolio, defining the level of risk is a central consideration. While past performance is no guarantee of future performance, it is often the primary basis upon which one can judge the risk involved. Since you are trying to assemble a winning portfolio- admission to one or more of the programs you are applying to- you need to define how much risk you are willing to take. Be sure to look closely at acceptance rates and yields to determine the relative level of risk in your portfolio.

Unless your possibility for admission is 100%, have a "Plan B" ready. Typical Plan Bs include (1) application to additional programs in later rounds or for later start dates, (2)reapplication, or (3) forgoing a graduate degree.

Applying to more programs can decrease your risk but that is only the case if you are a good candidate for those programs. Don't treat your applications like lottery tickets. Instead think about whether you meet the degree program's minimum criteria and if you do, assume that your chance of admission is equal to that of the school's official acceptance rate. Assume that most applicants who apply are qualified to do so.

Applying to only one program can be quite rational for some applicants. If the acceptance rate for your top choice program is 50% or more and you meet or exceed the program's minimum standards, applying only to that program makes sense. Such applicants just need to be certain that they have a "Plan B" ready if they are dinged.

Rule Two: Only apply to where you are willing to go.
While this might not seem to have a direct parallel to investment decisions, actually it does. While there are some who might invest in something just by looking at the numbers, some of the world's most successful investors such as Warren Buffet, make decisions based on a holistic analysis of the investment. Buffet himself is widely known for only investing in businesses he understands and finds a good fit with. In a similar way, you should only apply to programs you are comfortable attending. Whatever a school's rank, rate of acceptance, location, or other features, the ultimate consideration is whether you want to attend it.

I know that some applicants must get into school. In particular, company sponsored applicants are often in the position of needing to guarantee their admission somewhere. In such a situation, a safety school is almost always a necessary part of the portfolio. The good news is that such graduate schools exist in abundance and can be applied to fairly late in the admissions season. There is almost always a LL.M. or MBA program to go to, unless one is restricted to a very small list of programs, such as only "Top 10" according to US News. I will show below how a great level of safety for MBA applicants can be obtained by application to a full range of "Top 20" programs.

That said, for the majority of applicants, going to graduate program is a choice, not a necessity. The applicant needs to define what is minimally acceptable. Minimal acceptability for some applicants will be a "Top 10" schools, while for others even a low-tier online program might be fine. I think determining what is minimally acceptable means taking a close look at ROI as well as accounting for personal taste.

Treating a graduate education as an investment means that you consider:
1. The loss of income due to being in school.
2. The cost of being in school
3. The financial benefits of the graduate degree
4. The personal benefits of the graduate degree

The first three considerations go into a quantitative analysis of Return on Investment and are what used by tools like BusinessWeek's ROI Calculator. While you can look at these numbers to determine what your minimal financial expectations are and eliminate programs that don't meet those expectations because they result in a bad financial return, until you factor in the fourth consideration, you are not really doing a full analysis of your ROI.

The fourth consideration is about all of those reasons for pursuing a graduate degree that cannot be connected to income, but are still real benefits. The benefits of learning something new, fundamentally altering one's perspective, and/or opening oneself up to new opportunities that can't be quantified might outweigh more easily measured financial considerations.

If you know Tuck's small town location will bore you, don't apply there. If you hate Madrid, forget about IE. If you know New York City is not for you, don't bother with NYU or Columbia. If you hate the rain, forget about LBS. Hopefully your tastes are not so narrow that there will be no place left to apply to. But seriously, take your personal tastes into account when selecting where to apply. Consider your tastes not just in terms of location, but also in terms of the school itself. Look closely at the program, not just the school's brand. When I meet with clients, I encourage them to take their personal tastes into account, but I also encourage them to investigate all highly viable options before narrowing to the four to ten schools that most will apply to.

Below are some sample portfolios for MBA programs using the list of 39 "Top 20 Programs" that I have previously written about. These are Fall 2007 Acceptance Rates, so assume that Fall 2008 was even harder.

Here is the list of schools:
RANK ------------------------ BUSINESS SCHOOL
1. Acceptance Rate: 7.90% Stanford University GSB
2. Acceptance Rate:13.70% UC Berkeley: Haas
3. Acceptance Rate:13.80% Harvard Business School
4. Acceptance Rate:14.70% Yale School of Management
5. Acceptance Rate:16.30% Columbia Business School
6. Acceptance Rate:17.10% New York University: Stern
7. Acceptance Rate:17.30% U. of Pennsylvania: Wharton
8. Acceptance Rate:19.20% Dartmouth College: Tuck
9. Acceptance Rate:19.70% MIT: Sloan
10. Acceptance Rate: 20% HEC Paris, France
11. Acceptance Rate: 20.40% U. of Michigan: Ross
12. Acceptance Rate: 23.30% U. of Chicago GSB
13. Acceptance Rate: 23.40% UCLA: Anderson
14. Acceptance Rate: 24% IESE Business School
14. Acceptance Rate: 24% Northwestern U.: Kellogg
16. Acceptance Rate: 26% IE Business School
17. Acceptance Rate: 26.70% Cornell University: Johnson
18. Acceptance Rate: 28% IMD
19. Acceptance Rate: 28.90% U. of Virginia: Darden
20. Acceptance Rate: 29.00% York University: Schulich
21. Acceptance Rate: 29% USC: Marshall
22. Acceptance Rate: 29.60% Michigan State: Broad
23. Acceptance Rate: 29.80% Carnegie Mellon: Tepper, US
24. Acceptance Rate: 31.50% Duke University: Fuqua
25. Acceptance Rate: 33% McGill
26. Acceptance Rate: 34% U. of TX at Austin: McCombs
27. Acceptance Rate: 34.40% Indiana University: Kelley
28. Acceptance Rate: 37% SDA Bocconi Italy
29. Acceptance Rate: 39.20% UNC: Kenan-Flagler
30. Acceptance Rate: 42% U. of Toronto: Rotman
31. Acceptance Rate: 48% ESADE Business School
32. Acceptance Rate: 49.80% U. of Iowa: Tippie
33. Acceptance Rate: 53% Brigham Young: Marriot
34. Acceptance Rate: 54% UBC: Sauder
35. Acceptance Rate: 56% Cranfield S. of Management
36. Acceptance Rate: 59% RSM Erasmus University
37. Acceptance Rate: 62% HEC Montreal, Canada
38. Acceptance Rate: 65% Queen's School of Business
39. Acceptance Rate: 72.30% Thunderbird

(Looking for INSEAD, LBS, Oxford, or Cambridge? They don't report their acceptance rates.)

Please note: For all of the portfolios below, I assume you have the minimum number of required years of work experience and are within the 80% age range for the programs you apply to.

Apply to 4-8 US programs with at least half having a less than 20% acceptance rate and remainder having less than a 25% acceptance rate. This portfolio is ideal for those with GPA, GMAT, and TOEFL (if required) at least at the middle of the 80% range who are willing to reapply or forgo an MBA.

HIGH RISK- US and/or Europe "Top 10"
Apply to 4-8 programs in the US and/or Europe with no more than half having a 20% or higher acceptance rate and one having a 25%-30% acceptance rate. This portfolio is ideal for those who have GPA, GMAT, and TOEFL (if required) within the 80% range and are willing to reapply or forgo an MBA.

Apply to 6-10 programs with a least two of them having a 30% or higher rate and no more than half having less than a 20% acceptance rate. This portfolio is ideal for those who have GPA, GMAT, and TOEFL (if required) within the 80% range and are comfortable with taking a little risk.

LOW RISK- "Top 20"
Apply to 6-10 programs with one program with a 40% or higher acceptance rate, two programs with a 30% or higher acceptance rate, and two programs with 20% or higher acceptance rate. This still allows you to apply for one or more programs with less than a 20% chance of admission. This is ideal for those have wide-latitude about where they are willing to apply, and have GMAT, GPA, and TOEFL within the 80% range.

Apply to Thunderbird, Queen's, HEC Montreal, RSM, and/ or Cranfield as your safety school(s), at least two more schools with a 40% acceptance rate (including the one's I have just mentioned), and at least three schools with a 30% acceptance rate. Feel free to apply to dream schools with a 30% or less acceptance rate. This is ideal for both individual and company-sponsored applicants with GMAT, TOEFL, or GPAs at the lower end or slightly below the 80% range.

For the record, the majority of my MBA clients for Fall 2008 admission fit into the very high, high, and moderate risk categories and they all made it. You can find their results here.

Once you have determined where to apply, forget completely about your chances for admission or your competition. Instead, focus completely on putting together the best applications you can. Focus on making the best case for yourself.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com.
Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to. Before emailing me questions about your chances for admission or personal profile, please see my recent post on "Why I don't analyze profiles without consulting with the applicant." If you are interested in my graduate admission consulting services, please click here.
-Adam Markus
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