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Are You Ready for an MBA?

If you're considering an MBA, you may wonder if you're cut out for the experience. Joanne Starr, assistant dean of admissions at University of California, Irvine's Graduate School of Management, shares her insights into the process of considering, applying for and taking part in an MBA program.

Is It Right for Me?

"An MBA is a generalist degree, applicable to many business functions," Starr says. "Ask yourself if you know what you want to learn and where you see your career going."

MBA candidates should be "focused on business organization and how it functions," she says. She recommends spending time on the Graduate Management Admission Council's (GMAC) MBA.com site to ensure your decision is well-informed. The GMAC is a nonprofit organization that provides information on graduate management education.

What Do I Need to Be a Successful MBA Student?

According to Starr, many abilities are useful while pursuing an MBA degree, with special emphasis on two in particular. "There are basic quantitative-analytical skills for business decision-making that we assume people need to know," Starr says. "How the program assesses that is going to vary. You're going to take certain classes anywhere you go, all of which assume that when confronted with a bunch of numbers you're going to be OK. [MBA applicants also need] communication skills. It's common for students to be in teams that are culturally and professionally diverse."

How Can I Find a Program?

The average search begins about 18 months before starting the program. "The complexity is not finding information but trying to use the vast quantity of information out there," Starr notes. In addition to the information you can find on each school's website, sites that compare and rank schools include BusinessWeek, MBA.com, US News & World Report and the Wall Street Journal.

A primary factor to consider is geography. "Most people find employment in the school's area," Starr says, so think about where you want to settle after school before you choose. Business schools draw on local talent for speakers, and local business leaders are found on school boards, so schools reflect the character and concerns of businesses with which they interact.

Another key factor in your decision should be whether you want to attend a big school or a small one. "If you have the desire for specific education, big is the way," Starr says. There will be more classes in your area of interest. The downside of a large school is you're not going to get as much personal interaction. "You'll know some students, but not your whole class," she explains.

UC Irvine's programs are relatively small. Students in each of the school's four programs (full-time, healthcare, executive and fully employed part-time) know each other. "They talk about how important it is to be part of a small engaged community," Starr says.

What Do Business Schools Want?

Schools consider GMAT scores, undergraduate GPA, work experience, campus involvement and essay answers, as you would assume. The student's application should reflect knowledge of the program, an understanding of what an MBA education is for and "some evidence of organizational savvy," Starr says.

Yet she notes, "There is no formula." Many factors combine to make a successful applicant. Most programs prefer applicants who aren't fresh from undergraduate school. Classes at an MBA program are more useful to students who can relate work experience to their learning, and the quality of class discussion is improved when students can add their own insights. The work experience need not be long or in a specific field, according to Starr. "It's about what you've learned from your work experience and how you articulate that," she says.

UC Irvine asks applicants to describe a time they've created an innovative solution to a problem. "I've not seen a particular work experience that prepares you for that question," Starr says.

To further explore whether business school is right for you, perform a self-assessment at GMAC's Examine Your Goals section, and then talk with the admissions offices -- and graduates -- of the schools you find interesting.

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