The MBA degree is a coveted distinction, particularly from the world’s top business schools. Yet no two programs are the same, making it essential to think carefully about where to apply. So how do you create a target list of schools? And what kinds of factors are most important for your decision-making?

First, your shortlist of b-schools should reflect your individual needs and priorities. The first thing the MBA admission committee wants to know is: “Why do you want to go to business school? And why our school?” Your ability to be genuine and confident in reply begins with your honest introspection.

This means reflecting on your motivations, values, career interests and strengths. Your future ambitions and individual motivations are the first filter for discerning the information that’s most useful, practical and relevant to you.

Now it’s time to do your homework, and that’s where things can get tricky. It’s tempting to rely too much on the various MBA rankings, especially at the outset. Sure, they can be useful, but it’s just as easy to be misled by subjective definitions of “best schools” without a strong grasp of their methodologies and algorithms (which can vary wildly).

As you choose the right MBA program for you, consider these eight key factors drawn from our team at Fortuna Admissions, former MBA admissions directors and insiders at the world’s top business schools:

1. Length of program:

The duration of your chosen program sets the pace of your studies, as well as the speed of re-entry into the job-market.In terms of intensity, you can expect to spend roughly six hours a day in class during accelerated programs, and roughly half that in standard ones. A fast-track program is attractive if you have focused career goals and want to beef up your skills before quickly returning to the workforce. Accelerated programs at top schools like INSEAD, Cambridge Judge and Oxford Saïdenable you to get your degree in one year. An MBA from a top US school follows the traditional two year format, which some candidates prefer for the opportunity it affords to delve deeper over this extended period.

2. Location:

Geography influences the community environment as well as school strengths and recruitment ties. It’s no surprise that London Business School andColumbiaenjoyexcellent reputations in finance. Schools in California benefit from being immersed in the tech and startup scenes in Silicon Valley. Programs in Asia and Latin America are on the doorstep of the globe’s most dynamic, growing economies, while Europe offers a gateway to fields like biotech, luxury brands and aerospace.

At the same time, there are benefits to escaping an ultra-urban environment. B-schools in small towns – like Dartmouth Tuck in Hanover, New Hampshire – are known for creating tight knit, supportive communities. Johnson Cornell touts the best of both worlds with a scenic location in upstate New York that’s a short train ride from a New York City tech campus.

3. Strengths and specialization:

Many programs have reputations in areas such as real estate, technology, non-profit, entrepreneurship, luxury goods or finance. They might offer immersion-learning internships with NGO experience or have an incubator luring venture capital for entrepreneurs. Some programs have a flexible curriculum that allows you to explore experiential or elective opportunities. LBS, for example, offers more than 70 electives and applied learning options, as well as flexible exit points.Think about whether a school’s strengths, as well as its teaching style and curriculum, align with your areas of interest.

4. Network:

The strength of a program’s alumni network offers a resounding endorsement for a program’s career opportunities. Some alumni networks are more geographically concentrated than others. INSEAD will give you an unmatched international breadth, while Stanford GSB will give you a fantastic Silicon Valley network.Other barometers of alumni strength are how students rank their alumni network, a program’s ratio of alumni to current MBA students and number of overseas chapters.

5. Brand recognition and prestige:

Prestige is inherently subjective, but in terms of opening doors, a school’s brand recognition can be a major differentiator. It’s not just about the rankings. How might a school’s strengths and reputation, as well as the experiences and network it provides, support your career vision and post-grad job placement? Sure, Stanford GSB, HBS and Wharton have resounding name recognition, but a world-class program like MIT Sloan grants grads exceptional access in to university’s top-notch engineering school. Meanwhile, the globally focused curriculum at schools like INSEAD or LBS, along with their uniquely international student bodies, offer a springboard for working abroad.

6. Personality and culture:

What’s the overall “vibe” of the school? Who does it attract, and what kind of environment does it nurture? When you speak with alumni and current students, do you sense a more competitive classroom or a collaborative and team-oriented environment? Are your personal interactions consistent with its stated values?Nothing will give you a better sense of a school’s personality and culture than a campus visit. But while first-hand experience is invaluable, much can be gleaned by networking with alumni and students in your areas of interest or participating in webinars or MBA fairs. Remember: It’s not just about whether you’re a fit for the school, but also whether the school is a good fit for you.

7. Cost and ROI:

Return on investment (ROI)goes beyond those coveted starting salaries and is inherently individual.Forbes rankings, for example, are based exclusively on ROI and drawn from pre- and post-MBA compensation, location and career choice. Forbes examines the five-year gain for MBAs across a host of key factors, while other media, like The Economist rankings, measure ROI in terms of one-year gain to determine early value from first-year salaries against tuition. If you’re tempted to pursue a lower ranked school because of tuition cost, consider that ROI may also be lower. Better programs have heftier price tags, but usually pay greater long-term dividends.

8. Career opportunities:

You want confidence that your favored schools are poised to advance your career aspirations and goals. Talk to alumni and learn about their experiences with the career services team, recruitment events and campus visits from potential employers. Is the career services team proactive in reaching out to alumni networks and personal contacts? Are there opportunities to participate in career treks? Also, review at each school’s career and employment reports, then look beyond starting salaries and the roster of employers to examine career statistics and recruiter data.

At the end of the day, it’s not just about post-grad salaries, number of job offers or prestige. It’s about envisioning the professional you want to become and defining the qualities you care about most in a business school. Your discerning approach and careful research ensure you’re spending your time and effort on schools that will be the best fit for you. Ultimately, the better you get to know the business schools of your choice, the better your chances of admissions success.

The Fortuna Admissions team are former admissions gatekeepers from top-tier institutions including Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Chicago Booth, NYU Stern, IE Business School, Johnson Cornell, Yale SOM and Berkeley Haas.

© MPOWER Financing, Public Benefit Corporation

DISCLAIMER - Subject to credit approval, loans are made by Bank of Lake Mills. Bank of Lake Mills does not have an ownership interest in MPOWER Financing. Neither MPOWER Financing nor Bank of Lake Mills is affiliated with the school you attended or are attending. Bank of Lake Mills is Member FDIC. None of the information contained in this website constitutes a recommendation, solicitation or offer by MPOWER Financing or its affiliates to buy or sell any securities or other financial instruments or other assets or provide any investment advice or service.