An Insider's Guide to America's Top Business Schools The truth about student life in the nation's premier MBA programs.
By Michael V. Copeland Reported by: William Lee Adams, Emily Almas, Paritosh Bansal, Kate Davidson, Telis Demos, Laureen Ellison, Kay M. Fukunaga, Cynthia Furey, Olga Gorodetsky, Rebecca Isenberg, Beorn Kjeldsen, Daniel Liebermann, Michael Martinez, Kenny McCanless, Rachel Metz, Christian Mignot, Adam Milch, Kimberly Rieck, Elizabeth Robertson, Rachel Rosmarin, Benjamin Volin, Kathryn Wallace, Dawn Wotapka, and Marc B. Zawel

(Business 2.0) – Quit worrying. If you're choosing among the 25 schools in this guide, you're going to get a great education. These schools attract the best of the best: The professors are top-notch, and the students are superachievers. The academic programs are rigorous, and the classrooms, with few exceptions, are the glitziest around. Arming yourself with an MBA from any one of these schools will open doors for you.

So let's not fret about which of these business schools is the "best" by some objective standard. Miles of bookstore shelves are filled with guides that rank the schools by various data points and reputation. Rather than doing another ranking, our aim is to evaluate the student experience at the top schools. This guide will help you figure out which one will work best for you--which one fits your interests, your lifestyle, your personality. After all, you're probably going to shell out at least 70 grand to earn your MBA--you might as well enjoy the experience.

We had to start somewhere, so we chose the 25 business schools with the highest GMAT scores as determined by the Princeton Review, which also shared with us its latest data on tuitions and enrollments. Then we set out to learn what it's like to attend these top schools and what sets them apart from one another. To isolate the essence of the experience, we went to the people who know best: the students themselves. We asked them what they liked--and didn't like--about their chosen hallowed halls. Were they satisfied with the academic program? Do the facilities measure up? Which professors really inspired them? And, because there's more to the B-school experience than classrooms and books, we asked the students how they spend their precious few hours of downtime.

We distilled our interviews to get to the character of each school--and made some surprising discoveries: What if you're considering a career in health-care management? (Duke's the school for you.) If you're a future Bill Gates with an itch to stick around Southern California, should you choose UCLA, USC, or UC Irvine, the least high-flown of the three? (Choose Irvine.) Is Yale your only choice if you want to save the world without going broke? (No. Columbia is another great option.)

We've tagged the schools with icons that help you sort through their strengths, both academic and social. Is this a school that mints future CEOs? Is it geared more toward finance whizzes, techies, or marketing types? Will budding entrepreneurs get the training they need? If you're female, black, Latino, gay, will you feel comfortable? Does the school accommodate the needs of part-time students? What if you know you'll want to live and work in a particular part of the country--is there one school that has extra-strong ties to the local business community?

For many students, business school is a hellish two-year down payment on the good life. And the truth is, what matters most for any MBA-in-training is what comes after graduation: the job offers. But to get to the jobs, you need to make it through the next two years. They are going to be grueling at any of the schools on our list, but they really don't have to be miserable. Think about what you need to maintain your peace of mind. If you're a confirmed city person, do not--do not--choose Cornell. If you're a social animal, the University of Chicago will feel like Sing Sing. There are better options for you. Use this guide to figure it all out. Find the school that suits you best. Avoid misery.