Despite the existence of more than 80 business schools in the UK alone, most banks, especially US-owned institutions, recruit 50% of their MBA entrants from the other side of the Atlantic. In some instances the proportion is higher still - Credit Suisse First Boston takes 75% of its MBA summer interns from US schools.
At approximately 180,000, the student population of US business schools is huge. However, not all are students at banks' favoured schools (including, NYU Stern, Columbia, Harvard, Kellogg, Chicago, Stanford, Wharton, MIT and Cornell). Moreover, of those studying at targeted institutions, a still smaller number are interested in working in Europe. Banks' recruitment efforts in the US can seem somewhat disproportionate to the potential number of recruits.
Banks justify their obsession with US schools on the basis of standards. Karen Paginton, head of MBA recruitment at Schroder Salomon Smith Barney, is not alone in claiming that the bank would like to recruit more MBA students from the US because the quality of US candidates is very high.
Matt Symonds, author of the book Getting the MBA Admissions Edge, says that the love of US schools is often shared by students. 'Both when candidates are making their choices and when recruiters are looking at candidates, there can still be a feeling that MBAs started in the States and that the size and strength of their schools are superior.'
It is also significant that full-time US MBA courses extend over two years, while in Europe, with the notable exceptions of courses at the London Business School, and IESE in Barcelona, courses are overwhelmingly only 12 months long.
In two years, students are able to focus more closely on finance- related subjects. And this can be a strong pull for banks. At Insead, where the MBA course lasts for one year only, Landis Gabel, dean of the MBA course, confesses that investment banks place a relatively strong emphasis on specialisation, making graduates of two-year courses appealing.
However, Gabel says that the value of a two-year course is reduced when candidates already have some banking experience. 'For people who are coming from banking, it is better that they take only one year out.'
The Wharton School, part of the University of Pennsylvania, was ranked at the top for graduates with skills in finance by Businessweek last year. Students at Wharton are quick to commend the opportunities to focus on finance. Markus Klose, a German student at the school, says the tremendous selection of finance electives and flexibility in waiving core courses means each individual at Wharton is taught exactly what he or she needs to know for the entire two-year period.
Two-year courses also offer an invaluable opportunity to gain work experience. Derek Walker, head of MBA recruitment at Merrill Lynch, advises: 'Anyone contemplating whether to do a one- or two-year course should think very carefully about what they are trying to achieve. If the MBA is being used as a career-change springboard, then a two-year course is often best. However, a one-year course has the advantage of being quicker and probably cheaper.'
Alumni links at US schools are also felt to be stronger. This is important, because alumni exert significant influence over banks' hiring patterns. 'It's all built on alumni networks. We have a Harvard MBA internally, and he or she says they only want someone from Harvard, so we go to Harvard,' says one MBA recruiter in a European bank.
As banks in Europe hire students from European schools, the creation of comparable alumni networks is likely to encourage them to look closer to home. Already there is growing recognition that it is in Europe that recruiters will find the ideal European profile: European work experience, two European languages, and the intention to work on the Continent.
At the same time, however, recruitment efforts in the US are being strengthened rather than weakened.
In London, some firms have begun sending their own recruiters across the Atlantic rather than relying on the efforts of their counterparts in US offices. MBA students in the US are likely to find recruiters from the European offices of investment banks lined up outside their doors for some time to come.