The top employers for MBA students

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Instead, they take a very pragmatic view and set their sights on the companies that happen to be paying the most and hiring the most. That attitude is apparent in the results of a new survey that asked MBAs to name their "ideal" employers. In the annual study, students awarded higher popularity scores this year to nearly all of the management-consulting and financial-services companies, many of which have flocked back to campus with more jobs and fatter paychecks.

While they have traditionally been magnets for M.B.A.s, banks and consultants became scarce on campus during the bleak job market of the past few years, and some dropped in the ranking produced by Universum Communications, a research and consulting firm that surveyed more than 4,700 M.B.A.s at 50 U.S. schools.

This year, companies such as Bain, Boston Consulting Group, Booz Allen Hamilton, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley gained in popularity, knocking some corporate icons-BMW, Coca-Cola and International Business Machines-out of the top 10. Because the survey was conducted from December through March, Morgan Stanley's jump to ninth place doesn't reflect any potential effects from the battle this spring to oust Chief Executive Philip Purcell. But other companies that have faced controversies in the past year proved less appealing to M.B.A.s. Walt Disney slipped to 23rd place from 16th last year, Merck dropped to 89th from 55th, and American International Group fell 18 spots to No.100.

Some M.B.A.s are drawn to multinationals such as Johnson & Johnson, General Electric and Procter & Gamble, the highest-ranked companies outside consulting and financial services. Image also matters to some students, who aspire to work for companies with a reputation for style and innovation. Apple Computer, for example, rose to 15th place from 31st last year, leaping ahead of Microsoft and Dell. Although BMW fell seven spots to No.13, the German auto maker still outranks other car companies.

Some consulting firms and technology companies damaged their relationships with M.B.A. students back in 2001 and 2002, when business soured and they rescinded job offers. Companies that didn't renege believe they are benefiting now. "There was no bait-and-switch in our hiring, and I'd like to think that is strengthening our reputation on campus," says Kermit King, head of North American recruiting at Boston Consulting Group, which advanced to fifth place in the ranking. "We're also doing a better job of having one-on-one interactions with students, which means getting more BCG people to campus."

Some companies have succeeded in maintaining their popularity, most notably McKinsey. The consulting firm, well known as a training ground for chief executives, has ranked No.1 for 10 straight years. The firm declined to comment on the ranking but expects to hire some 600 M.B.A.s this year, 2% to 3% more than in 2004. A spokesman notes, however, that M.B.A.s represent a shrinking share of new hires as McKinsey increasingly recruits for specialized talent at medical and law schools.

Citigroup credits its repeat No.2 ranking to its global job opportunities, diverse product lines and steady recruiting. "We maintained a stable presence on campus and hired M.B.A.s even when times weren't as good," says Debbie Bertan, Citigroup's director of college relations.

Women and men expressed somewhat different employer preferences. Female M.B.A.s include more consumer-product marketers and retailers such as L'Oréal and Gap at the top of their wish lists. Male M.B.A.s are focused on consulting and financial services, but they find some technology companies alluring.

Ryan Popple, a survey respondent and first-year student at Harvard Business School, diverged from most of his fellow M.B.A.s, naming ExxonMobil (No.50) and BP (No.65) as most ideal. Why energy companies? "I tried to find an industry that combined my interests in international business, government and environmental issues," says Mr. Popple, who plans to spend his summer as an intern in the treasurer's department at ExxonMobil.

Universum also asked M.B.A.s which factors most influence their decision to accept or reject a job offer. Compensation package was the top pick, followed closely by "challenging role." Next in importance: corporate culture, a clear path for advancement, and work-life balance. "To me, work-life balance is not all that important so long as compensation is high to make up for it," says Sean Hazlett, another first-year Harvard M.B.A., who participated in the survey and aspires to be a vice president at a prominent investment bank. "I spent the last five years in the Army and my family is fully aware of how it can cope with a terrible work-life balance and low paycheck to match. My children will thank me when I pay for their college education."

For their first post-M.B.A. job, the survey found that men on average expect a salary of $89,933 and signing bonus of $18,028, while women look to earn $81,962, with a $15,415 signing bonus. By five years after graduation, salary goals soar, with men hoping for $184,352, and women, $155,909. Although still lower than men's, women's salary expectations after five years increased the most, up 10% from last year. "Work-life balance is still more important for women than men," says Claudia Tattanelli, chief executive of Universum. "But women are raising the bar and demanding more in compensation, too."

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