It is vital to ascertain what sort of programme you want to study and exactly how you are going to fund it. Diana Hinds offers some advice

As MBA courses become more numerous and increasingly diverse, the task for the would-be student of selecting the right programme is complex and sometimes confusing. With an MBA costing between £10,000 and £50,000, this is not a choice that you can afford to get wrong.

Do you want top-of-the-range general management training, or are you looking for something more specialised? Would you like your course to focus on academic research or practical business experience, or both? How important to your career are the so- called "soft skills" of personal development?

David Simpson, senior marketing and admissions manager for the MBA programme at London Business School, has one piece of advice: "Understand yourself," he says. "You need to know why you want an MBA."

On-line guides such as and www. will help you match yourself to particular courses. Rankings - including those published by The Financial Times, The Economist Intelligence Unit and (for US schools), Business Week - give further clues. However, as the dean of one school commented: "Anyone who decides to apply to us solely based on our position in the rankings is unlikely to be suitable."

Accreditation by the Association of MBAs (AMBA) is generally regarded as an important prerequisite. Patricia Rees, MBA director at Manchester Metropolitan University, adds that students should "find out how often the course you are interested in is refreshed - it's no use studying a programme that teaches best practice from five years ago."

Look, too, at the list of faculty: how many have active links with the business world there? If possible, visit the schools you like best and talk to the MBA students - or even consult their blogs, suggests Katie Carr, international communications manager at IESE in Barcelona. As David Simpson at LBS stresses: "Schools do have a personality - and they are very different, even if their programmes are similar."

How to fund your MBA is another prime consideration. Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of AMBA, says that with the increase in part-time and distance-learning MBAs, as many as 50 per cent of students on accredited courses now have their fees paid by their employers. Students on full-time courses, however, usually have to rely on a combination of savings, loans, scholarships and bursaries. A lucrative summer placement can also be a bonus.

AMBA operates a popular loan scheme in conjunction with NatWest, offering loans at competitive interest rates to UK residents accepted by accredited business schools.

External scholarships include the Sainsbury Management Fellows' Scheme, which every year since 1987 has given 14 young engineers the chance to study for an MBA for free at a top business school.

Internal scholarships are de rigueur at many US schools, where they are often financed by generous endowments. British schools are doing their best to catch up, boosting the number of scholarships they offer.

Students should always ask schools about the availability of scholarships, Purcell advises, as they are not always well publicised. Cranfield, for instance, has scholarships for business women, farmers, Russians and students from the voluntary sector.

New scholarships are constantly springing up. Manchester Business School Worldwide has just announced the launch of one for a candidate from the banking industry, to commemorate its former finance professor, Doug Wood. Ireland's leading business school, UCD Smurfit School, has a new scholarship for candidates who can "highlight the best idea they ever had for a business". Sheffield Hallam is launching its new part-time MBA by pledging that the student with top marks at the end of the course will be given their £11,000 fees back. The European School of Management and Technology (esmt) has established a €50,000 (£34,000) special scholarship programme for three women from European countries.

London Business School, which charges £41,970 for its MBA, has awarded scholarships (an average of £12,000) to one in five of its incoming class. But for those who don't quite make scholarship level, the school has just introduced five "needs bursaries", of up to £20,000 each. "It's made a big difference," says David Simpson. "For some, this is the only way they can come to business school."

'What really attracted me was the focus on personal development'

Ian Gray, 31, won a voluntary sector scholarship to Cranfield School of Management and will complete the part-time MBA course in November. He is now head of humanitarian and emergency affairs at World Vision UK.

"I first heard about the Cranfield MBA from a consultant who was teaching a module on development management at the University of Wales Swansea. What really attracted me was the focus on personal development - not just the hard skills of finance and project management, but also the personal attributes needed to be a leader.

I wanted to do the MBA because I wanted to be challenged by mixing with people from the private and non-charitable sectors, who could push me to think about the way I view the world.

The Cranfield fees were £32,000 - without the scholarship, I wouldn't have had a chance. My organisation couldn't have sponsored me.

The course has been fantastic. Some of it has been a bit of a stretch in terms of applicability, particularly around financing, but 80 to 90 per cent has been very easily transferable.

There are a handful in the class from the voluntary sector and the mix has worked very well. With the vast majority from the private sector it does have that edge I was looking for. And the experience helped me get my new job, in which I have a much broader management role."