Dear Prep Professor — I’m trying to narrow down my list of business schools to apply to. I am wondering, are there big differences in the academic environment of MBA schools or are all business schools pretty much the same?
Your question shows me that you aren’t just applying to business school for the keg parties, recruiting swag, and three more letters on your resume; you actually plan to learn a thing or two along the way. Good for you!
When it comes to academics, not all business schools are the same. To determine which schools are the best for you academically speaking, you need to do your research and find the programs with an academic philosophy and program design that will best meet your specific academic needs and learning objectives.
Questions to ask to find the best academic environment for you include:
- Which schools have an academic philosophy that matches your needs?
- Which schools’ degree design will best meet your learning objectives?
- Which schools are the optimal size for you?
To illustrate the differences between schools, we will compare and contrast the academic environment of Harvard Business School and University of Chicago Booth.
Which schools have an academic philosophy that matches your needs?
Start by learning about the academic philosophy of the schools on your target list. The academic philosophy of the school is a kind of mission statement that influences how the program is designed and operates. Harvard, for example, is devoutly committed to the case study based on their belief that it’s the best way to educate future leaders. By contrast, Chicago Booth believes in a “discipline-based approach” that mixes cases and lectures.
Ask yourself, which schools have an academic philosophy that will best meet your learning needs. For example, if you were an undergraduate accounting major and feel fairly fluent in the language of business, then a case study based program might be appealing. On other hand, if you were a liberal arts major who has been working in a creative advertising agency for four years, you might be better off at a school that will first teach you the ABCs of business.
Which schools’ degree design will best meet your learning objectives?
Each school puts a great deal of time and care into designing their program. Harvard Business School, for example, requires all MBA students to take every class in a “core curriculum” in the first year. At Harvard, certified public accountants take the first year accounting course together with the former history majors. Chicago Booth, on the other hand, has a flexible curriculum that allows students to test out of subjects they’ve already mastered.
Another difference in degree design is whether or not you are required to choose a major. In some programs, like Harvard’s, you don’t, which means you can take any combination of elective courses you like while still allowing you to concentrate on a specific discipline if you prefer.
Weigh the pros and cons of each program’s degree design relative to your academic development needs.
Which schools are the optimal size for you?
The size of the program is another aspect of the academic environment. HBS admits around 900 students a year and Chicago admits around 580. Some prospective MBAs think that’s too many students.
Consider the advantages of smaller programs: you’ll probably get to know everyone in your class and the culture tends to be more closely knit. On the other hand, bigger schools can offer a broader number of electives than smaller ones and generally have more resources. Keep in mind that a smaller class size also means a smaller alumni base. Darden, which admits 320 students per year, has 9,300 living alumni. HBS has around 43,000.
Using the criteria we outlined above, try to imagine the ideal academic environment for you. You are going to be investing a great deal of time and money in your business school education and you want to ensure that the academic philosophy, degree design, and class size of the schools on your target list are a match with your specific academic needs and expectations. A few minutes on each school’s admissions web site and information interviews with current students and alumni will enable you to compare and contrast the academic elements of the programs on your target list so that you can be assured that you are applying to schools that have the best academic environment for you.