Curriculums change, reputations wax and wane, professors come and go but one thing that rarely changes in any significant way is a school’s culture. How you fit or don’t fit with an MBA school’s culture is one of the most important aspects of deciding which MBA programs will be right for you.
When we talk about the culture of an MBA school, what we’re really talking about is the school’s personality. That personality shapes everything from the way a single classroom is run to what kinds of professors are hired and – most relevant to you – what kinds of students fit in best.
Many MBA Prep School students ask whether or not they need to visit a school. We highly encourage it because things like culture and campus dynamics are almost impossible to ascertain from a distance.
Your objective is to identify a fit between your personality and the personality of the schools you will apply to. To help you better understand what you are looking for in your search for cultural fit, we will discuss five common dimensions of business school culture:
- Competitive vs. Collaborative
- One-Size Fits All vs. Tailor-Made
- Local vs. Global
- Country Club vs. Boot-Camp
- Traditional vs. Bleeding Edge
Competitive vs. Collaborative
The dimension that most people think of when it comes to business school culture is competitive versus collaborative. Will my classmates go out of their way to promote my success or out of their way to promote their own?
The cultural difference between schools is never that stark; it’s really a matter of degrees. Keep in mind that everyone is different; some people thrive on healthy competition whereas others learn best in more supportive settings. You need to decide what degree of competition feels right to you.
One-Size Fits All vs. Tailor-Made
Some programs offer more personalized attention and allow you to tailor your learning experience whereas other programs believe that all students should go through the same experience. While there are some obvious advantages to tailor-made programs, you may be disappointed when the investment banking guru in your class places out of the introductory Finance course and isn’t around to teach you how to build a financial model. Paradoxically, schools that require everyone to stick with the same programs can engineer more diverse classroom experiences. By design, students interact with classmates who have backgrounds and career goals that are different than their own.
Local vs. Global
Business schools can be a wonderful international melting pot. If this is important to you, then you certainly want to look at the multi-national composition of the student body and faculty. Certain programs have campuses in other countries and may even offer an opportunity to spend a semester studying abroad. Also, consider whether or not the cases and course materials have an international perspective.
For some students, a school with a local focus might be preferable. While it can be exciting to go to school with people from 40 different countries, keep in mind that many will return home upon graduation. Schools where most graduates stay in the region after graduating will have a more geographically concentrated alumni network.
Country Club vs. Boot Camp
There is always a debate brewing about whether MBA students should be treated as customers or cadets. Some students want business school to be a struggle that will toughen them up; others take an equally valid stance that they are paying a lot of money and should have their needs catered to. You should decide what your expectation is on this dimension and find a school that matches it because you’ll be very unhappy if you think you have joined a country club and instead find yourself in a boot camp!
Traditional vs. Bleeding Edge
Is the school married to tradition or always on the bleeding edge? Of course, you want the schools on your short list to prepare you for the kinds of challenges you’ll be facing 10 years from now. On the other hand, there are drawbacks to being the guinea pig for version 1.0 of a curriculum designed 10 minutes ago.
Do the school’s curriculum, course offerings, and degree design feel like it was shaped during the Industrial Revolution or the Information Age? Is the course catalogue chiseled in stone or still warm from the laser printer?
To select the school that is the best fit for you on this dimension, consider whether you are an early-adopter who is comfortable on the bleeding edge or if you prefer the stability and predictability that comes from tradition.
Exercise: Select the Best Culture for You
You may have heard some things about the culture of certain MBA programs: “this school is competitive, that school is collaborative, etc.” We want to encourage you to look past stereotypes. The best way to decide where you fit culturally is to experience a school firsthand. Visit campus, sit in on a class, and pay careful attention to how people interact. Meeting with students and alumni and asking them to describe the culture is helpful; better yet, pay close attention to the personalities of the people you meet and the vibe you get from them.
Building a “personality profile” of the schools on your short list is difficult. We have developed an exercise that you can use once most of your school visits and meetings are complete that will help you decide which school’s culture is the best fit for you.
The “Party Exercise,” adapted from a book called What Color is Your Parachute? (Bolles, 2003), may help you to select the schools with the best culture for you.
Imagine that you walk into a party consisting of all the people you have met from each school over the years and especially over the course of your school selection research: students, alums, professors, admissions officers, and so on.
At the party, people have congregated according to the school they are affiliated with. In your imagination, fill your party with people from as many schools as you have on your short list. The question you need to answer is: ”If you could only chose one group to spend the entire evening with, which would you join?”
After deciding which group you’d join first, think about why you made your selection and write down some of the reasons. What is it about this group of people that makes you feel at home with them?
Next, imagine that your favorite school congregation exits the party and you have to choose another school’s group. Where do you go next?
Continue this exercise until such time as you’d rather leave the party than join any of the remaining groups. Clearly, the schools remaining at the party after you leave should be removed from your short list.
Unit Review: Select the Best Culture for You
- The culture of an MBA school is in essence the school’s personality.
- You need to visit a school to learn about its culture and campus dynamics.
- There are many dimensions to a school’s culture; we discussed five: Competitive vs. Collaborative, One-Size Fits All vs. Tailor-Made, Local vs. Global, Country Club vs. Boot Camp, and Traditional vs. Bleeding Edge.
- Build a “personality profile” of the schools on your short list and determine how well your personality fits with the people at each school including students, professors, admissions officers, administrators, and alumni.