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How to Tell if a Business School’s Culture is Right for You

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As the MBA landscape diversifies and an increasing number of global universities offer a high caliber of business education, more than ever a business school’s culture is an important criterion in finding your best fit. In fact, school selection is a crucial component of Personal MBA Coach’s Comprehensive Services.

So, how can you evaluate if a business school’s culture is right for you?

Personal MBA Coach advises MBA hopefuls to take these steps to determine which program(s) are right for you:

Assessing business school culture: To begin, assess your priorities

The first step in evaluating a school’s culture is to determine what is most important to you.

While there are countless aspects of a school that you can evaluate, ask yourself these questions:

1. Do you want to study on a campus where you can drive change?

At some programs, students can easily create their own clubs and design their own courses. In these communities, the administration is particularly interested in what the current student body is looking for and is open to change. In other programs, driving such change is difficult or impossible as processes are established, and the culture is slow to change. Consider whether this matters to you.

2. Do you want to have deep relationships with faculty?

Are you hoping to work with a particular faculty member? Are independent study courses or research positions important to you? As in point 1, this feature is not as easily found in all programs; faculty involvement and student access to faculty vary widely across schools.

3. Do you thrive in a more competitive environment?

The degree of competitiveness also varies significantly across campuses. In some programs, students compete heavily with one another while at other schools, collaboration is truly the way of life. While there are a number of ways you can evaluate this (more later on evaluating programs), a school’s grading and grade disclosure policy can be a big clue to the level of competitiveness on campus.

4. How much do you want your life to revolve around your studies?

At some schools, student devote their entire lives (day and night) to their education. This is particularly true on campuses in more remote areas where there is less to do off campus. In fact, in many cases even family members get involved with clubs for partners.

Conversely, there are other programs where it is common for students to show up for classes and meetings and then live more separate lives outside of their studies. Such a culture is more prevalent at city schools where students are drawn in many more directions.

5. Is taking classes across the broader university (outside of the business school) important to you?

Consider how much value you place on being able to take classes outside of the business school. In some cases, cross registering for classes is acceptable—and easy. However, in other programs stricter requirements and a more insulated culture make cross-pollination across programs less common.

6. Are sports and extracurricular activities important for you?

While all schools will have varying degrees of student involvement on campus, these extracurriculars are much more common on some campuses as opposed to others. Many programs look to their MBA to build strong personal and professional networks, and sports can be a key part of this. However, on other campuses this community is less common. Again, consider whether (or how much) this matters to you.

Next, do your research

It is important to dig beyond the website and brochures.

Many schools will tell you that they have a “collaborative environment” and an “innovative culture,” but what does that really mean? These six actions can help you gain a deeper understanding of a business school’s culture before you commit to applying.

1. Ask probing questions about the areas you identified above that matter most to you.

While Covid-19 continues to make visiting campuses a challenge, there are countless other ways for applicants to learn more about a school’s culture.

2. Sign up for virtual events

Many schools continue to offer virtual campus visits, student chats and more to give students a sense of life on campus. These events are a great opportunity to sit in on a virtual class (if timing allows), speak to students and get a more detailed sense of what life is like on campus.

3. Attend MBA fairs

Throughout the year many organizations run events that allow candidates to connect with admissions representatives from top schools. These events are generally free and, while likely to be virtual this summer, offer great opportunities to find out more about a school’s culture. Now is a great time to get these events on your calendar for this coming application season.

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4. Seek out professors doing research in an area of interest

While this may not be possible for all candidates (nor is it by any means required), if you have a unique area of interest, reach out to a professor in this area and let her know you would be interested in learning more about her research. Find out if such work is a possibility.

5. Connect with alumni in your network

Look for alumni from your target schools within your network and ask them for a brief 15-minute chat, or in some cases, take them out for coffee or to lunch. They likely will be happy to share their experiences and may connect you with other alumni or have targeted advice for you.

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It is best to start with your personal and professional networks, but undergraduate alumni databases can be another great source for identifying alumni.

6. Reach out to leaders on campus.

Research the student clubs and activities that interest you most and connect with the relevant leaders. They often are willing to schedule a brief phone conversation or answer questions via email. Through such conversations, you can get a better sense of how these clubs actually function, what the culture is like and what role you might be able to play if you were to join.

Finally, remember to trust your gut!

While all of the above factors can help you evaluate your choices, Personal MBA Coach also encourages you to go with your gut. Is there one school that you keep picturing yourself attending, even if you cannot fully articulate why? Although external sources can be useful in the decision-making process, choosing which MBA program to attend is ultimately a very personal decision.

Trust your instincts here.

Scott Edinburgh is an mba.com Featured Contributor and the founder of Personal MBA Coach, a boutique MBA admissions consulting and tutoring firm.

Founded by a Wharton MBA and MIT Sloan graduate who sits on the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants Board of Directors, Personal MBA Coach has been guiding clients for 14 years and is consistently ranked #1 or #2, currently holding the #1 ranking in the US on Poets&Quants.

We help clients with all aspects of the MBA application process including early planning, GMAT/GRE/EA tutoring, application strategy, school selection, essay editing and mock interviews. Our team includes a former M7 admissions director and former M7 admissions interviewers.

Last year, our clients earned more than $6M in scholarships!