Business School Culture, School Fit, and Your MBA Experience

When applying to business school, one of the most reliable questions you will get from just about any institution deals with how you feel you will fit within that school’s culture.  

While it’s fairly easy to see if you have an academic fit or a professional fit at a school (by researching their curriculum and statistics for admitted students), it’s far more difficult sometimes to ascertain the “culture” of a school.

Assessing business school culture is akin to assessing someone’s personality.  

What does the school “feel” like to you?  Does it have a reputation for being competitive or collaborative among its students?  Does it have a proud history of traditions?  What are its customs both inside and outside the classroom?  What is the collective spirit of the school as embodied by the staff, faculty and students?

A school’s culture will manifest itself both inside and outside of the core learning environment.

Inside the classroom, culture is driven by the curriculum, so make sure you know how classes are conducted.  Many schools give grades for classroom participation, but some do not, so make sure you sit in on a class to observe the engagement of the students.  Do you appreciate an environment of rigorous debate and challenge, or do you prefer a quieter learning environment where the professor does most of the talking?   

One of the best ways to observe a school’s culture, however is outside the classroom.  

When the bell rings, do the students scatter, or do they hang around and engage in conversation?  Do they conglomerate in common areas to work on projects or discuss business and social topics or do they move rapidly through the buildings to keep up with their busy schedules.  As for clubs, are they popular and well attended?   Are they making an impact, or are they having trouble getting attendance?   

One of the big drivers of school culture is the demographic makeup of the student body.  

What is the international student population vs. the domestic student population?  Do these groups mix, or do they run together in homogeneous groups?   How many married students are there?   Married students are less likely to have the same amount of time outside the classroom as unmarried students, so a school with a large number of married students may have a social culture that is less vibrant on the surface.  Then again, if there are enough married students, there can often be a very tight “club” of students who gather together as couples and bond closely over the two year period.   Some students will even have children.  Nothing changes the dynamic of a social situation like children.  Because of the average age of b-school students being in the late 20’s, you encounter many who are just starting their families.  All these things play into how a school’s inhabitants interact with each other, and you are well served to try it before you buy it by touring the school and participating in their official visit offerings.  In the end, all schools are going to want to know how you see yourself in their environment and demonstrating why you think you would fit in well.  One size does not fit all.


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