Avoid MBA Culture Shock: Five dimensions of business school culture

MBA Culture: Five Dimensions of Business School CultureWhen we talk about the culture of an MBA school, what we are 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 what kinds of students are accepted. In this article, we’re going to introduce five separate dimensions of business school culture. It is important for you to have a thorough appreciation for the personality of the schools you are applying to so that you can avoid “MBA culture shock.”

Collaborative vs. Competitive

The dimension that most people think of when it comes to b-school culture is competitive vs. collaborative. Will your fellow students go out of the way to promote your success or out of the way to promote their own?  The difference between MBA programs is never that stark; it’s really a matter of degrees. It is important for you to decide what degree of competition in the classroom feels right to you. Everyone’s different; some students thrive on healthy competition whereas others learn best in more supportive settings.

One-Size-Fits-All vs. Tailor-Made

The next cultural dimension to consider is 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 exact same curriculum. While there are some obvious advantages to programs where you can completely customize your class list, some students may be disappointed when the i-banking guru opts out of the Finance 101 course and isn’t around to help you build your first spreadsheet.

Local vs. Global

Local vs. global is a third cultural dimension for graduate business programs. One thing to investigate is whether or not the cases and course materials have an international perspective. Another signal about where the school falls on this spectrum is 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. For some students, a school with a local focus might actually be preferable. Schools where most graduates stay in the region after graduating will have a concentrated alumni network. While it can be exciting to go to school with people from 40 different countries, keep in mind that many will return to their home countries upon graduation and you will only see them every few years at class reunions.

Boot Camp vs. Country Club

There is an interesting debate brewing about whether MBA students should be treated as customers. Some students fully expect business school to be like a boot camp – 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 too, à la country club. You should decide what your expectation is and find a school that matches it because you’ll definitely be in for a culture shock if you think you’ve joined a country club and, instead, find yourself at boot camp.

Traditional vs. Bleeding Edge

The last dimension we will investigate is the cultural difference between an MBA school married to tradition versus a school that is on the bleeding edge. You definitely want the schools on your short list to prepare you for the kinds of challenges you’ll be facing 10 years from now, but might not relish being the guinea pig for version 1.0 of a curriculum designed 10 minutes ago. Ask yourself – does the school’s curriculum, course offerings, and degree design feel like it was shaped a hundred years ago or is the course catalogue still warm from the laser printer? To decide which type of MBA program is best for you 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.

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 the 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 attention to the personalities of the people you meet and the vibe you get from them. Build a “personality profile” of the schools on your short list and decide which programs are the best fit for you. That’s the surest way to avoid the possibility of MBA culture shock.

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Excerpted from Prepare to be Accepted! 10 Steps to a Winning MBA Application, by Tyler Cormney and Christopher Aitken of MBA Prep School, Published November 15, 2011

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