Choosing an MBA Program: How Important is a School’s Culture?

When choosing which business schools make your Top Five list, what matters most: rankings and reputation, or the institutions’ culture and values? According to columnist Ron Alsop in this month’s issue of GMAC’s Deans Digest, defining a school’s culture is a smart strategic move that many applicants overlook.

In order to “weed out” applicants who are not a good cultural fit, Alsop points out that the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley recently added an application question on how prospective students may have demonstrated one of its cultural principles—an element also incorporated into the interview assessment process.

Last spring, Haas unveiled its revamped core curriculum and four guiding principles, which are: Show “confidence without attitude”; be “students always” with a thirst for lifelong learning; “question the status quo”; and think “beyond yourself” by putting larger interests above your own.

Also, recommenders should answer this question: “In the Berkeley MBA program, we develop leaders who have ”˜confidence without attitude’ or ”˜confidence with humility.’ Please comment and provide examples of how the applicant reflects this Berkeley-Haas value.”

Alsop says Haas highlights what many schools and MBA applicants sadly ignore: both business schools and students benefit from a good fit with the institution’s culture and values.

“If students feel comfortable and engaged, their education is likely to be all the more enjoyable and rewarding,” the columnist explains. “Students also should pay heed to business-school culture because the connections they form with the school and their classmates last for life.”

Trouble is, not all business schools lay out their culture as succinctly as Haas does.

“Students would like to align with the right culture and values,” says Tim Westerbeck, a brand marketing expert in the management education sector. “But many schools use the same buzzwords to describe themselves and what they offer. They need to figure out their cultural values to help them express their brand personality.”

Knowing whether you’d thrive in a collegial, teamwork-driven environment, or in a more intense and competitive program is just one question you can ask yourself when gauging “fit” with a particular school. A little research and a hefty dose of self-reflection are really the first steps toward finding which MBA program is the best fit for YOU.

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