Every business school has a dynamic website, holds friendly info sessions all over the world, and hosts campus visits for future applicants. Furthermore, most future MBAs have friends or colleagues who are current students or recent grads, eager to discuss their alma mater’s wonderfulness. These are great sources of information and insight, but they each have biases and limitations that can constrain or even distort your perception of the program.
So what’s the best way to observe the culture of a business school before you apply? Read the online student newspaper over the period of several months. Most are published weekly, so you’ll always have current sense of what’s important and timely. And most have archives that enable you to explore an entire academic year. The featured stories are planned, researched, and written by students for students — these publications vividly convey the true priorities and passions that define the school's culture.
To illustrate this point, let’s look at the headlines and lead stories from five student newspapers for just the day of April 27, 2012:
Chicago Business (Chicago Booth): “Giving Something Back raises $63,000 in 12th annual charity auction"
This article describes how proceeds of a major auction event are being allocated to three local organizations that support the education of inner-city children and those with physical disabilities. Given this emphasis on social awareness and conscience, we see the softer side of Chicago Booth, a program more commonly known for its analytical rigor and Nobel Prize-winning faculty.
“Spotlight on Ypsos, the FIELD 3 turnaround success story" Harbus (Harvard Business School): Here, the CFO of a FIELD team vividly describes his team’s rollercoaster ride as their mock company’s stock drops, and then, after intensive team effort and soul-searching, rebounds to respectability. This is a detailed description of this exciting program that a prospective applicant could gain solely from reading the school’s website. More importantly, it goes beyond the facts and figures to show how students have embraced this learning opportunity.
Monroe Street Journal (Michigan Ross): “BBSA 2012: A Vision Renewed" This report summarizes the recent annual conference of the Black Business Students Association. Furthermore, the article praises a professor emeritus who, over the span of five decades, mentored minority students and prompted affiliation with the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management. So, while every b-school expresses interest in attracting more minority applicants, we see that the Ross culture actively celebrates it.
The Stern Opportunity (NYU Stern): “Five Keys to Your Spring Job Search" This pragmatic look at what it takes for MBA students to land a dream job includes insights and actionable tips from a career counselor as well as two Stern alumni. While many b-schools have PR campaigns that convey how their graduates are receiving multiple job offers with soaring salaries, Sternies are confronting the realities of a staggering economy by mobilizing career services professionals and loyal alumni to help current students launch proactive employment campaigns.
Wharton Journal (Wharton): “The New MBA Curriculum" An in-depth Q&A interview with a Vice Dean — accompanied by a large smiling photo — offers a very informative, objective view of what the changes to the curriculum are, the motivation behind them, and the anticipated impact on current and future students. The focus expands to describe how Wharton is also putting more emphasis on “clusters" rather than the traditional learning teams and cohort. We see an institution where administrators continue to be visible and vocal after matriculation. Clearly, Wharton realizes who the “customer" is by ensuring that students understand and embrace policy changes.
These are just five articles from five schools on one day; imagine how much more information awaits you! By reading a broader array of stories in more editions, you will connect the dots and grasp what each MBA program values most. Doing so over a period of weeks and months will ensure that you have a more complete picture of the culture. If this process convinces you to drop a given school from your target list, that’s an important outcome that can help you avoid a big mistake down the road. Or, if following the student newspapers confirms that a particular school is truly "The Place" for you, you’ll have an abundance of impressions and observations to share in your upcoming essays and interviews. Either way, you win.