In this day and age, we hold international business education to higher standards than ever before. When we select a reputable business school and programme, we may take into account a range of factors such as the quality of teaching, the diversity among students and faculty, and the facilities available on campus, to name just a few.
Increasingly, the specific culture cultivated on campus and promoted among the school’s community is another essential element when choosing an alma mater as it has to suit a professional’s education and career development. Whether it is for one year or two, on a full-time or part-time basis, business school will be the place you will call home and your workplace. And in order to feel truly at home, you need to find the gentle balance between a comfortable and a challenging environment that will enable you to grow.
How culture fit works for MBA applicants
School fit is manifested in a feeling that you truly belong in the MBA programme you have chosen and feeling comfortable in the learning environment of the school, explains MBA admissions consultant Stacy Blackman for U.S. News & World Report. Business schools thrive in knowing that they have their own individuality and that they can offer a uniquely curated culture, just as companies do.
Culture fit is a common point of reference in the corporate world, where new hires are often based not only on a candidate’s skill set but also on their potential to fit in with the organisation’s values and communication style. However, more and more often in the search for a job or business school, the process of selection works the other way round. Professionals select a place, be it a company or business school, that fits their values and the culture where they will thrive.
Head of admissions consulting at Advent Group, Iliana Bobova, highlights how cultural awareness is essential when approaching MBA studies: “How you fit and contribute to the business school culture is important for your overall MBA experience, as well as your chances of admission. However, MBA aspirants need to be aware of what culture they expect to be immersed in while in business school. Some might want to enjoy the comfort of a culture they know well. Others might dare immersion in a different culture to challenge or transform themselves, or prepare for business leadership in the new environment.”
So MBA culture fit seems to be an essential part of the school selection process. Researching business schools to identify the best options for your goals and potential is actually an important step towards a valuable MBA and post-MBA experience. You need to understand the business school culture, so that you can factor it into your selection.
Deciphering business school culture
If you have studied social sciences or anthropology, you will know that culture is a multifaceted phenomenon. How can we describe the culture of an MBA programme? In general, culture is defined as the shared values and beliefs that normally judge certain behaviour as good or bad. Here is how Edgar Shein, former MIT (US) professor who made a notable mark on the field of organisational development including culture, defines it: “A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”
Let’s look at some basic examples that you can easily recognise in business school culture. Taking a closer look will enable you to discover many more intricate features that differentiate school cultures. One easy-to-measure feature is the value placed on diversity. There are programmes that build on global cultural diversity, gender balance, and the variety of academic and professional backgrounds and aspirations. Another aspect would be demonstrated in the mission of the business school or programme and thus the shared goals and values of its MBA participants. For instance, some MBA programmes are known to focus on social welfare and making the world a better place. Others strive to instil professional excellence in specific industries.
It is also up to business schools to choose whether to build a culture of collaboration or competition. While collaboration is a main pillar for the work of many international institutions, others emphasise the importance of individual effort and a healthy competitive spirit. Taking this further, when discussing the extent to which some schools promote a more collaborative environment than others, education experts point out that a school’s size and location can play a role too. Compared to other North American business schools in the prestigious Ivy League, Tuck School of Business features a smaller class size and therefore is able to offer a more collaborative, family-like campus culture. On the other hand, as MBA admissions consultant, Adam Markus, notes for Poets&Quants, “some love college towns, others need the autonomy and/or culture of a large city.” It may be natural for MBA programmes located and taught in large urban centres to feel more intense and competitive. Professionals who prefer being challenged and motivated by their surroundings will find a better fit in a business school with a more individualistic approach.
How to go about finding your desired culture fit
Of course, it all seems fine and easy when you read about it in a few paragraphs. But finding a good school fit and a programme that corresponds to your personality and transformation goals can be a tough nut to crack. You can also choose the approach that fits you best: a more intuitive experience or one relying on science and technology.
A commonly recommended evergreen technique that works wonders is to get a feel for the business school by getting into the shoes of an MBA student before you even apply for admission. That means going the extra mile: taking every opportunity to mingle with current MBA students, alumni, professors, and staff. Visiting campuses and attending open classes and alumni and networking events can all give you a realistic idea of the culture at particular schools. Although their core values may be listed on their website, in brochures, or in their slogan, interacting with programme representatives may reveal much more about the actual school environment. However, it is hard for even an insider to explain the real values, since in many cases they are beyond conscious understanding. In many cases these things are “so obvious” that they are taken almost as laws of physics. Normally one can define them only by comparison with another school with different values.
For those who prefer an analytical approach, relying on media business school rankings has always been a handy option. However, they have their limitations – e.g. they rank a limited number of schools, some of which are preselected but, most importantly, they use a fixed set of ranking criteria that do not necessarily correspond to what matters most to you. “If you know that the school can help you to open the career doors you want, this is the time to turn away from the endless chatter about rankings, and focus on the people and the place,” adds Matt Symonds who co-founded the MBA admissions consulting firm Fortuna Admissions.
So, good as rankings are for guiding MBA prospects to some of the top schools, they have to be used attentively and be evaluated against personal preferences. They can play a role in orientation in the initial stages of school selection research, rather than being a decisive factor. Many MBA graduates, including Aubrey Chapnick who attended UBC Sauder School of Business (Canada), learned a similar lesson once they found themselves in class: “I focused heavily on the Financial Times rankings, the opinions of those in my network, and the type of work that I wanted to do after graduation,” reveals Mr Chapnick for Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail about his MBA selection process. “[…] Having gone through a large portion of my degree, I’ve realised that none of these ended up being the most significant factor that has allowed me to learn the most from my classes or get the most out of my MBA experience.”
Are there tools that measure and compare which business school cultures are a good fit? Data science and research provide new opportunities that might be preferred by analytical minds and digital natives. An exciting new opportunity is on its way. Leveraging over a decade’s experience in matching MBA applicants to business schools globally and the latest technologies, Advent Group is developing a comprehensive online platform for MBA seekers and applicants. Unimy will enable MBA aspirants to identify their geographic and cultural preferences and then match them to the business schools that resonate most closely with them. Although there will be a lot more on offer, what will bring the most value to applicants is the Unimy platform’s AI-powered MBA matching algorithm. “Since this is the first service of its kind, it was especially important to implement accurate scales and dimensions that represent culture fit as objectively as possible,” explains Kalin Yanev, PhD, Student Services and Research Director, who is heading the project at Advent Group. He explains that the first phase is to compile a database of leading business schools and reveals that they already have submissions from Oxford University (UK), University of Cambridge (UK), London Business School (UK), HEC Paris (France), Rotterdam School of Management (the Netherlands), IE Business School (Spain), and ESADE (Spain).
Once you get past the ambiguity of what culture fit means and focus on your professional and personal aspirations, you will also be able to reach the business schools that will provide the learning environment for success.
This article is original content produced by Advent Group and included in the 2018-2019 annual Access MBA, EMBA, and Masters Guide under the title “The Cultural Odyssey”. The latest online version of the Guide is available here.