Working Hard

There is a clear perception that Darden Students work harder then students at other business schools.  Although this image can make prospective students nervous, it has several positive implications for the Darden community including the high level of credibility it affords us with recruiters and alumni.  Many of the factors contributing to the ‘we work harder’ perception are part of the schools heritage and date back over 50 years.  Some of the most influential factors include:

Class schedule – the general belief is that Darden students prepare 3 cases per day, 5 days per week.  This perception falls somewhere between the actual workload and the workload from when Darden was founded.  In 1954, classes were taught 6 days per week and there were 3 cases every day.  I’ve even heard rumors that exams were administered on Sundays so they wouldn’t interfere with the class schedule.  The first year program for the class of 2009 averaged about 12 cases per week.  Our schedule alternated between 4 and 5 teaching days per week and 2 and 3 cases per day.  I’ve provided a snapshot of a typical Darden week in my weekly schedule post.

Case method – most classes begin with the professor selecting a student at random to present and defend their analysis of a business case.  With participation accounting for about 50% of final course grades, Darden students prepare for every class session.  In comparison, lecture format classes found at other schools may not require any preparation.  One advantage of working through cases during the quarter is the limited amount of studying needed for exams.  In fact, many Darden students only spend a couple hours studying for each exam.  I’ve written more on Darden’s teaching style in my case method post.

Attendance policy – students are allowed to miss two classes per quarter without a valid reason.  This policy helps ensure high attendance, which is necessary at a school where classroom discussion is an integral part of the learning process.  I remember the class of 2009 being generally supportive of this policy when it was introduced during first year orientation – apparently there was no expectation of skipping class.

Learning teams – part of the case method, these teams generally meet the evenings before class is taught.  Although these meetings take time, they ultimately reduce the total time most students spend preparing for class.  In my team we assigned each individual one case to analyze for the next day.  Each team member would then share the results of their analysis in the evening learning team meeting.  Therefore, on any given night I only analyzed one case in depth and then reviewed my team members’ work on the remaining cases for the next day.  In addition to their efficiency benefits, these meetings provided a great environment for learning how to effectively review other people’s work – an important skill for MBA graduates.

Image promotion – Darden’s students, alumni, and faculty often promote the ‘Darden students work harder’ perception through their own personal dialogues.  It’s often with a sense of pride that someone from the Darden community discusses the rigors of the program.

All these factors contribute to a culture in which working hard is valued.  The communication of this culture has a reinforcing effect as prospective students looking for an easy or ‘social’ MBA generally choose to attend other schools.  The result is a student body that expects to work hard for a well respected education.

This culture applies to our community as a whole and does not necessarily mean that Darden’s academic program is more time intensive than programs at other schools.  From my own observations, the hardest working students at Darden spend less than half their time on the academic program and devote huge amounts of energy towards club leadership positions or multi-industry career searches.

Mexico City GBE

My wife and I attended the Mexico City GBE during Spring Break 2008. This GBE was one of several “Global Business Experiences” offered by the Darden faculty. Our trip was led by Professor Peter Rodriguez and the participants included 12 Darden students and 2 partners.

GBEs at Darden generally have a significant academic element and students receive course credit. The Mexico City program consisted of four main components, which are outlined below. More details are also available on the Darden webpage.

Business cases – we discussed 5 cases with IPADE students on issues relevant to Mexico. The IPADE professors made sure to involve us in these discussions and Darden students seemed to receive their fair share of cold calls.

Guest speakers – presentations and Q&A sessions with 5 business leaders from various industries including entertainment, retail sales, and beverage distribution. Some of the speakers used English and others used Spanish along with the translation service provided by IPADE.

Company visits – trips to Barcadi, Grupo BIMBO (an industrial bakery with several brands including Wonder Bread), and Kidzania (an amusement park for kids).

Cultural visits – we visited the Anthropology Museum, climbed the pyramids at Teotihuacan, attended a soccer game, and participated in a wine tasting. We also received some cultural exposure by working on a group project with the IPADE students.

This trip left me with several insights on the cultural and business environment in Mexico. I also gained a new respect for the scale and maturity of the US business school market. There are 4 well know full-time MBA programs in Mexico and the combined graduating class of these programs is around 200 students per year. In comparison, US News ranks 63 full-time US MBA programs and the combined graduating class of these programs was 12,500 students in 2007. While many of the 63 US programs may not be as reputable as the 4 programs in Mexico, and the US has 3 times the population of Mexico, there is still a huge difference in the relative size of these two markets for MBA education.

Another aspect of this trip I really appreciated was Professor Peter Rodriguez’s involvement throughout. Peter participated in every activity including classroom discussions, company and cultural visits, dinner each night, and the soccer game. Since this was his fifth time leading the Mexico City GBE and the Mexican economy was part of his Ph.D research, Peter was able to provide us with a substantial amount of information on the business and cultural aspects of Mexico.

Darden vs. XYZ

Last year around this time I was looking for opinions on Darden vs. Duke and Darden vs. Ross.  I applied to these schools in the first round and now had to decide between multiple offers of admission.  Although I had already ranked the schools (my rankings), now that I was accepted I wanted to directly compare my options.  This process was long and agonizing.  I solicited input from dozens of people and scoured the internet for articles on “Darden vs. Michigan” and “Darden vs. Fuqua”.  Here is a summary of the feedback I received:

Close friends and family – This group focused on the towns and communities rather than the MBA programs.  Basically, my friends and family thought I should attend the school where my wife and I would be happiest over the next two years.  Important considerations were my wife’s employment opportunities, the city’s attractiveness, and the community within the MBA program.  Darden was favored here as the employment opportunities in Michigan were bleak and Durham (Duke) is not a very desirable city compared to Charlottesville (see City of Charlottesville Awards).

Coworkers – While applying to business school I was working for a management consulting firm and 90% of my coworkers already had an MBA.  When I solicited opinions of coworkers, each would start by asking me several questions regarding my goals and then focus on helping me identify the programs that fit best with my development needs.  I was a little surprised that none of my coworkers felt one program was any better than the other, and the rankings were never mentioned.

Web search – My search of blog posts and internet forums did not provide much insight.  Many of the suggestions I found focused on one or two data points from the class profile and job placement data.  For example, last week I found a post that recommended school X to an Indian student because it had 35% international students compared to 30% at school Y.  However, in this case I happen to know that the international students at school Y are fairly diverse, whereas most international students at school X are from Asia.  While the data in these online posts is generally accurate, it’s not always relevant.  Also, employment data is biased towards the short term and generally provides very little insight on the long term career benefits of different MBA programs.

In hindsight, I had subconsciously picked my school months in advance and was only trying to reconcile my instinct with all the facts, logic, and opinions of others.  Going through this reconciliation process was valuable as I was able to identify my logical rational for attending Darden such that I could easily explain my decisions to others.  Based on my experience, here are some tips for deciding between business schools.

Trust your instinct– Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink discusses how our subconscious brain is more effective in making complicated multi-objective decisions then our conscious brain.  The argument is that we can consciously identify the differences between options but do a terrible job of assessing the importance of each difference.  The notion of “fit” is just another way of saying trust your instinct.

Visit the campus – this is the best way to assess how well you “fit” with the school.  When on campus, don’t spend time gathering information that’s available through other sources.  Instead, try to immerse yourself in the culture and gauge how well it “fits” with your own personality.

Don’t put too much weight in others’ opinions – these perspectives are the result of someone else’s goals, development needs, and values.  When asking the opinions of others, try to follow up with questions that identify the underlying rationale of the position.

Forget about the rankings – they do not take individual preferences into account.  Furthermore, they change every year.  For example, Darden’s BusinessWeek ranking has fluctuated between 5 and 14 over the past ten years.

Think both short and long term – don’t make decisions based only on short term considerations such as if your target company recruits at the school.  Getting a job is just the first use of an MBA; make sure to consider the 10-30 year time horizon.

Invitation-Only Interviews

Several prospective students have asked me why Darden switched to an invitation-only interview policy.  Since I was also curious, I began asking faculty members and admissions staff what drove the decision. Given the complexity of the admissions process it was no surprise that a wide range of factors came into play.  Some of the considerations I have heard include:

Increasing number of applicants – Last year the number of applicants increased by 35% and the prior year saw an increase of 14%.  Meeting the increased demand for interviews without sacrificing quality in the interview process presented a challenge.  By switching to an invitation-only format the admissions office can limit the number of interviews and therefore ensure that the interview quality and consistency remains high.

Increasing cost and environmental impact of travel – Before Darden switched to invitation-only interviews every domestic applicant was required to visit Charlottesville for an interview.  With rising airline fares and a better understanding of how travel impacts global warming, it is in everyone’s interest to reduce the travel requirements of the application process.   The new policy has addressed these concerns as only individuals with the necessary credentials and essays are required to visit Charlottesville.

Alignment of the US and international application process – Since Darden already used an invitation-only policy for international applications, applying the same policy to domestic applications provides for a more consistent and uniform evaluation of all applicants.

While understanding the factors that went into this decision may be interesting, the impact of the policy on prospective students is a little less complicated.  With the new policy applicants only need to visit Charlottesville after the admissions office has determined their credentials and essays meet the requirements for admissions.  This policy offers a huge benefit for students who are unsure of their admissibility, as they can now apply without visiting the school and then travel to Charlottesville if the admissions officers determine their credentials and essays meet the requirements.  On the other hand, I personally found it helpful to visit Darden before writing my essays.

With regards to the acceptance ratio of candidates that are invited to interview, there doesn’t seem to be a hard number available at this point.  By using a little inference, it is logical that only applicants with the potential to be admitted would be invited to interview.  From another angle, inviting applicants to interview who lack the credentials and essays required for admission defeats the whole purpose of invitation-only interviews.  I checked with Darden’s admissions staff on this point last week and they confirmed that every applicant invited to interview has the potential to be accepted.

Choosing an MBA Program – Why Darden

My first step in selecting an MBA program was retrieving each of the published business school rankings. I then supplemented these rankings with additional criteria which were important to my decision. Finally, using the MBA program data published by US News, I was able to apply my criteria and weightings to each of the MBA programs and produce the following rankings:

Rank School
1 University of Virginia (Darden)
2 Harvard University (MA)
3 Dartmouth College (Tuck) (NH)
4 Stanford University (CA)
5 Yale University (CT)

The criteria and weightings used to produce these rankings are as follows:

Weight Category
30% Reputation
15% Selectivity
15% Learning method
15% Class size
10% Undergraduate degree
10% City size
5% Placement

Before discussing the weightings, let me provide some background on the originally published rankings and my additional criteria. When I first visited Darden it became apparent that the rankings did not capture many of Darden’s key advantages. For example, almost every visitor who observes a case discussion will agree that Darden offers a superior learning method. However, none of the published rankings use learning method as a criteria when comparing MBA programs. I therefore set about developing a more complete analysis that took into account this criteria along with three others. Here is what I choose:

Learning method – captures the teaching style and mix of learning methods employed by the MBA program. My preference was for programs that maximized the use of cases and active learning methods and minimized the use of lectures. This preference would also favor general management programs over more technically oriented programs (see The What and The How)

Class size – getting to know my classmates and having a sense of community within the program was an important objective, and one that would be significantly influenced by the class size. Within the 20 top schools as ranked by US News, the class size ranged from 171 at Emory-Goizueta to 910 at Harvard. Balancing between the advantages of a small and strong network vs. a larger and inherently weaker network, I gave the maximum score to schools with a class size between 250 and 350.

Undergraduate degree – having an undergraduate degree in engineering and a technical mindset, it was important for me to develop the less technical aspects of my business knowledge. Therefore, I preferred MBA programs that had a lower ratio of students with engineering, math, or science degrees. I was a little surprised at how much the MBA programs varied in this category. Within the 20 top schools as ranked by US News, the percentage of students with an engineering, math, or science degrees ranged from 21% at NYU-Stern to 61% at MIT-Sloan.

City size – in addition to the stronger sense of community enjoyed by schools in smaller cities, my wife and I also have a personal preference for smaller cities. Although this criteria is somewhat independent of the MBA program, the comfort of myself and family over the next two years was an important consideration. Therefore, I gave the maximum score to schools with a city size of under 1 million people.

In order to add these additional criteria the weighting of the original criteria must be reduced. This is fine because the reputation, selectivity, and placement scores suffer from measurement error and in some cases intentional rankings management. These are still good criteria, but should only account for about 50% of the total weighting for the following reasons:

Reputation – the US News reputation metric is based on a survey of MBA school deans and corporate recruiters. One drawback of this survey is the lack of a student perspective, which would provide some balance between the research ambitions of the deans and the teaching quality elements important to students. Additionally, corporate recruiters are concentrated on the first 1-2 years of employee performance, which favors more technical schools over the general management schools which are more focused on the long term horizon.

Selectivity – GMAT score and undergraduate GPA are the primary components of this category. From my conversations with professors and admissions staff, there is a fairly low correlation between these scores and a student’s performance as an MBA student. In fact, some admissions directors have expressed that students with the highest GMAT scores tend to have weaker essays. Admissions offices are constantly confronted with the moral dilemma of maximizing selectivity scores to improve the schools ranking vs. selecting the best student body.

Placement – this category is generally dominated by the average starting salary and bonus of graduating students. This metric can be further broken down to show that the mix of industries students pursue significantly impacts the placement score. In 2007, Darden students who accepted consulting and investment banking positions received about $21,000 more in first year compensation then the students who accepted general management positions. Thus, the placement category often reveals more about career interests of the student body then the schools overall placement effectiveness.