3 Factors to Consider in Choosing a Business School: Part III

Last week, we began a 3-part series exploring a few factors to consider when choosing a business school. The first two factors include location and career services.

Today we’ll explore the final factor, which is intake size of the institution.

Factor 3: Size of intake

Full-time MBA programs actually differ remarkably in the sizes of their cohorts. Wharton and Harvard have incoming classes of between 800-900 students each year. So at any given point in time, 1600-1800 MBA students are actively on campus. INSEAD has class cohorts of around 1000 annually, and they have a one year MBA program.

Stanford and the London Business School both have incoming classes around 400 each year. The Johnson School at Cornell has an incoming class each year of fewer than 300 students. The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology takes about 100 into their full-time MBA program each year.

The size of your cohort will have a dramatic impact on your business school experience and subsequent alumni resources. There is no right or wrong answer on this matter, but you should consider it deeply in your choice of business school.

Bigger cohorts imply more resources, more elective classes, and generally more institutional attention given to the MBA program. This is very important. If your cohort is small, you may find yourself sharing resources such as classes and career services with other programs in the university – a distinctively unattractive situation for some. MBA students have very different backgrounds and needs than other graduate students in a university, and resources should be specific for MBAs to be most effective. Thus, there is a big benefit to joining a large cohort – you, collectively, have good resources that are specially tailored to MBAs. (Some schools, such as Harvard, even have specific fitness facilities just for the business school, which is probably going a bit too far in tailoring resources specifically for MBAs.)

On the other hand, large cohorts also often mean that you, as an individual, will get less customized attention and flexibility in your own pursuits. Career services staff and professors are less likely to pull personal favors for you if you are among 1000 than if you are among 100. In comparison to handlers of small cohorts, the herders of large business school cohorts are more interested in the overall cohort than in you specifically.

Every year, there will be some people who get placed into unsatisfying jobs and are otherwise dissatisfied with their business school experiences. For a large cohort, those people are merely unfortunate statistics. For a small cohort, efforts will be exerted to make those sad customers happy. The point to consider is – there is some possibility that you will be among those unhappy ones. If you are, a smaller cohort will treat you better.

After graduation, bigger cohorts will mean you have a larger pool of alumni to connect with. You tend to stay in touch more with your business school classmates than with your college classmates, so the bigger the cohort, the more the alumni connections. With such large class sizes, Wharton and Harvard have graduates in almost every major corporation. You will have former classmates spread across all corners of the globe and across all fields in the economic system. Somebody from Harvard Business School will be connected to the sewer treatment industry, should you ever need to reach out to such an expert. Somebody from Wharton will become involved in sea bass, again, should you ever need to reach out to such a person. This is a point for considering the bigger cohort.

The counterbalance to this, by analogy, is that although that sea bass expert is a fellow alumnus, he may not take your call when you need him. From a networking and even social perspective, you are more likely to personally know all your classmates if the total size stays below 300. Actually, you will probably have chance to mingle at least a bit with each of them over your program. With a larger cohort, you will have to sacrifice the acquaintance of most of your class and carve out your own circle of professional and social friends. The downside to this is that you are likely to only self-select those who share your interests, so you will never personally get to know that sea bass expert (unless, of course, you are the sea bass expert).

So although there is no doubt that cohort size will significantly impact your business school experience, the call on big versus small for yourself is tricky. To a large extent, your happiness will depend on the mix and dynamics of your cohort, which is somewhat out of your control. At any business school, some years will see an especially active, beautiful, or successful student body, while other years will see the opposite.

Everybody wants to be part of an incoming class of attractive, smart, and wholesome MBA students in a cohort that is sized to balance diversity with intimacy, but alas, business school is pretty far from heaven, even at Harvard, Stanford, or Wharton. So dig deep, pray for classmates that bring out the best in you, and consider what kind of cohort dynamics you prefer in your business school life.

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This Veritas Prep GMAT instructor received a degree in Economics from Princeton, and is currently pursuing a PhD. He has worked as a business consultant, research analyst, and adjunct faculty member at various institutions.