ALED: So, we’ve got some time here with you now. Perhaps we could start just by hearing an overview of the Darden MBA to kind of set the scene a little bit?
SARA: Great! We are a two-year MBA program both full time and executive formats. We are located about two hours from Washington DC – in the homeland of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States. It is a beautiful area; some small mountains and great leaves changing in the fall.
We have three differentiating points as our program. The first is we teach in the case method. So it’s a highly interactive, highly participatory environment that is very exciting and fun to be a part of. We have exceptional teaching faculty -- just remarkable classroom facilitators who also take a really active interest in our students’ lives outside of the classroom -- and that helps build a really wonderful community that is close-knit and very supportive of the community. We have a benefit auction for a local women’s shelter next week where the Darden students will be performing in a Darden’s Got Talent competition where I will be a judge, so I’m looking forward to that. We have a lot of great activities around here. So it should be fun.
ALED: Excellent. Thank you very much.
I guess my first question is could you give us a bit of insight into the perhaps business and social trends of the past few years, and how the schools have to adapt in order to continue to produce the most relevant and employable graduates?
SARA: It’s been an interesting time the last few years certainly with what’s been going on in the economy. For a time we saw a great increase in students coming from the finance world. We have, luckily, a very hands-on career office because a lot of them were looking to change careers which would not be surprising. Certainly a general management case method school like us, about 90% of the students are looking to change what they’re doing in our MBA program, and about 50% of our students in our executive formats are looking to change their career path – the direction, the industry, the focus. That’s true now more than ever.
We’re really working hard to help students understand what the options are and where their strengths would be the best fit. That’s certainly important to us but we also have a real focus on ethics that we’ve had for many years. That’s not been sort of a new fad for us. That’s really put us in a good position given what happened in the last few years in the financial market. We’ve had an even greater interest in those areas in terms of student concentrations and what people are interested in terms of business ethics. And then, sort of a totally different trend is certainly seeing people come to the business degree from other areas like architecture and design, and so we have a wonderful faculty member who focuses on design thinking and how we can use that in business. And so, we’ve seen a great increase in sort of more designer creative incoming students.
ALED: Excellent. Are you seeing a similar kind of demand then on the same side from employers; perhaps an emerging demand for new or non-traditional skills from employers?
SARA: Certainly. We have a corporate advisory board that is our biggest recruiters and alumni, or combination, and they really told us this fall that innovation is what they need to continue to grow. That can be financially -- sort of a supply chain. It can also be creativity and design. It can be just different ways of thinking. But how to be innovative and not just entrepreneurial, not just in new ventures, but really internally innovative.
ALED: Okay, I understand. Does that help more with perhaps a more diverse background of class, with students coming from different industries? How does that work in terms of collaboration in the classroom?
SARA: It does. So our students are assigned to a learning team when they first arrive at Darden. That’s five or six people with different backgrounds. So the more people we have with innovation and creativity backgrounds, the more that comes to each learning team sort of right from the very first week of school. And then in the case method they’re divided into sections of around 60-65 people. They really do learn from each other. The more diversity we have in the classroom in terms of geography, backgrounds, company, and function, the more they’re going to learn.
As we’ve seen this increase in innovation, in environmental sustainability, in all of these types of areas, we certainly see that other students are picking up on those skills from their peers.
ALED: Okay, great. You mentioned obviously the case study method for which the school is very well-known. Perhaps you can give a bit of advice on how the teaching method should fit into a perspective students’ decision on the courses they should look for. What kind of people generally excel in the case study method as opposed to other traditional methods?
SARA: It’s certainly individual preference, and learning style will matter a lot in what kind of business school program you look for. The best thing to do is if people can visit class. That’s really the only way to truly experience a different kind of format. So, lecture versus the case method. But we have videos so you can sort of proxy in with a video experience on YouTube, but visiting is the best.
Certainly the people that succeed in the case method classroom come from many different kinds of personalities and types, but there’s sort of some prerequisites. You must have ideas and opinions about business, about the cases that you’re provided with. You must have ideas and opinions.
And then you must be able to articulate them. So you must be a clear communicator and a clear communicator in English, because we do teach in English. Certainly we look at very many parts of the application to see that and we interview everyone that’s admitted. So, it’s very important to be a clear communicator or to have the desire to be a better communicator -- be open to really being forced to persuade others and be actively communicating in the classroom.
The last piece is something that I think people often forget and that is you also need to be a good listener because the conversation only works if everyone is listening to whoever’s speaking, learning from it, and then moving the conversation forward. Those are the people that do the very best in class – are the ones that have ideas, can clearly articulate their own ideas, but can also really listen and learn from other people’s ideas.
ALED: Excellent. What was the kind of feedback you hear from employers about students who’ve perhaps gone through the case study method as opposed to a traditional lecture MBA?
SARA: Most often the first things we hear are about sort of the level of preparation because preparing for a case discussion requires sort of poring through some data and figuring out what’s relevant very quickly. That’s the first thing we hear about is sort of that preparation for projects and meetings.
The second thing we hear about is always being willing to raise their hand and be part of the conversation whether it’s a board level conversation or a small team conversation. Sort of the third thing is kind of influence over others. So being able to really persuade others that the ideas and preparations they’ve come up with are the direction the company should go.
ALED: Okay, excellent.
Perhaps you could walk us through a traditional day on a case study MBA.
ALED: Also how it differs to perhaps more of a lecture method.
SARA: I think all MBA programs have sort of the same amount of reading and the same amount of work, but our students have to do it each night because they’re going to be expected to participate in class the next day. They usually meet with their learning team in the evening; 7:00 pm or 8:00 pm for a couple of hours. Sometimes they do this virtually through video conferencing like we’re doing today, and sometimes in person –most of the time in person. And they’ll go through each other’s spreadsheets and they’ll take about what they learn from the case. And they’ll teach each other things. So someone with an accounting background will help somebody without an accounting background read a balance sheet or whatever they’re discussing the next day.
And then those students will disperse into the five different sections, and now have – the next day – not just their own ideas but their ideas from their learning team. They go to class from 8:00 to 1:15. They have three classes a day usually; four days a week. So they only really have class Monday through Thursday. They really have – some days it’ll be three separate cases; maybe one in finance, one in economics, and one in leading organizations where we’ll talk about leadership. And sometimes it’ll be the same case. So it’ll be a case about Target where we’ll talk about the finance area, and then they’ll talk about marketing, and then they’ll talk about leading organizations, and it will be the same decision that all those areas need to interact on because that’s what we really observe in business. It can be extremely integrated, and then sometimes they’re just doing weighted average, cost of capital and it’s a little more specific.
If it’s something that is really technical, the case will have a technical note. It’s basically like a shortened textbook chapter. There’s no concern about ‘I’m not going to learn the technical aspect or the skill.’ You’re going to learn everything you would learn in another class. But you do have to be prepared every single day.
So when you get to exam time, our students – usually it’s their favorite time. But they don’t really study because the exam is a case, and they’re given a case, and they study it individually, and they write their response, and they’ve been doing that all term. So it’s not new. It’s not something they have to study for as opposed to a lecture format where you might do your homework once a week. You might prepare everyday but you might not, and then you really will spend the exam time reviewing everything you’ve learned and really absorbing it to prepare for the exam. It’s just different.
And our exams are all take home so you can do them from your room, from your hotel room on your vacation because sometimes they go off on their vacation right away. It’s really enjoyable.
And then after 1:15 on sort of that typical day you asked about, they’ll have clubs and committee meetings because those extracurricular activities are very important here and are part of the learning. They run conferences and everything is student self-governed. There’s no faculty chaperoning or oversight. And so they’ll do that in the afternoon then they’ll have a break to read cases, or walk their dog, or visit their family, and then come back – like I said – in the late evening to work with their learning team for the next day.
ALED: Excellent. It sounds like quite a unique experience particularly, I guess, the benefitting and the learning from your fellow classmates.
In that sense, can you talk a bit more about the international students in the class? Do you see a large interest on international students to come to study at Darden? How are you going to integrate those students into the classroom and into life on campus?
SARA: It is the sort of style and English required does sort of seem daunting to many international applicants but we have many that want to come. The class is usually about a third international and from all over the world. We do have an international orientation in the summer before the rest of the students come, before school starts to assist with all of those things that make it difficult to move to a new country, so, opening a bank account, buying a car, getting insurance, getting your vaccinations and all those things that have to take place before school starts.
And then we have sort of that orientation extends into the first few weeks of school with some additional sessions to sort of check-in, see how students are doing, and help them acclimate. And then, the learning teams really take care of most of everything else because it’s usually three Americans and two international students, and so there’s a lot of cultural sharing that happens in that team environment and support.
ALED: Do you see also then which parts of the United States your domestic students come from? Are they coming from all over and therefore bringing, again, different perspectives in that sense?
SARA: They are. The largest section is the Northeast; New York being a large producer of MBA students and Boston as well. And then the next largest group would be sort of the Mid-Atlantic which is where we are; so Washington DC, Philadelphia – kind of that entire area and in the state of Virginia. And then the next largest is California. Again, it’s sort of by population, and then the largest international countries are India and China which are the largest international countries. It’s very representative of population.
ALED: Absolutely. Tell me, you talked about the case method and life on campus. There’s that and what is unique to Darden. Does that affect the way in which you promote the program and also what you’re looking for in a prospective student?
SARA: It does. Certainly when we travel and have activities for our prospective students, we invite all the alumni that live in that area to interact with them, so usually it’s sort of a one-to-one applicant to alumni ratio. In some ways, it might make you nervous as the Admissions Dean, but I really am excited to see that level of commitment from our alumni, and the opportunity for our prospective student to ask five different alumni or ten different alumni “What was your experience like? Can you really help me understand the case method?” We try to bring that to life with either a lot of alumni or a faculty member doing maybe a mini-case when they’re traveling.
And then in terms of what we’re looking for, certainly strong communicators, certainly intelligent people – that’s sort of what everyone is looking for in many ways. But that part about wanting to be involved in the community and in the activities, that’s not always high on people’s list. We’re certainly looking at what people did in college and at their university in terms of those activities, and we’re looking to see what they’re doing in their life now, and we’re adjusting that for cultural difference. Some parts of the world there are no activities to do in college. Even some parts of the world it’s definitely an expectation. We adjust for that but we’re looking for those people that – I sort of describe it as they understand there is a world outside of themselves. That I often see by volunteer activity or by commitment to family, different things in different parts of the world.
ALED: Absolutely. You mentioned obviously China and India having good exposure to fellow classmates from those countries. What else are programs doing to give MBA students exposure to perhaps new emerging markets and other areas of the world where perhaps there is more business opportunity? I guess all I’m asking in terms of not only curriculum and content but…prospective international visits, faculty – that kind of thing.
SARA: So, for the actual students, there is sort of curricular for-credit and non-credit ways that they sort of get that exposure. The credit ways are through our global business experiences so majority of students do one of these trips in their first year or their second year, or both, and usually they’re around a theme sort of relevant to the location.
You might go to Argentina or Mexico City with an economics professor and talk about currency issues and sort of economic issues. You might go to Sweden for a trip about environmental sustainability products and all the activity that’s going on in that part of Europe.
It’s usually a group of 20-35 students with one or two faculty members, and they really sort of immerse in the region for 10 days, and visit companies, and visit sort of alumni and everything that’s in the region.
We also do a series of job treks. Those are really related for the students who want to get a job in Hong Kong or London or Delhi. We have a series of those, and those change each year depending on where the students want to go. Those are basically company visits, alumni visits, alumni happy hour, networking, so that students who want to go to work in London can really immerse themselves in that part of the world for some time. And one of our career consultants from our Career Office will go on those trips with them. We also do those to New York. We do them to San Francisco, Seattle. They’ll go visit Microsoft and Amazon and a variety of other companies just so they can go places where the sort of traditional American MBA recruiting doesn’t happen.
American companies hire – in the first year, they hire interns in large numbers. They expect to hire those people. The timing is very specific. And there are a lot of industries in parts of the world that just aren’t on that cycle, and so we go to them.
ALED: I understand. I guess a question relating to that: How do you feel the MBA program and yourselves are staring to adapt to meet the needs of perhaps the tech startup and entrepreneurial communities? You mentioned San Francisco along with the community in New York. Are you seeing more and more graduates who have interest in those areas; perhaps technology, e-commerce, online?
SARA: We had almost 10% of the class last year go to Microsoft and Amazon which was a lot of people. And so, that was sort of surprising. But really we have a wonderful entrepreneurship endowment of $100 million and that pays for a combination of things. Some very focused on people who want to be entrepreneurs right away like a business incubator.
But one set of activities is what we call our Batten Venture Internship Program, and that is an opportunity for students to intern with small companies and startups. If you’re thinking about doing your own business or you just want to work in that kind of environment, we have up to 40 of those a summer. If we get more people who wanted to do it, we’d figure out a way to fund it. Basically it pays half of the summer salaries so that the startup can get an MBA intern for an undergrad intern price. And it’s really been wonderfully successful.
In some cases, one of my students two years ago she did one in San Francisco at a small tech startup and decided she absolutely did not want to work for a startup. And in other cases, students get so energized by being able to work in biotech or something like that that they decide that’s where they want to go, or that they’re ready to start their own business and join the incubator after they graduate.
It’s really been a wonderful program. It’s part of our Batten Institute and all the entrepreneurship programs and innovation programs that come out of that but it’s sort of specifically targeted to students with that interest area.
ALED: It sounds very impressive. It’s not something I’ve heard of before or I feel is offered at many other schools…
Excellent. Thank you. One last question, I guess, from us while we have you here – a question that we always like to ask for prospective students is what’s the one most common mistake you see from MBA applicants around the world? And what’s the one thing to kind of try and steer clear of?
SARA: The one thing I’ve seen a lot the last couple of years is students not spending enough time on the resume that they upload into the application. They think that “Oh I’ve done this entire application. I’ve spent all this time on it.” and then “Oh, I’ll just – at the last minute – attach the most recent resume I have.” It doesn’t follow our guidelines or it contradicts something in their application. Maybe the dates are slightly different. It just is not a good impression. And so really take some time with your resume. Make sure it complements your application, iss consistent with your application, and then maybe also gives us a little bit something different because instead of job description focused, that it will be results-focused. It will really help us learn more about you and it can be a great advantage. Also, it should be one page. We get them attached that are 10 pages long for 2 years of work experience, and that’s just not good.
ALED: Okay, great. Thank you very much. And thank you for joining us today. We really appreciate you taking the time.
Hopefully, you’ll see more people are coming onto our site and onto our community to ask more questions.