It’s a question we’ve been getting from candidates frequently enough to deserve an independent article.
MBA fairs have been around for so long that everyone has taken them for granted. It’s an annual ritual adopted by both, applicants as well as business schools, without questioning its relevance and effectiveness.
In fact, if you search for information on the internet, you are most likely to come across articles with titles like ‘How to make the most of MBA fairs’, ‘What questions should you ask during MBA fairs’, ‘What should you wear to MBA fairs’.
Try searching for the ‘History and current day relevance of MBA fairs’ and you’ll probably find nothing worthy of your time. So, we try to question the age-old tradition and think about what works for and against these events.
Let’s give credit where it’s due and look at the pros first. This is what probably prompted the industry to create these networking events.
Spreading the word: It allows business schools to share information about their MBA and other Masters degree programs.
Connecting with the Admissions Team: It allows students to interact one-on-one with representatives of the university i.e. folks who will read your application and decide whether to open the gates or not. Attending an MBA event in your city can show the Adcom that you are serious about getting the degree.
Decent reasons, right?
Why is it then that there are doubts in the minds of applicants about whether they are useful enough to attend?
We tried to Google the question and came up with 2 old responses.
Here’s a discussion on GMAT Club that starts off innocently, with the original poster asking the same question as the title of this article. The subsequent responses soon make it very clear what the general opinion is about MBA fairs.
Also check out the last paragraph in this article.
When an insider from a leading MBA fair management company writes about the death of international MBA tours, you know there are some serious issues with the practice.
Not satisfied with those old sources, we started thinking about the reasons why MBA fairs may not be as useful for students (and business schools too), as they were in the earlier years.
B-schools have existed for much longer than the internet. In the pre-internet era when students were dependent on snail mail (rather than email) and and peer updates (with credibility and recency issues), information dissemination was a challenge. In those days, an MBA fair allowed both sides to meet and learn more about each other.
The internet disrupted the way most industries worked, and business schools adapted their processes too. Most offline tasks that were slow & ambiguous, were moved online to improve the speed, accuracy and efficiency. This includes the candidate filtering and admissions process. A few quick emails or a phone call can address most information asymmetry issues.
Serious candidates aren’t waiting for Adcoms to come to their cities to clarify doubts.
At the end of the fair, you’d probably reach home with a bunch of brochures. For all practical purposes, these are useless for net savvy applicants. Business websites have all the information that’s in the brochures, and much more that isn’t.
The glossy (and expensive) brochures are nice to take home and place strategically on your table, so neighbours think you are at the threshold of a major life changing moment. However they don’t convince students to part with their life savings. Beyond the universal content there’s nothing specific in there for any specific demography (country/industry/role).
It’s an apt analogy, if you think about it. A line of tables arranged nicely across the sprawling room with prospective partners waiting for you, as you move through the mass of aspiring applicants, some more eager than the others to revel in the mating dance.
When it’s finally your turn to spend some quality time with your dream school, all you get to do with the other impatient candidates breathing down your neck is to mumble a few questions. You’ll be surprised at how many candidates still ask about the application procedure, average GMAT score and average work experience in the class.
With an average time of 2-3 minutes per candidate (if you are lucky), there’s not much you can do to really make a lasting impact or unravel deeper insights.
With time, effort and money constraints, Bschool officers can only visit a handful of cities in select few countries. From what we’ve seen, while metropolitan cities may have a sizeable number of interested applicants, there’s a huge pool of interested candidates in tier 2 and 3 cities that goes untapped.
We only hope that Adcoms don’t give brownie points to those who attend these fairs, and effectively penalise those who can’t (for reasons beyond the applicant’s control).
There may be reasons why business schools that include fairs in their international MBA student acquisition plans aren’t getting the expected bang for their buck either. Here’s why:
Business schools are shelling out a LOT of money for international MBA marketing events. There are expenses related to flights, lodging & boarding, local travelling, and the event fee as well. For each country, this can run into tens of thousands of dollars.
Their expectation is that at least a few of the candidates they meet at these networking events will end up applying to their program. But the cost of connecting with each candidate is significantly higher than other marketing and outreach channels.
Not every person attending the MBA event is a prospective applicant. Many are just curious about the whole MBA thing (‘It’s been a childhood dream for me to go Harvard!’) and not really serious contenders.
Others are still in college and thinking about an international degree if their CAT scores don’t get them into the IIMs.
Among those who are qualified, not everyone would be interested in every single school attending the event. From the few thousand folks who register, a fraction attend it. And probably a few hundred from those are remotely interested in a specific school.
In most likelihood, the ones with the strongest profiles who’ll ultimately end up in the class are probably not even present at these fairs. Rather than focussing on impressing Adcoms in 2 minutes in an over-crowded setting, they’re probably working hard on their profiles and applications.
We’ve seen it happening with our politicians. Many visit their constituencies a few days before the election and are never to be seen again. With business schools where you’d be pouring our life’s savings (and the next 10 years’ earning too after graduating), you would expect better.
Visibility spikes (that result from email campaigns, newsletters, fairs) are synonymous with advertising, and not with building a relationship.
Case in point: Think about why Harvard and Stanford are the strongest MBA brands though they don’t travel the world coercing students to apply.
Brand recall works best when the exposure is gradual and over an extended period of time.
As you’d see from the interviews we’ve published with Admission officers of the top business schools, when the questions are specific they have a lot of really useful information to share (about the bschool culture, opportunities on campus, careers, fit, work permit issues and so much more).
But the constraints of the traditional MBA fair format make it difficult for them to really dig deep and go outside the general queries that have been beaten to death on the official websites.
There are several business schools who understand this.
For instance, we like the way the Tuck Admissions team manages the process. Apart from being present in MBA fairs (which can generate an interest spike), they also spend a lot of effort in outreach activities that’s spread out across the year. They have a highly useful blog.
They have a good way to target specific (and big) demography – Indian applicants. A senior member of the Tuck MBA admissions team writes a regular series of articles on MBA Crystal Ball.
And the most interesting part is that their articles on MCB are purely informative and helpful in nature. Many of the posts don’t mention about the Tuck MBA program at all. They want you to be successful in your MBA applications and career, irrespective of whether you attend Tuck. It’s a great way to showcase the collaborative and supportive culture of the program.
There may be other business schools that have a balanced outreach strategy too.
As a prospective applicant, try to connect with your target schools in as many ways as you can. Don’t depend purely on a few events to gain the insights you need to address your questions (does it fit my needs or not? should I apply or not?) and make a decision.
We’ve tried to raise some questions that MBA applicants, business school admission officers and MBA fair organisers need to think about. It may give them news ideas to explore and make the process more productive for everyone involved. There’ll be lesser applicants asking if MBA fairs are still useful or a waste of time.