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MBA class size: Small vs Big – Which is better?

As a prospective MBA student, what do you look for while choosing a business school? The ranking, course content, alumni network, placement record, and the like. What about the class size?

Some may think, ‘Who cares about the class size at Harvard and Standford? As long as they open their doors for me, I’m happy.”

Yet, there are many (wise) applicants who understand that the class size of a business school does matter.

Why is the business school class size important?

Think about how the size of an MBA class affects your overall experience.

What do you make of a class that has few students, as little as 50? Personalized attention from the faculty, better bonding with fellow students from various backgrounds and cultures, and a nice happy atmosphere in the class, just like in your high school.

And, what about a class full of people most of whom you may never know or would barely interact with during the course of your study? It could still give you more connections across industries once after graduation, when your classmates go back to the professional world.

When you end up spending almost every waking hour during the intense 1 or 2 year course, the number of classmates will matter. Where they have come from, what they bring with them (expertise, culture, knowledge) will matter. Where they want to go and their self-development needs will also matter.

How would you define a small or big MBA class?

The filtering happens right during the admissions phase. The elite business schools around the world get thousands of applications every year, but only a few hundred make it to the class finally. A small class can have less than 100 students or go up to 400 students per class. A bigger class can go beyond this number. It can go over a thousand too.

Let’s take a look at how big the class size is in some of the top ranked business schools of the world, and how it impacts the class profile, average age and the industries they come from.

Harvard Business School admitted 1,805 applicants in 2014. The number increased to 1,838 in 2015. In 2016, the number is at 1,859. Stanford MBA program had total enrollment of 825 applicants in 2015-16 from a total of 7,899 applications received.

London Business School accepted 417 students in the class of 2017. Out of these 37% are female students, 92% are international students with 68 nationalities represented in the age group of 24 to 39. A huge number of these come from the consulting, finance and accounting field, among others.

In 2015, Insead MBA enrolled 1,018 students from 78 nationalities with average six years of work experience.

Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University has a class strength of 492 students in the class of 2017 of people with an average age of 28 years, five years of average work experience, 40% international students and around 25% from the field of consulting.

Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University had a total of 67 students in its 2015 class, with 23% of them from underrepresented minorities, with an average GMAT score of 636, and average work experience of 61 months.

Smaller the class, better the interactions

Like any other program, a smaller class size in the MBA also means students can have interactions with their fellow students. The faculty can pay better attention to their individual developmental needs. You are less likely to become ‘invisible’.

Faculty can remember names of all their students, interact with them one-on-one, understand their interests, aspirations, and can better help channelize their efforts. It is like a little community within the class which has students from various nationalities, backgrounds and experiences.

Students would know the strengths and weaknesses of their peers much better. That also allows them to get to know each other at a more personal level and bond better. All this can have a positive effect not only in team work and group assignments, but also in individual development, since students may be less reluctant to ask for help from folks who understand them well.

Bigger the class, better the network

All the arguments listed above in favour of a smaller class may seem justified. However, the factors that go against a smaller class, are exactly what work for a bigger MBA program.

Over time, a bigger class translates into a huge network of alumni which is well-placed in top companies, with good connections in their respective industries. Of course, having a widespread alumni network does not mean much by itself. It also depends on the kind of people in it and if they wish to help you out or not.

A class size that runs into hundreds and a alumni group that is in tens of thousands also points at how influential the business school brand is globally. This can attract more recruiters from diverse industries to the campus.

A visiting company spends a lot of money on hiring and more so when the action is happening on the bschool campus. They’d be happy to come to an MBA college where there are more candidates to choose from.
And, how do these big schools manage so many students? By dividing them in cohorts, like sections. Each class room then has a certain number of students. These students get opportunities to work together on projects, assignments and bond better. There is so much more sharing of knowledge.

There is a reason why big business schools cost so much it hurts! They offer many specializations and electives as they can have more faculty members to run the course.

A class full of people may not give you individual attention, but you can be sure of connecting with a huge network of people who will go on to become managers, entrepreneurs and game changers for the world beyond the classroom.

Having said that, it doesn’t mean that MBA programs with relatively lesser class strength are not popular. It’s possible that there may be logistical restrictions (like space constraints) that are holding back business schools from expanding their class size.

Some are working towards increasing their capacity. For instance, the Haas School of Business (University of California, Berkeley) is investing in a new building to open in the fall of 2016 which will help it increase its current class size of students by 15% to 280.

So, what’s the verdict?

Which is better – A small class or a big one?

MBA class size: Small vs Big

That pretty much comes down to your expectations from the program – learning within a close-knit, intimate community versus being part of a large, diverse group.

Seeing a huge number of people from all over the world in the same classroom, for many months to come, may be intimidating for some, and exciting for others.

The premise of having contacts in almost every single industry and leading company may excite some. For others, having more deeper ties within a few sectors of interest to them might matter more.

You could be looking for a very personalized experience, or may be your idea of a dream MBA class is bigger the better.

Either ways, do keep in mind that the size of the class is secondary. What’s more important is how much initiative you take to reach out and establish relationships that will last longer than the 12 or 24 months you spend on the campus.

Read more on:
How to select the right MBA college
What the top business schools want in MBA applicants
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3 thoughts on “MBA class size: Small vs Big – Which is better?”

  1. The bigger the class size.. The more reason for a recruiter to think that out of a pool of 1000+ students he or she will find the 20 for the company’s MBA program.

    But there are multiple factors affecting the decisions of a company to recruit at a school or not.. One of them can be a bigger class size.

  2. Hi, I’m Rumit Saluja. I did my graduation in International business and MBA in Marketing which is about to end in next 2 months. I’ve a Marketing & sales job in hand at a well known Indian bank. As I’m entering bfsi sector with less than decent knowledge of Finance I’m thinking to pursue a higher degree in finance some years down the line. My long term goal is to move away from sales and enter into consulting jobs in bfsi. I wish to make a career in bfsi. Can you please guide me how to go about it?


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