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How business schools are making their MBA programs more practical

Practical MBA

The phrase “practical MBA” seems somewhat redundant. For, if it is not practical, what good is an MBA? However, the fact is that MBA curricula at many business schools are so rooted in classroom academics—with a surfeit of lectures on theories and concepts—that they seem to have forgotten to teach their students what to do at their future workplaces.

Concerned about the disconnect between what is taught to MBA students and what organizations require from them after they graduate and are hired, professors and corporate leaders have long been urging schools not to lose sight of the importance of preparing their students for the real world.

They seem to say: “By all means, expose your students to cutting-edge research, but also teach them the practice of business and familiarize them with actual situations that they might face in their future workplaces.” Recruiters have also been asking schools to produce employable managers with useful ideas and skills.

Leaving school to learn

Many schools have heeded their advice. For example, Tuck Dartmouth gives students a wide range of experiential learning opportunities: to name a few, a first-year project, where teams of five students apply classroom learning to business challenges of corporations; onsite global consulting, in which students work with companies and non-profits outside the US; and community consulting, in which students connect with local businesses.

The Columbia Business School has taken practical MBA initiatives such as the Non-profit Board Leadership Program that enable students to gain experience and work on projects using their MBA skills. These experiential learning programs are student-driven and provide students with opportunities to manage and also participate in them.

At Virginia Darden, international and domestic field experiences, leadership programs, consulting projects, and innovation and entrepreneurship are a major part of experiential learning. Electives also offer opportunities for practical study. A former student says he uses problem-solving skills he picked up at Darden when faced with challenges at his workplace.

Berkeley Haas hones students’ leadership skills through a required experiential learning course. Electives such as emerging markets and high-tech marketing also help make students fit for employment as managers.

Some b-schools use innovative facilities and techniques to prepare their students for future challenges. The College of Business at Florida State University uses a business simulation lab that allows students to predict the implications of decisions taken in one department of a company on other departments and on the company’s bottom line. In addition, tips from events such as sales pitch competitions help students make their case at meetings with potential investors and clients when they start to work.

Fresh approaches

The top b-schools have their own centers of excellence that help students keep pace with developments in the business world and its requirement for innovative ideas. The Harvard Business School’s Innovation Lab allows students to nurture entrepreneurship and innovation. Wharton’s Innovation Lab and Innovation Fund support ideas that could make a substantial impact on business and the larger society. Stanford GSB runs a Center for Social Innovation that develops leaders who can find innovative solutions to the toughest social and environment problems.

Michigan Ross has taken experiential learning to a new level, according to Poets&Quants. Instead of simply assigning teams of students to companies for projects, Ross tries to get businesses involve its students in transformational corporate projects. Cornell Johnson, realizing the need for the practical MBA, has updated its core curriculum based on feedback from CEOs and alumni. The new core now addresses the needs of employers much more than ever before.

As US News and Bloomberg Businessweek recruiter surveys show, Chicago Booth and MIT Sloan are precious sources of MBAs for recruiters, because these schools’ programs stress experiential learning. Sloan provides an educational experience that can ensure success for its students in a world that depends more and more on technology

INSEAD offers its MBA students a practical program by exposing them to unfamiliar business practices and cultural nuances, using a learning environment that includes many students and faculty from outside France. The school thus prepares students for important overseas positions where they would need to work in various professional settings along with team members from different backgrounds.

Northwestern’s Kellogg has introduced experiential learning through courses and labs such as the Asset Management Practicum, private equity and venture labs, analytical consulting lab, and risk lab. NYU Stern has initiated industry immersion programs, such as investment banking immersions and consulting mentoring immersion, in which alums at sponsoring companies impart specific industry knowledge to students.

Extended internships

At least a few MBA programs provide their students with extended internships with companies. For example, the MBA Corporate Residency program at Dalhousie University, Canada, with an eight-month internship, offers graduates intensive immersion in the corporate world. The program planners felt that the traditional MBA courses weren’t adequate, reports Financial Post. Employers also felt that although students were well-equipped from a technical viewpoint, they didn’t have the practical skills that managers need on the job every day. The extended internship bridges the gap.

Some schools have been able to equip students with practical experience in various countries. For example, the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Management in British Columbia, Vancouver as well as others such as the ESSEC Business School and the Grenoble School of Management, both in France, expose their MBA students to business environments in India, Singapore, and China through immersion programs at corporate houses.

The Australian Institute of Business, Adelaide, uses the “Work Applied Learning” model, says a blog on the school’s website. The WAL model recognizes the workplace “as a crucible of learning for change,” as described by the Global Center for Work Applied Learning. The WAL model finds out how managers can introduce change in their workplace, and includes concepts such as action research, action learning, and work-based learning.

A few years ago, the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, Canada, launched an MBA project to help students familiarize themselves with the corporate culture in the city. Its Capstone Course is designed to throw students into the deep end of the pool, but under the guidance of professors. Students work in companies and try to implement what they have learned in their classrooms.

The Laurier School of Business and Economics in Ontario, Canada, allows its students to apply the theories they have learned through its “integrated applied research project.” Students get a chance to work as consultants for businesses, not-for-profits, and government agencies. Companies that have been helped by these students include Nike and Walmart, says a Financial Post article.

The practical skills gained from an MBA program are leadership skills, from project work and presentations; risk management skills from risk management and analysis courses; interpersonal and public-speaking skills, from presentations and one-on-one and group discussions; project/time management skills, from project and from the curriculum courses; and technical skills, from business software and programs

Tad Brinkerhoff Tad Brinkerhoff – Director of the Illinois MBA, Gies College of Business, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – shared with MBA Crystal Ball some initiatives that make the program more practical.

1. Integrated Action Learning:

Students at the University of Illinois’s MBA program participate in action learning as part of the core curriculum. Students tackle live business problems here in the US as well as internationally. They also have the opportunity to consider business problems focused on corporate social responsibility. Students also choose to participate in the Illinois Business Consulting projects with others from across campus working side by side with engineers, law students and any other major you can imagine as different perspectives come together to solve problems.

2. Case Competitions

University of Illinois MBA students participate in case competitions. With leadership provided by a student-led Case Competition Committee, competitions from across the globe are coordinated and coached with the goal of improving analytical skills, industry knowledge, presentation prowess, and corporate exposure. Along the way, we hope students will get job offers from organizations that are sponsoring these competitions. The goal is to have 100% of Illinois MBA students participate in a national or international competition by the year 2020. We are getting close to that goal. We also plan to host an All Illinois MBA case competition in 2018 and an MBA Vets National Case Competition in 2019.


3. Alumni connections

The Gies College of Business has one of the largest alumni bases of any business school in the country. With that asset, the MBA program holds a number of events to connect current MBA students with experienced and successful alumni. The events include on-campus Mix and Mingles and City Treks to Chicago, Dallas, and Seattle to name a few, Career Fair dinners in cities across the country and The Three Illini program that combines alumni with a 1styear and a 2nd year MBA all focused on career development. Illini work together and our alumni stay connected.


Change isn’t easy

Some time ago, the Association of Business Schools (ABS) published a report that pointed out the need to incorporate more practice in b-school courses and suggested other areas for improvement. But making a change is easier said than done, because of academic culture and history and the fact that a high number of staff have academic qualifications rather than industry experience, according to

The ABS has found that a large majority of employers in the UK believe that MBA graduates would be more employable if corporate experience was part of b-school curricula. Many companies find hiring high-quality managers difficult because MBA graduates lack practical knowledge and skill.

A Harvard Business Review article published in 2014 argued that b-schools had become increasingly disconnected from practice. According to the authors, this was because professors spent most of their time pursuing research that was interesting and scientifically novel but often irrelevant to students and their eventual employers. The authors said research helped professors publish articles in journals that brought them the regard of their peers and incentives from their universities but did not necessarily benefit entrepreneurs, investors, or managers.

Business experts feel b-schools and MBA professors should focus not on research but on providing students with skills that they could use for the benefit of their eventual employers.

Also read:
How business schools bring innovation to their classrooms
How business schools are helping students with families

Resources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 | Image credit:

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5 thoughts on “How business schools are making their MBA programs more practical”

  1. UBC Sauder is in British Columbia, Vancouver not France. While UBC has a Global Immersion Experience, I’m assuming you were referring to EDHEC in France. They send their students to Singapore, Paris, London, and SA annually.

  2. Hi Emike, thanks for pitching in.

    Seems like the sentence structure added some ambiguity, which we’ve fixed. We included UBC, since it offers the global consulting experience as part of their Global Immersion Experience.

    And we were referring to ESSEC based on a student’s quote in this article which we’ve included in the list of resources.

    As you’ve mentioned, I’d assume other schools like EDHEC offer similar opportunities.

  3. Hi,
    My Name is Amit and I wanted to purse MBA from Harvard but the worst part is that I don’t have good academic score means 80+, nor I am an IITian,but I have work experience of 4 years HCL technologies and one international exposure from reputed university and will try to score enough what Harvard consider for GMAT ,is it possible for me to get into Harvard}??

  4. Hey Sameer,

    Just gone through your wonderful article. Thanks a lot for the insights.!

    I left my job 6 months ago (even after getting 2 promotions within 21 months) to focus on my start-up idea along with working part-time in Government Employment Office but changed my plans to go for MBA from abroad.

    How does it affects my profile?


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