What You Can Expect
World-class master teachers, arguably the best collection of teaching talent at any business school in the world. Case studies, more than 500 of them over the two-year MBA experience. A rigid lockstep first-year program where students are divided up into five cohorts of 60 students each and together endure an incredibly heavy amount of work thrown at them. An intimate and highly collaborative culture where students genuinely care about each other’s success. And a total enterprise perspective brought to bear on all business challenges and problems.
That’s the mix of things that makes Darden virtually unique among the world’s leading business schools. This is one of the very few premium MBA experiences left in the market, a program that largely revolves around full-time MBA students. No business undergraduates. No part-time evening students. That means the vast amount of the school’s resources are lavished on its relatively small MBA population. Yes, there are two Executive MBA programs and a fairly complete menu of executive education courses that the faculty have to attend to. But Darden keeps the focus on its flagship MBA program.
If you’re sold on case method teaching and you can’t get into Harvard, Darden may well be your next best bet. The only rivals to Darden’s teachers are the profs in the classrooms at Harvard and Dartmouth’s Tuck School–and even those schools don’t have the consistency that Darden profs have in class. In contrast to a lecture-based approach to education, Darden class time is spent discussing cases about actual business problems and potential solutions. Students are exposed to more than 500 cases in a variety of industries and functions during their time at Darden. Make no mistake about it: Darden’s first year is like a true boot camp. It throws more work at MBA students than most other schools by far. Even a recent McKinsey analyst who worked horrendously long hours as a consultant for the firm before coming to Darden was surprised by how heavy the workload is.
Dean Robert Bruner, who has led the school for 10 years and will step down on Aug. 1 of 2015, calls it “high-engagement” learning. “This is not a passive learning experience,” says Bruner who will be succeeded by McKinsey & Co. senior partner Scott Beardsley. “It’s not two years spent in a lecture hall, taking notes, and occasionally writing exams. Every day and every class, you’re in the mix; you’re engaged in discussion, presenting ideas, defending ideas, and providing recommendations.” That’s also a reason why international applicants must score higher in their English language skills than at many other business schools.
Students must be prepared to discuss three cases per day. This means taking a night off from studying is unthinkable as they are always at risk of being cold called by a professor during class. Classes are held from 8 a.m. until 1:20 p.m. Monday through Thursday with Friday’s off. Afternoons are spent on club or recruiting events and case reading. In the early evening, students meet in their assigned learning teams–which stay together throughout the first-year core, to prep for the next day’s classes.
Class time is spent discussing cases about actual business problems and coming up with potential solutions. And a key and rather stressful component of the MBA program here is the “cold call.” Derek Rey, a Class of 2015 graduate, describes it as a rite of passage. It’s when the professor selects a student who is expected to lay out a business decision that needs to be made in the particular case. That student is then expected to walk through his methodology and assumptions regarding the business decision, and he is then expected to field a series of questions from the professor and classmates that will move the discussion forward.
Rey, who had been a captain in the U.S. Marines, says he had been exposed to his fair share of stressful situations, but the cold calls always challenged him. “I fumbled through a couple of cold calls during the first year core curriculum with varying degrees of confidence,” he recalls, “but my most memorable moment at Darden was the day that I finally knew that I knocked a cold call out of the park. It was during the very last term of my first year in my Valuation class. I got the cold call, and was very well-prepared for what happened next. I was able to walk the class through the problem, my methodology, and was even able to field questions afterwards. This was the turning point of my first year. It gave me a level of confidence that would carry me through my summer internship and through my second year until graduation.”
That’s why Darden is an optimal choice not only for students who want to sharpen their business skills, but for those who are also looking to hone their communication and oral presentation skills. Recruiters say Darden grads make for good “front office” people. People whom they can put in front of a client or in front of a customer fairly quickly after they’ve been on the job. Darden grads are also highly regarded for their ability to write and articulate ideas effectively and can be trusted to give an effective presentation to senior management.
Incoming students in the fall of 2015 will be guinea pigs for a new refresh of the MBA program. The school is offering new students the chance to come to school early for a Darden-Before-Darden Camp, an eight-day orientation of sorts to help newbies thrive in a case study environment. There will be intensive sessions on accounting basics, Excel, and other topics critical to a fast start. But mostly, the school will attempt to “level-up” the poets with the quants.
“We just have learned that people who don’t start well struggle through the first half of the year so this is one way to get everyone up to speed,” explains Peter Rodriguez, senior associate dean for degree programs. “Students wanted a one-week, cohort-based program to get some level-up skills. The ones who start cold on day one report that it is hard to get their footing. We want to make sure they know how to prepare for a case study class, how to ask questions and then debrief what was learned from the discussion.”
The bigger change is the addition of a required experiential learning course, essentially a team-based project with a company, government agency or non-profit, in the fourth and final quarter of the first year. The mandatory exercise replaces one elective and is called “Innovation, Design and Entrepreneurship In Action” (IDEA). Though many schools have put such experiential courses in their MBA programs, Darden’s approach will be somewhat different. Instead of having different projects for all of the student teams, Darden will assign five or six teams the same challenge, effectively putting them in competition with each other. All told, the school expects to sign up 10 to 15 organizations for the global projects that will be undertaken next year.
To make room for the new seven-week course, the school has had to rearrange its academic calendar, pulling back to four terms from five to provide slightly more time to do an outside project. Rodriguez offered a couple of examples of what a project might entail: “It could be Best Buy trying to find a way to recycle batteries or Spotify attempting to compete with Apple. We want it to be a live project for the firm and we can do in a fixed period of time. The students will work in groups and have presentations to the faculty and leadership of the companies.”
The final alternation to the MBA program is the addition of a weekly session on Tuesdays during the entire first year called the Darden Academy to discuss contemporary issues and prep for the experiential project. Though not required, the course’s scheduling makes it likely to get strong attendance because it will fall in the heart of the weekly calendar for first years.
The school also boasts a highly collaborative culture that resolves around a ritual famous at the school: First Coffee, a time when the entire Darden community is invited to the PepsiCo Forum for free coffee, tea and conversation at 9:30 a.m. every week day. All the first-year students converge there along with at least half the second-years daily and a good number of faculty and staff. When Dean Bruner is in town (he travels 150 days on behalf of the school), he’s there, too. So, while Darden students are challenged profusely, the Darden custom is for students to lift together as they climb. “We have norms and values at Darden that discourage people trying to get ahead by climbing over the backs of others. We encourage people to teach one another and to bring each other along,” Dean Bruner says.
The school is also ideal for students who don’t wish to limit themselves to a specific concentration. Unlike finance schools such as Columbia or a Wharton, Darden’s curriculum is general management allowing students to explore different facets of business without being pegged to just one discipline. Darden’s first year program and required curriculum provide students with a solid foundation in global business leadership. The integrated curriculum — wherein the same or similar cases are used in several different courses and more than one discipline — illustrates how all areas work together and influence one another. The electives in the second year of the MBA program allow students to explore new possibilities and develop more depth in chosen areas of expertise.
The knocks on the program from recent students are telling. Some MBAs say the school should have a mandatory international experience. It doesn’t. Some complain that there is a lack of cultural diversity at the school (though Darden has more recently increased the percentage of international students at the school to 36% from under 30%) and that it’s relatively remote location impacts Darden’s ability to attract a broader and more diverse range of corporate recruiters.
As one Class of 2014 graduate told BusinessWeek’s survey team: “The location is beautiful but semi-remote, making it challenging for some firms to recruit for internship or full time opportunities. The alumni network is strong and proactive, but firms unfamiliar with the program have stated that they do not recruit on campus because of the location. I was impressed with the quantity and caliber of firms recruiting on campus; it is mostly smaller firms outside of the East Coast that do not recruit on campus.”