MBA Orientations – A Choreographed Dance, Guitar Smashing Good Time

Vanderbilt students participated in a songwriting team building exercise during orientation. Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University. Learn about the Owen School of Business orientation

Vanderbilt students participated in a songwriting team building exercise during orientation. Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University.

There seems to be an ugly stereotype going around about MBA students. To the cynical naysayers and the envious, they are an overly ambitious and ruthless bunch, insensitive mongers hell-bent on the bottom line. They are in anxious pursuit of affluence, success and prestigious careers. It’s the typical harsh indictment delivered by people who aren’t in the know.

The truth is (as many readers here know), MBA students are an unusually eclectic group. They have different passions, interests and talents. And the schools that will be training them for the next couple years believe the same. So much so, that they are providing ways for newbie students to express their generous and creative selves through van array of unusual orientation activities.

At almost every business school, orientation is as much about setting a tone for the MBA experience as it is pure indoctrination into modern day professional life.

When it comes for setting the stage for creative expression, the school from the Songwriting Capital of the World takes top accolades. Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management‘s orientation included writing and recording a song. After a request from new dean, Eric Johnson to include another team building exercise, associate director of admissions, Suzanne Feinstein said the orientation team saw an opportunity to give new Nashville residents a real Nashville experience.

Feinstein and team reached out to local team building and songwriting company, KidBilly Music. The 268 students at orientation were divided into 12 teams of around 20 and let loose channeling their inner-Johnny Cash. Each team wrote a song about a new beginning at Owen.

The session concluded with teams performing their songs and was highlighted by choreographed dance moves and a smashed plastic, prop guitar.

“The key factor in this exercise was getting people to feel uncomfortable,” says first-year student, Jackson Gillespie. “There can be a lot of uncomfortable situations in business school and business. It was good to get out of our comfort zones from the beginning.”

Other first-year student, Ryan Keith shared the sentiments and added the connection of Nashville and the musical culture was a special way to be introduced into the program.


Service projects seem to be an increasingly essential part of MBA orientations. As previously reported, the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business dedicates an entire week to helping underrepresented communities in Detroit through a startup competition between incoming MBA students. Other schools are doing similar, albeit smaller scale projects.

Students and Kenan Flagler build bikes for local youth during orientation. Photo courtesy of Kenan Flagler. Learn more about the Owen School of Business orientation

Students and Kenan-Flagler build bikes for local youth during orientation. Photo courtesy of Kenan Flagler.

At the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business, students spent time building 30 bikes for local youth. Community and teamwork are two of the core values of Kenan-Flagler. Senior associate director of Student Development, Meghan Gosk says the goal of this specific project is to get students connected with opportunities to serve from the get-go.

“We do a lot of work with the service-oriented organizations in our community,” says Gosk. “Students have opportunities ranging from volunteering at various nonprofits to sitting on a board at a nonprofit. This is our unique way to introduce them to this part of our community.”

The students were broken into study groups of 10 and given a bike to assemble. The youth are from next door Global Scholars Academy – a school in which Kenan-Flagler has significantly donated to and chosen based on a “travel the world on a bike” essay.

“Service isn’t an add-on or a feel-good (at Kenan-Flagler), it’s a core value,” says first-year student, Samantha Cunningham. “My classmates, along with the faculty and staff, are embedded in organizations across the region, from charter schools to women’s shelters to Habitat for Humanity. Our class has nurses and rocket scientists and military special forces… there’s no telling how many wild and wonderful ways we’ll find to give back.”

Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management has a similar program in which students put together 80 bikes to be donated to the local Boys and Girls Club.

“Service is at the core of who we are as a Kellogg community,” says Betsy Ziegler, associate dean of MBA programs and dean of students in a prepared statement. “We include service projects like the bicycle build during orientation to expose students to that aspect of our culture from the beginning. Given that we attract high-impact and low-ego professionals, it’s no surprise that incoming classes approach these projects with the same drive and collaborative spirit that make them the world’s top MBAs.”


Other schools design competitions to get their students working together and thinking creatively from the beginning. Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management is famous for its case competition work. It is fitting students are introduced to the program with a case competition. During the first week, students are placed in teams, given a case and then expected to present the next day in front of second year students and alumni.

Finalists are then selected to present to a panel of core faculty and fellow classmates. Then everyone heads to the local watering hole for the announcement of the winning team.

Students at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business have a similar case competition judged by the second year students. Additionally, they conclude the week at the campus outdoor center with a challenge ropes course.

Babson College embraces their 65% international representation by introducing students to MBA StartUp activities. This includes students competing in a two-day simulation. Students are placed in teams and compete in imaginary country markets of varying economic market characteristics. Teams have about four or five rounds of decisions on how to manage team financials. Students are given live results and feedback based on those decisions.

Associate Dean Nan Langowitz says one of the goals of the competition is to get students thinking globally and also realizing their strengths and weaknesses and how to grow from both.

Below is the video from the Owens songwriting experience. Video courtesy of KidBilly Music.


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