MBA Programs That Students Love Most

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business

LOWKEY NOTES EVENT GIVES ASSOCIATE DEAN “GOOSEBUMPS”

This experience also hinges on several signature events at the school. For many Stanford GSB alumni, arduous quant classes, such as Peter DiMarza’s Corporate Financial Modeling or the late Jack McDonald’s Investment Management and Entrepreneurial Finance served as the hallmark of their experience because they stretched them. Others will point to “Touchy Feely” or H. Irving Grousbeck’s Managing Difficult Conversations as turning points, where a supportive community helped them gain self-awareness and develop soft skills. In Feinberg’s experience, students often come away truly transformed from LOWkey Notes.

The course is based on Stanford GSB’s motto, “Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.” Similar to the school’s vaunted TALK events, LOWkey Notes is a time where students prep a keynote presentation with the help of coaches on what they’re passionate about – and the struggles they’ve faced along the way to Stanford.

“I was there last week and I had goosebumps,” Feinberg admits. “It was tremendously moving – not only the magnitude of challenges that students are willing and able to confront, but the powerful openness that students had as well.”

WHY DARDEN STUDENTS WANT CLASSMATES TO GIVE THEM “THE BIRD”

For Wilcox, the first year core – a year-long, integrated event – is the signature experience because it builds a camaraderie like no other. At Darden, first years are broken into five sections, A-E. Here, he says, the sections are formulated to balance the experience and diversity within them. However, each section is also assigned a specific classroom, which is used for the entire year.

“They own the physical space of the classroom,” Wilcox explains. “They take all of their courses together with that same group of 60+ students. Professors even come to their classroom. That builds camaraderie among the students, a sense of ownership of the physical space because they stay there. Each section even decorates their classroom and have their own customs.”

What does he mean by customs? One of the most distinct customs is maintained by Section B – the home of “The Bird,” a stuffed animal that bears a strikingly similarity to Big Bird. Think of it as a week-long reward, one that is given to the student who makes the most insightful comment during the week (as voted by the students).

First year Darden classroom

“The bird is much beloved,” Wilcox asserts. “It’s like that gnome. I’m not making this up: People bring the bird to weddings. They take pictures and there’s the bird with the wedding party. Sometimes, other sections try to steal the bird. It has been captured and held for ransom at points. Luckily, no violence has ever occurred.”

STUDENTS RUN EVERYTHING AT DARDEN

That’s not the only ‘bird’ making its home in Section B. The class also houses a Styrofoam finger – think ‘We’re #1’ – that section mates give to the student who didn’t get involved enough in case discussions the previous week. This bird is more of a motivator, not to mention an invitation for professors to cold call the student who possesses it.

Such customs are central to the Darden culture. “The professors just go along because it is a norm set by the section themselves,” Wilcox adds. “These sections develop their own traditions. Because they are in the same physical space and with each other all the time, the emotional connections among the students are quite strong. That’s part of the experience here. When people come back to the reunions 20-30 years later, they sit with their section mates.”

The physical locations of Darden and Stanford also play into their cultures. Located in Charlottesville, home to Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia has traditionally leaned towards student self-governance – a staple of the Jeffersonian ideal. The result, says Wilcox, is that Darden students tend to run everything. Notably, student clubs are given wider latitude and authority. For example, the clubs – not the career center – hold the lists of potential candidates for recruiters. Students also fund and govern all of the extracurricular activities and events. “It’s their money and their rules,” Wilcox says.

Such responsibilities prepare students to handle the dirty details of management. This approach, coupled with case rigor, translates into an advantage for Darden students after graduation, says Wilcox. “The case method is, I think, superior for adult learners because it puts them in ambiguous situations and asks them to make a decision, something they practice in their extracurriculars too. At Darden, by the time they go out and get a job, they’ve done this hundreds of times and that’s a different skill set than reproducing the technical details of a lecture. I think it is more real world and hopefully that shows through.”

Stanford University Graduate School of Business – Ethan Baron photo

A PLACE FOR FAMILY

Location also boosts the student satisfaction rate at Stanford too. Palo Alto, for one, enjoys a sunny Mediterranean climate with cool breezes and below average rain. Not surprisingly, their student body is known for being laid back and highly active. The program is also centered in the Silicon Valley tech startup ecosystem. As a result, Feinberg says, the faculty can quickly develop innovative content and attract world class speakers since top leadership and research figures are often a 10-15 minute drive away. However, the California culture also balances this strong individualism with a sentiment that identity should be celebrated in a broader context.

“GSB is the place where you can bring who you are to the experience,” Feinberg says. “It is also the place where you discover what you can be. When students are able to be authentic, bring their passion and be supported by their community – expressing that passion and achieving a goal based on their passion – that’s something that really cuts across classes and experiences.”

For Wilcox, the appeal of Darden comes down to a different word, but a similar virtue: Family. “Everyone knows each other. It is a stretch place; we push people but at the same time, we’re highly supportive. We’ve had tremendous success with students.”

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Go to Page 4 to see student and alumni survey scores given to 25 top MBA programs on student satisfaction.