The People’s Choice: The Most Popular MBA Programs

INSEAD students celebrating being ranked as the world’s top MBA program by The Financial Times in 2017 

Business school involves more than delving into Porter’s Five Forces or the Discounted Cash Flow Model. It is a platform to explore, test, and evaluate. It is a repetitive process that hones an MBA’s ability to simplify and solve. That’s particularly true at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business – a program designed to teach MBAs how to think instead of what to think.

This approach struck home for Stacey Kole, Booth’s deputy dean for MBA programs, at a presentation given by Brady Dougan. The then-CEO of Credit Suisse, Dougan noted when he headed the firm’s investment banking arm, 80% of its revenue came from products that didn’t exist when he was a Booth MBA student in the early 1980s. However, he could navigate these shifts because the “how” was instilled in him at Booth.


“The only reason I knew how to value them – or fully understand what they were – is that at the University of Chicago I learned how to think about markets and business transactions,” Kole recalls Dougan saying. “So it is very natural for me to be comfortable in changing marketplaces, dynamic settings, and ambiguity because I know how to think about messy situations.”

The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business — Photo by John A. Byrne

That thinking, Kole emphasizes, includes understanding the fundamental issues behind every challenge, including psychology, economics, and statistical probabilities. While cases can be a valuable tool, Kole acknowledges, they don’t necessarily prepare students for an increasingly complex and dynamic marketplace that is impossible to anticipate.

“The only way we could prepare students in the 80s and 90s to know what to do with the internet or e-commerce is if we taught them why people buy products, how companies market, or the channels they use,” she adds. “Those fundamental concepts then help us understand, yes, the channel has changed to e-commerce, but how does that really change what I learned? Our objective is to teach students how to think.


INSEAD takes a different tact with its students. A 10-month program, learning is naturally compressed – and intense. This intensity simulates a pace and a set of choices that MBAs will immediately encounter after graduation.

These are students who learn how to prioritize and understand the benefits and liabilities of making certain decisions,” explains Katy Montgomery, associate dean of degree programs at INSEAD.I hate the word Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). They have to experience FOMO, but they are also learning JOMO – the Joy of Missing out. Those are really hard lessons to learn. Do you step away? Do you not take on this? Or, do you say, “Yes, it’s going to be tight for the next few months, but it is going to be really important that I do X, Y, and Z.”

In other words, INSEAD MBAs are exposed to the speed of business and volume of responsibilities that come with it. For INSEAD alumni, this environment has enabled them to quickly adjust to what is expected of them as graduates. “I’ve been in Beijing and talking to people who are in these amazing startups that are growing exponentially and they say, ‘Nothing could’ve better prepared me than INSEAD. I know when to be on all cylinders. I know when to take on more. I know when it is important to step back.’ That’s a very invaluable lesson to learn by age 30.”


Chicago Booth Dean of MBA Programs Stacey Kole

Stacey Kole, deputy dean of MBA programs at Chicago Booth

The approaches at Chicago Booth and INSEAD may differ, but few could argue with the results. Booth is renowned for academic rigor, a culture of experimentation where students choose their own classes for the most part. “We try things out,” Kole shares. “If they don’t work, we let them go. We’re very data-driven.” In contrast, INSEAD is synonymous with diversity, with 96% of the class hailing from outside France and Singapore. The global nature itself is the experiment as students from 94 countries band together to form a community.

Both schools also rank among this year’s most popular MBA programs according to the annual survey conducted by The Economist. Targeting current students and the most recent graduating class, The Economist asked respondents to score their school satisfaction on a scale of 1-to-5 (with 5 being the highest mark).

This year, Chicago Booth earned the highest mark at 4.65, up .10 of a point over the previous survey. INSEAD also scored high in the 2018 survey, placing 4th at 4.51 – matching its previous year’s score. Overall, IESE Business School finished second at 4.61. The University of Virginia’s Darden School, which was profiled in this category last year, rounded out the Top Three at 4.57.

The scores may be high, but the trend lines point downward. Just compare the 2018 overall satisfaction survey results to those from 2015. Every school scored lower, including Chicago Booth (-.05) and INSEAD (-.20).  Surprisingly, UC-Berkeley Haas experienced the biggest drop (-.32), followed by Emory Goizueta (-.29), Yale SOM (-.28), and Duke Fuqua (-.27) – all student-centered programs where culture is king. That said, many programs have apparently noticed this downturn in satisfaction and taken action. 12 programs scored higher in 2018 than 2017, including Northwestern Kellogg, North Carolina Kenan-Flagler, Notre Dame Mendoza, and Washington Foster.


What sets INSEAD and Chicago Booth apart, at least when it comes to student satisfaction? In INSEAD’s case, Katy Montgomery points to the program’s “dynamic and diverse” learning environment. That starts with the study group. For many, these 5-6 member teams will be the most distinctive group they’ve encountered in their careers. This uniqueness, coupled with the high caliber of their peers, forces INSEAD MBAs to really up their games academically, professionally, and socially.

Early on, Montgomery shares, there is a transition period; students are stepping back and constantly questioning themselves in a milieu where no country is dominant. However, it isn’t just 90 different nationalities that make INSEAD dizzying. INSEAD’s global nature is reinforced by the faculty, who come from over 40 countries. The program also takes pains to include a wide swath of industries and functions in its MBA program. On top of that, the classes boast slightly more experience, with the average age of students ranging from 29-30. Such differences can be uncomfortable – and that’s exactly how INSEAD has set it up to be. Over time, this dissonance is replaced by confidence.

Katy Montgomery, associate dean of degree programs at INSEAD

“You are really being dropped in the middle of a diverse place,” Montgomery observes. “So you are having your assumptions challenged. You are being exposed to ideas or cultures that you might not have ever come across or have experience with. That leads you to learn more and be even more self-aware. We have a classroom that celebrates diversity and differences of opinion. You’re going to feel comfortable to speak up and learn from others.”


That creates a transformational experience for students. “Within that 10 months, you will come out on the other end as a better, more well-rounded person,” Montgomery reveals. “You’re going to have, hands-down, friendships for life with people who are all over the world and who are really focused on making business a force for good. People are here for more than just getting a job; they want to make a real impact.”

Of course, this transformation doesn’t happen by osmosis. It is also spurred by PLDP – the school’s Personal Leadership Development Program. PLDP covers both leadership and career coaching to help students understand their strengths, weaknesses, and purpose. At the same time, coaches offer feedback to study groups to help them communicate more effective. INSEAD’s curriculum further supports this development, as traditional coursework is mixed with a focus on the space where business and society meet.

“We’re really having conversations with students about what does it mean to be thinking about more than shareholders,” adds Montgomery. “They think about stakeholders and what it means to be a strong leader. I see the transformation all the time. It is something where you start to see students have these ‘ah-ha’ moments or become really self-aware of something in themselves.”

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