The People’s Choice: The Most Popular MBA Programs

Members of Chicago Booth’s Class of 2019


While INSEAD bills itself as the “Business school for the world,” Chicago Booth touts itself as “the most rigorous academic MBA that exists” – in the words of Stacey Kole. Here, students are looking to be taught and come with high expectations for faculty quality and the curriculum as a whole.

“There is a self-selection, no question about that,” Kole admits. “The students who come to Chicago are attracted by the fact that we have these incredible thought leaders who believe their role is to share these ideas with the next generation of leaders. It’s not just research for research sake. They want to change the world and that happens both through their research papers and through teaching their ideas to really talented people who then put those ideas into practice.”

Don’t think of Chicago Booth as a stodgy traditionalist, even if it is America’s second-oldest business school. It is a program steeped in history. Sixty years ago, Booth became the home of the Center for Research in Security Prices, which houses stock market data. Now, its Kilts Center for Marketing has partnered with Nielsen to maintain the world’s largest database of consumer behavior. The school was also the birthplace of groundbreaking research like the Efficient Markets Theory. In popular culture, Booth is even synonymous with the Chicago School of Economics – a hodge-podge of thought leaders whose free market and regulatory philosophies heavily influenced conservative policies.

Chicago Booth students celebrating after class


Booth’s rich history also includes eight Nobel Laureates. Kole notes that Booth’s Dean, Madhav Rajan, is fond of quoting a certain statistic: “We have three active Nobels on our faculty and that is three more than all the other top business schools combined.” One of these laureates, Eugene Fama, has been labeled the “Father of modern finance.” With such accolades, Booth has earned a reputation as a “finance school.” While Kole appreciates the nod to Booth’s academic pedigree, it is an impression that runs counter to what the MBA program is really about.

“The perception of Chicago as a finance school is just wrong. It’s just old. What we are is a data school, an evidence-driven institution that’ll teach students regardless of discipline: how do you bring evidence to bear to make good decisions? That is what students are hungry for.”

Booth’s intensive academic demands have been carefully curated. The same can’t be said about Booth’s “Pay It Forward” culture, which grew more organically through students. Think of it as an obligation that 2nd years feel to help the classmates who come in after them. It is a defining feature of the Booth experience – and the cornerstone of its student-centered culture.


“It’s not because we pay them or we’re watching or counting,” says Stacey Kole. “Each student feels their 2nd-year colleagues helped them so they want to Pay It Forward in the next year. We get student volunteerism around admissions and helping students when they interview for jobs.”

The latter has become a Booth staple. Many 2nd-years post their schedules so peers can meet up for coffee chats around topics like industries, company cultures, and internship advice. “The students are very transparent about who interned or accepted positions at those companies and they will again receive you and tell you what it is really like there,” Kole points out. “Those dialogues inform your choices about how you prepare for interviews and where you choose to take your talents in the future.”

Chicago Booth students at graduation

However, it is mock interviews where Booth 2nd-years truly shine. “Some schools have to pay students to do mock interviews – we’ve never paid a penny and our students do thousands of mock interviews every year,” Kole adds. “Our students understand that part of being a member of this community is supporting one another and helping their colleagues achieve their aspirations.”


That isn’t the only support provided by 2nd-years. Some host Booth Insights, where they gather small clusters of 1st-years to bond and spark honest dialogues on non-business issues like marriage and free speech. Others volunteer for events to help prospective students. In the end, Booth 2nd-years devote more than five hours a week to Pay It Forward activities, says Kole – and that doesn’t include following up after conversations or staying in touch as the year progresses. While Booth 2nd-years are generous with their time, they get plenty back for their service.

“Pay It Forward manifests itself in all sorts of way,” Kole adds. “As they’re paying it forward, they’re improving their leadership skills, developing empathy, and building a network and community that is supportive, constructive, and very positive.”

This mentality stretches past graduation. Chicago-area MBA alumni, for example, host Family Dinners for students to provide support to students. Weekend alumni hold similar dinners in locales like New York City, Houston, and San Francisco. Some alumni have been known to go above-and-beyond to help Booth students tap into their networks.

“We had an alum who, when he was a student, was taken under the wing of another alum,” Kole remembers. “This guy introduced him to his professional network and now the alum wanted to do the same for our students. So he invited 10 students to come to an industry conference and have dinner with his friends the night before. At the end of the conference, they all sat down again to talk about what they’d learned. By the way, the alum didn’t just pay just for the meal, but also their airline tickets and hotel – it didn’t cost the students anything to participate. They left feeling incredibly proud and desirous of the opportunity to do this for someone else when they’re successful.”


University of Chicago’s Hyde Park Campus

Even Booth administration gets into the act. Years ago, Booth students conducted 125 interviews with their peers. From the feedback, Kole and her peers were able to identify those “magic moments” where they could “press the medal on the gas” and rougher moments when students might feel “isolated or confused.” True to the school’s data-driven mindset, Booth used the surveys to carefully plot out the student experience. As a result, they have an understanding of what students are feeling at every point in the journey.

This knowledge spurred the introduction of Vision Retreat, held near graduation, where students slow down to ask themselves where they’re going and how Booth can help them reach that destination. “It is wildly successful, not necessarily because of what we did but we spoke them about something that mattered at the right point in time,” Kole points out.

This same philosophy was the impetus behind the school’s ever-popular Fresh Air Fund. During interview time, Booth leadership noticed that students were more “tightly-wound” and less inclined to leave the building. To combat that, the school placed money on students’ Booth ID…with the caveat that they could spend it at any cafeteria outside the “Booth Bubble.”

“We knew where the students were – they needed to break the monotony of worrying about how the interview went and whether they’d get a callback,” Kole explains. “With the card, we can look on the backend to see where they spent their money. In the 1st week, they’d go across the street to Starbucks. The next week, many would venture two blocks away. By week 3, they were spending their money way across campus and interacting with way more people…which is exactly what they needed at that point in time.”

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.