690 GMAT. 3.9 undergraduate GPA. 4 years of work experience.
You can’t control the class profile data of your target schools, but you can choose one number: cohort size. While the class metrics are key to evaluating your likelihood of being accepted, the cohort size is critical to predicting what type of experience you’ll enjoy in the program.
In my own admissions journey, small class size was a top priority. I’d previously felt lost in the crowd at the University of Tennessee among the 4,000+ other undergraduates in my class. While I eventually found footing in a small, specialized business program, I wanted my graduate experience to be more focused from the outset — mirroring the closer relationships and improved exposure to resources that I enjoyed as an upperclassman.
As an MBA, I wanted to genuinely know my all of classmates, enjoy personalized, frequent coaching from a career advisor, and feel comfortable and confident having one-on-one chats with professors. With acceptances to the small programs at Emory (Goizueta), Vanderbilt (Owen), and Ohio State (Fisher), I ultimately picked Georgia Tech (Scheller) to start my MBA with 85 other students.
One year into the program, I’m convinced that the reality of a small cohort is the MBA world’s best-kept secret. But it’s time this secret got out.
My MBA experience started on August 6th. By the end of Orientation on August 17th, I knew everyone’s name and a little bit about them. As my fellow classmate Neel said in his one-minute intro, ‘I was so happy to have 85 new best friends who had no say in the matter!’
After those initial two weeks, I had already closely bonded with my core team and found fellow pop culture and trivia fans at Scheller (A special shout to our impassioned #movies Slack channel for crying through A Star Is Born in the theater together and panning Bohemian Rhapsody early enough for me to avoid the ticket price (don’t get me started on its maddening Oscar wins!).
Along with an immediate sense of belonging, getting to know everyone quickly was helpful for academic and professional purposes. I can’t tell you how many times my classmates came out of interview rooms and shared tips on how to navigate specific case questions or personalities of the interviewers – or lack thereof. A warning of, “Don’t be thrown – the first guy doesn’t smile at all,” saved me from floundering in one particular interview.
When you personally know the other people going through the same stressful experience, the collective spirit of a tight-knit community is a huge relief. To make sure this benefit wasn’t unique to my experience, I checked in with a member of our newest cohort still in the first-semester fog of core curriculum.
“Being in a small MBA program really helped get my feet under me,” current first-year James Farmer told me. “From the get-go, it was easy to find which classmates were strong in challenging courses like Accounting and Finance and willing to help during stressful case weeks. At the same time, my classmates got to know me quickly enough in our first few weeks to suggest events and opportunities at the National Black MBA Conference that they knew I was a match for.”
After checking the cohort size of an MBA program, be sure to also investigate the student-to-career advisor ratio. Considering most MBA students’ primary goal is to get their dream job, having an engaged coach in your corner is key to success. Your career advisor can become one-part trainer, one-part therapist to both drill you with interview prep and help you rebuild your confidence after your inevitable first employer ghosting. You’re not a real MBA candidate until you’re paralyzed with self-doubt about how many follow-up emails to send!
What I love most about Georgia Tech’s Jones MBA Career Center is how the staff operates as a team to help students navigate unique paths. Given the size of our program, our assigned advisors often connect us with their peer advisors for specific industry expertise or company interview insight. This ego-free flexibility means that students get individualized attention and custom coaching plans. All the one-to-one conversations at smaller schools often add up to post-MBA employment percentages that routinely rival, if not exceed, the levels that the big boys brag about.
Additionally, the smaller program size means our advisors have time to go beyond the on-campus recruiting (OCR) roster and get familiar with the unique target companies of their advisees. This time last year, I applied to a non-OCR internship and used the job posting for my mock interviews. I walked in for my mock experience and was surprised that my advisor had prepared company- and role-specific questions to challenge me. Thanks to that personalized preparation, I landed the internship and will return to that same company after graduation.
You’re coming back to school, so this part is easy: what do you prefer for an academic setting? When I was considering program sizes, I thought back to my undergraduate days and how much I scrolled through Facebook during class in the 800-person auditoriums. I knew I performed better and learned more in smaller classrooms thanks to discussion-based methods and accessible, supportive professors.
What I didn’t think about was the benefit of close classmate relationships in the classroom setting. Given the gauntlet of first-semester core classes, the ability to ask for help was key to surviving until December and beyond. I did my fair share of that throughout the first year. It was only slightly awkward to ask for help in Finance, a class I had intentionally forgotten about for the nine previous years. It was far more uncomfortable to admit to my peers that I, a proven marketer, had messed up so badly on my marketing assignment that the professor gave me back pity points. The ultimate A’s in both classes were only possible due to my willingness to be vulnerable around the classmates who lifted me up.
This vulnerability is also key in classes like the core Ethics class or the Gender, Race, and Ethnicity elective, where you run the risk of sharing controversial thoughts. Knowing you have your classmates’ grace and patience to work out thoughts out loud helps everyone broaden their perspectives and better prepare for the (hopefully) increasingly diverse workplaces of the future.
Okay, fine. It’s only fair to itemize a few drawbacks of a smaller program. One element to ask about during Admissions visits is course selection. With fewer full-time students, certain electives may be restricted to evening time slots to maximize enrollment from both the daytime and evening MBA populations.
Speaking of evening (and executive) MBA students, these are your new friends too! With a smaller full-time program, you will have a smaller full-time alumni base. However, programs like Scheller encourage a “One MBA” approach to connect students and alumni across all programs through shared social and professional activities. This is especially beneficial considering the Evening students next to you in class have actual jobs and hiring capabilities themselves!
But what about clubbing? Extracurriculars, that is! Sure, a smaller school doesn’t have the population needed to sustain niche clubs. However, in my experience, a smaller program gives you a bigger seat at the table with deans and other college leaders to implement the desires and interests of your classmates overall. While I am officially a student leader of merely one Scheller club, my program’s collaborative nature makes it possible for me to influence activities throughout the MBA ecosystem. This week, I’ve been back-and-forth with the social committee planning a trivia night I’ve dreamt up. Am I on the social committee? Nope. Do I get to help organize a social? Yep!
Big or small, understanding the experiential realities of cohort size is critical when choosing an MBA program. Day in and day out as a student, you’ll think more about the support you receive from your classmates, career advisors, and professors than you will about how you stack up in the GMAT or GPA ranks.
Jasmine Howard, a Tennessee native and marketing strategist, is a second-year MBA candidate at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business. Each month, she offers advice, pro tips, and life hacks for the emerging challenges of today’s evolving MBA world.
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P.S. Future freebie answer for my classmates reading this: “White Christmas” was the Best Original Song Oscar winner for… Holiday Inn.
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