The Changing Landscape Of MBA Applicant Expectations

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In the classic 1981 hit song “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads, David Byrne famously sings, “And you may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’” This lyric resonates deeply with my current personal experience as a student over the age of 50 pursuing an MBA.

Amidst a cohort of classmates not even born when this song was released, the journey through business school today reveals a fascinating evolution in the expectations and demands of MBA students.

Historical Context and Shifting Demographics

Traditionally, MBA programs have been designed with a particular student in mind: relatively young professionals aiming to catapult their careers and their salaries to the next level. However, recent data from leading educational bodies like GMAC (Graduate Management Admission Council), AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business), and EFMD (European Foundation for Management Development) indicate significant shifts not only in the age but also in value that applicants are looking for from an MBA.

These changes are driven by various factors, including increased career longevity, the rapid pace of technological change, and a greater emphasis on diverse and sustainable business practices. According to GMAC’s 2022 Application Trends Survey, the demand for business education remains robust, but there’s a noticeable increase in older applicants who, like myself, are returning to education to either pivot their careers or deepen their existing knowledge and skills. What this all means is that applicants are considering the value of an MBA more holistically and taking into consideration a wide range of potential benefits.

Changing Expectations

The landscape of business education has transformed dramatically with the advent of digital technology, new non-business school entrants, the after effects of the pandemic and changing preferences on where and how to work and study. Applicants now expect a blend of flexibility, cutting-edge technology, and tailored learning experiences. They seek programs that offer not just theoretical knowledge but also practical, hands-on learning, integrating tools like AI into the curriculum.

AACSB’s 2021 report highlights a trend towards more customized and specialized MBA programs, responding to the demand for skills in sectors like digital marketing, e-commerce, and sustainable business practices. Applicants are looking not only for academic rigor but also for programs that align closely with their career aspirations and values, particularly around corporate responsibility and ethics.

Lifelong Learning and Continuous Education

As someone who has entered an MBA program later in life, I’ve noticed a marked difference in how education is approached today. The ethos of lifelong learning is more pronounced, and there is a significant emphasis on staying current with emerging business trends and technologies. EFMD’s insights suggest that modern MBA candidates, regardless of age, expect their education to keep them relevant in a rapidly evolving job market. Traditionally, business schools have not always been the most agile of organisations and can be slow to react. With the pace of change that we have seen in the last few years, schools are actively adapting their MBA programs to ensure that the learning is up to date and keeping in touch with what both graduates and employers are looking for.

In my own recent experience, stepping out of my comfort zone has been crucial, particularly in quantitative subjects like statistics, finance, and even aspects of marketing that involved data analysis. The challenge has not just been in acquiring new knowledge but in adapting to new ways of learning—embracing digital tools for note-taking and collaboration, which were non-existent when I first attended university.

Networking and Collaborative Learning

Today’s MBA programs place a huge emphasis on the power of networking and collaborative learning. Applicants expect to forge significant connections that will support their career growth. This aspect of the MBA experience is particularly poignant for older students like myself, who must navigate a diverse environment where peers might have drastically different levels of experience and expertise.

In this context, learning from classmates becomes a two-way street. Tapping into the collective pool of knowledge from diverse backgrounds—be it finance, marketing, or organizational behavior—is invaluable. I learned the hard way that independence is essential, but so is asking for help and leveraging the expertise around you.

The Future?

Reflecting on my ongoing MBA journey, the phrase “you don’t know what you don’t know” rings especially true. The landscape of business education is continuously evolving, with MBA programs increasingly tailored to meet the varied needs of a diverse student body. This includes not only fresh graduates but also seasoned professionals seeking to update their skills or change their career trajectories.

The expectation now is not just to learn but to adapt, innovate, and apply knowledge in real-time scenarios, preparing for a business world that is perpetually in flux. Whether it’s through advanced technologies, enhanced collaborative projects, or a stronger focus on sustainability and ethics, today’s MBA programs are designed to equip students with the tools they need to navigate and succeed right from the start.

My advice for prospective students is to really consider the holistic value of an MBA. Yes, it is of course important to look at traditional metrics like salaries or job placement rates, but also how does any programme help shape well-rounded, adaptable, and resilient business leaders. The journey through an MBA is as much about personal growth as it is about professional development, echoing the timeless words of David Byrne, yet proving that it’s not quite “same as it ever was.”

Dean Outerson is ambassador and writer-in-residence at Sasin School of Management, a collaboration between Chulalongkorn University, the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University, and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He is also president of the Thai-Canadian Chamber of Commerce (CanCham Thailand) in Bangkok, Thailand.

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