The Darden MBA: What You Need To Know
At the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, you’ll find world-class master teachers – arguably the best collection of teaching talent at any business school in the world. Case studies, more than 500 of them over the two-year MBA experience. A rigid lockstep first-year program where students are divided up into five cohorts of 60 students each and together endure an incredibly heavy amount of work thrown at them. An intimate and highly collaborative culture where students genuinely care about each other’s success. And a total enterprise perspective brought to bear on all business challenges and problems.
That’s the mix of things that makes Darden virtually unique among the world’s leading business schools. This is one of the very few premium MBA experiences left in the market, a program that largely revolves around full-time MBA students. No business undergraduates. No part-time evening students. That means the vast amount of the school’s resources are lavished on its relatively small MBA population. Yes, there are two Executive MBA programs and a fairly complete menu of executive education courses that the faculty have to attend to. But Darden keeps the focus on its flagship MBA program.
If you’re sold on case method teaching and you can’t get into Harvard, Darden may well be your next best bet. The only rivals to Darden’s teachers are the profs in the classrooms at Harvard and Dartmouth’s Tuck School–and even those schools don’t have the consistency that Darden profs have in class. In contrast to a lecture-based approach to education, Darden class time is spent discussing cases about actual business problems and potential solutions. Students are exposed to some 600 cases in a variety of industries and functions during their time at Darden. Make no mistake about it: Darden’s first year is like a true boot camp. It throws more work at MBA students than most other schools by far. Even a recent McKinsey analyst who worked horrendously long hours as a consultant for the firm before coming to Darden was surprised by how heavy the workload is.
The Darden educational experience, named the best education experience in the U.S. by The Economist for nine years in a row, is best described as “high-engagement” learning. Dean Scott Beardsley, a former senior partner at McKinsey & Co., has doubled down on that experience which includes an expenses-paid international immersion and in the second year more than 100 elective courses from which to choose. Along with admissions chief Dawna Clarke, formerly the admissions director at Dartmouth Tuck, went to extraordinary lengths with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. The school deployed additional need-based aid to MBA students through a hardship fund, added more money to back new scholarship resources, created an administrative team to work with students on their housing needs, and even committed to giving students free lunches each day of class for all first-year students throughout the core curriculum. Second year students also will receive this new meal plan, allowing the classes to come together over meals. And the school has put in place a new summer program offering admitted students early prepartion for their eventual career success.
Make no mistake, however. The Darden core is tough. Students must be prepared to discuss three cases per day. This means taking a night off from studying is unthinkable as they are always at risk of being cold-called by a professor during class. Classes are held from 8 a.m. until 1:20 p.m. Monday through Thursday with Friday’s off. Afternoons are spent on club or recruiting events and case reading. In the early evening, students meet in their assigned learning teams–which stay together throughout the first-year core, to prep for the next day’s classes.
Class time is spent discussing cases about actual business problems and coming up with potential solutions. Because of the case method, Darden is an optimal choice not only for students who want to sharpen their business skills, but for those also looking to hone their communication and oral presentation skills. Recruiters say Darden grads make for good “front office” people. People whom they can put in front of a client or in front of a customer fairly quickly after they’ve been on the job. Darden grads are also highly regarded for their ability to write and articulate ideas effectively and can be trusted to give an effective presentation to senior management.
In the fall of 2015, the school did a new refresh of the MBA program. The school is offering new students the chance to come to school early for a Darden-Before-Darden Camp, an eight-day orientation of sorts to help newbies thrive in a case study environment. There will be intensive sessions on accounting basics, Excel, and other topics critical to a fast start. But mostly, the school will attempt to “level-up” the poets with the quants.
“We just have learned that people who don’t start well struggle through the first half of the year so this is one way to get everyone up to speed,” explains Peter Rodriguez, the former senior associate dean for degree programs. “Students wanted a one-week, cohort-based program to get some level-up skills. The ones who start cold on day one report that it is hard to get their footing. We want to make sure they know how to prepare for a case study class, how to ask questions and then debrief what was learned from the discussion.”
The bigger change is the addition of a required experiential learning course, essentially a team-based project with a company, government agency or non-profit, in the fourth and final quarter of the first year. The mandatory exercise replaces one elective and is called “Innovation, Design and Entrepreneurship In Action” (IDEA). Though many schools have put such experiential courses in their MBA programs, Darden’s approach will be somewhat different. Instead of having different projects for all of the student teams, Darden will assign five or six teams the same challenge, effectively putting them in competition with each other. All told, the school expects to sign up 10 to 15 organizations for the global projects that will be undertaken next year.
To make room for the new seven-week course, the school has had to rearrange its academic calendar, pulling back to four terms from five to provide slightly more time to do an outside project. Rodriguez offered a couple of examples of what a project might entail: “It could be Best Buy trying to find a way to recycle batteries or Spotify attempting to compete with Apple. We want it to be a live project for the firm and we can do it in a fixed period of time. The students will work in groups and have presentations to the faculty and leadership of the companies.”
The final alternation to the MBA program is the addition of a weekly session on Tuesdays during the entire first year called the Darden Academy to discuss contemporary issues and prep for the experiential project. Though not required, the course’s scheduling makes it likely to get strong attendance because it will fall in the heart of the weekly calendar for first-years.
The school also boasts a highly collaborative culture that revolves around a ritual famous at the school: First Coffee, a time when the entire Darden community is invited to the PepsiCo Forum for free coffee, tea, and conversation at 9:30 a.m. every weekday. All the first-year students converge there along with at least half the second-years daily and a good number of faculty and staff. When Dean Beardsley is in town, he’s there, too. So, while Darden students are challenged profusely, the Darden custom is for students to lift together as they climb. “We have norms and values at Darden that discourage people from trying to get ahead by climbing over the backs of others. We encourage people to teach one another and to bring each other along,” says Professor Robert Bruner, a long-time fixture at the school..
The school is also ideal for students who don’t wish to limit themselves to a specific concentration. Unlike finance schools such as Columbia or a Wharton, Darden’s curriculum is general management allowing students to explore different facets of business without being pegged to just one discipline. Darden’s first-year program and required curriculum provide students with a solid foundation in global business leadership. The integrated curriculum — wherein the same or similar cases are used in several different courses and more than one discipline — illustrates how all areas work together and influence one another. The electives in the second year of the MBA program allow students to explore new possibilities and develop more depth in chosen areas of expertise.
The knocks on the program from recent students are telling. Some complain that there is a lack of cultural diversity at the school (though Darden has more recently increased the percentage of international students at the school to 36% from under 30%) and that it’s relatively remote location impacts Darden’s ability to attract a broader and more diverse range of corporate recruiters.
As one Class of 2014 graduate told BusinessWeek’s survey team: “The location is beautiful but semi-remote, making it challenging for some firms to recruit for internship or full-time opportunities. The alumni network is strong and proactive, but firms unfamiliar with the program have stated that they do not recruit on campus because of the location. I was impressed with the quantity and caliber of firms recruiting on campus; it is mostly smaller firms outside of the East Coast that do not recruit on campus.”
Payscale Estimate of Total Pay over a 20-Year Career: $2,705,000
Darden’s Class of 2019 was among the most highly compensated MBAs in the world. Median starting salaries and sign-on bonuses reached a new record, rising by 6.6% to $162,000 for this year’s class of MBAs from $152,000 the year earlier, according to the school’s preliminary employment report. The $162,000 total, not including other guaranteed compensation in the first year, is composed of median salaries of $135,000, up by $10,000 from the $125,000 a year earlier, and median signing bonuses of $30,000 reported by 90% of Darden’s Class of 2019. Sign-on bonuses were unchanged year-over-year.
And when it came to employment, Darden did just as well. The percentage of graduates receiving job offers within three months of graduation also hit a record at 97%, while the percentage of MBAs accepting those offers–94%–in the same timeframe tied a record at the school. Some 97% of the reporting graduates received more than one offer within the three-month timeframe.
Darden MBA Employment Stats
MBA Program Consideration Set:
Note: MBA Program Consideration Set: If you believe you’re a close match to this school–based on your GMAT and GPA scores, your age and work experience, you should look at these other competitive full-time MBA programs as well. We list them by stretch, match, and safety. These options are presented on the basis of brand image and ranking status as a general guideline.