Look Before You Leap: Consider the B-School's Class Size

by Vault Education Editors | April 13, 2011

  • My Vault

Jeremy Shinewald, mbaMission

We present part two of our nine-part series, Selecting Your Target MBA Program. This week, we discuss the importance of class size and how it can influence interactions within the business school community. Next week: Flexibility of Curricula.

When I conduct our school selection presentations, I frequently start by asking, “Who is interested in Harvard Business School (HBS)?” Inevitably, most of the hands in the room rise. I then ask, “Can anyone tell me how many students HBS has in each student class?” Often, I get no response at all. So many candidates are interested in HBS—and there is nothing wrong with that; it is indeed a great school—but very few have truly investigated their target schools to determine what elements of those programs might significantly affect their professional and personal lives.

Just so you know, HBS is the largest of the top international business schools, with approximately 900 places in each class. Meanwhile, Dartmouth-Tuck and Berkeley-Haas are on the smaller side, each with 240 students per class. But can class size affect your experience? Absolutely.

Students at smaller schools (which we define as having approximately 350 students or fewer per class) tend to interact with almost all their peers and professors during the typical two-year MBA period. Therefore, the smaller schools are generally more “knowable,” and their communities tend to be quite closely knit; one can also argue that the students at such schools tend to be more accountable to their peers.

Still, for some, a tight-knit community may be overwhelming—not everyone is interested in having such close ties with so many of their classmates—and these students might prefer to be at a larger school where they have the option of maintaining their anonymity if they so choose. A student at a school with a 900-person class will not likely know each and every person in his/her class at the end of the program, and some might prefer this. Advocates of larger classes tout the advantage inherent in students’ being able to interact with more people during their MBA experience—and to thereby develop a broader network of peers. In addition, these advocates would note that a larger class requires more professors, which in turn results in a greater number and array of available electives.

One thing to consider if class size is important to you is the manner in which schools divide their classes into “sections,” “clusters” or “cohorts.” At Wharton, for example, during the first year of the program students study with 65–70 classmates, from within one of 12 clusters, and complete the core curriculum together—as a result, a mini community within the 850-student class generally develops. On the other hand, neither Stanford nor Chicago has sections, clusters or cohorts, so students at those schools interact with a broader pool of classmates and independently create their circle of friends/colleagues.  

As always, we are striving to offer a balanced view of this issue and not advocate for either class size. Take some time to sit back and reflect on your high school, college and work environments to help you determine whether you would feel more comfortable in a large class or a small one — in an open environment or in something more akin to a mini community — or whether this element of the business school experience is even a factor for you at all. You just might be the kind of person who can adapt to anything…

About mbaMission:

Since Ambassadorial Speechwriter and MBA Jeremy Shinewald founded mbaMission in 1999, the firm has worked closely with business school candidates from around the world, successfully guiding them through the entire MBA application process ("From Start to Finish") and ensuring that their unique attributes are showcased in a creative, compelling and focused way. mbaMission senior consultants are published authors/elite communicators with top-MBA experience, who work one-on-one with applicants to help them discover, select and articulate the unique stories that will force MBA admissions committees to take notice. mbaMission collaborates with candidates on all aspects of their application, reducing stress levels and maximizing their chances of being admitted to the business school of their dreams.

For more information on school selection and the particularities of each top MBA program, read the mbaMission Insider’s Guides.

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