Darden's Demanding, Fulfilling Schedule

The school makes no excuse for its rigorous reputation. Students quickly learn how to work in teams and squeeze in meals, even pizza in a cup

Pizza in a cup. This is by far the biggest innovation I've come across since starting classes 10 weeks ago. While I don't think you'll ever find this remarkable product in the aisles of your neighborhood supermarket, I think it does a good job of illustrating how busy first-year students at University of Virginia's Darden School of Business find themselves.

Let me explain. As a first-year, you quickly learn time efficiency. Between classes, working on cases, and attending various recruiting and club events, there is little time for anything else, including eating. It is the situation a friend found herself in three weeks ago. I was sitting in the library, working on cases for classes the next day, when my friend walked up to my table with her book bag slung over her shoulder and a coffee cup in her left hand. There was nothing unusual about this, but when she sat down I noticed what looked like a pizza crust sticking up over the top of the coffee cup. I asked her what it was, and she confirmed my suspicion that there was a slice of pizza stuffed pointy-side first into her cup.

Now, why would someone ever do that? Well, on this particular day my friend had gone straight through three classes in the morning, right into a presentation by PepsiCo (PEP) about its summer intern program, to a meeting for the marketing club. She had just enough time to pick up a slice of pizza from the cafeteria on her way to the library, where she was going to work on her cases before meeting with her learning team later that night (more on learning teams later). There was only one problem—food isn't allowed in the library. Her solution? Pizza in a cup. The cup concealed the pizza and allowed her to sneak it in.

If you talk to enough Darden students you will hear stories like this repeated often—from people doing laundry at 2 a.m. to a second-year who thought he lost his car keys only to return to his car and find them in the ignition…and the car still running! The dean of Darden, Robert Bruner, recently wrote: "Our reputation on Web chat boards and in the B-school rankings is that Darden's MBA program is the most demanding of all. We make no apology for that reputation." In short, it is intense.

School Days

A typical day at Darden starts off with your first class at 8 a.m. Afterward, the school meets for the Darden tradition of First Coffee, a brief informal gathering in between classes. It gives people a chance to socialize and catch up on any funny events from the previous weekend or any late-night study sessions. After First Coffee we have our second class, another break, and then typically a third class that gets done just after 1 p.m.

After classes we have from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. to attend any recruiting events, work on cases for the next day, and hopefully squeeze in some time for personal matters that need to be taken care of. It gets busy. I have classmates who put reminders in their Outlook calendars to call their parents out of fear of forgetting.

One for the Team

At 7 every night we meet with our learning team. This is a group of five to six classmates who are assigned to the team by the school. The team's purpose is to work through the cases for the next day's classes, and generally help each other learn. My learning team consists of six people, including Katie, a former AOL (TWX) communications manager originally from Tennessee; Ian, a professional cyclist and entrepreneur from Virginia; Vikram, a business developer from a software company in India; Jihyun, a television news director from South Korea; and Saul, a corporate development director from Spain.

Every night from 7 to 10 we attempt to bring our varied backgrounds and different points of view together to come up with solutions to such problems as: Did Apple (AAPL) make a mistake by cutting the price of the iPhone so quickly? How did Zimbabwe find itself in an era of 10,000% inflation and what can it do to get itself out of it? Is the Mirage Las Vegas (MGM) properly accounting for uncollectible accounts from its casino customers on its financial statements? All are real business problems and none have straight black-and-white answers.

Honing Co-Working Skills

Analyzing these problems is complicated by two factors. First, because of the case structure at Darden and the way classes are set up, you do the homework before you learn the lesson. The consequence of this is that you are constantly kept at the forefront of your learning curve and must initially struggle through the new concepts as you encounter them.

The second complicating factor is that when you put six people in a room, each with very different cultural and career backgrounds, and each used to having the right answer, you end up initially with what can best be described as a human train wreck. In our team, each person wanted to demonstrate their knowledge or skill in a particular subject and none of us ever wanted to admit that our answers were wrong.

As you can imagine, this led to a lot of wasted time. Indeed, the hours we spent debating whether the net present value of the investment in our decision analysis case was $1,567,524 or $1,567,526 are ones we'll never get back. However, over the first several weeks, each of us learned that we may not always be right. We learned to leverage each other's experience and background to not only learn from one another but perhaps take a different path to attack the problem at hand.

The end result is that now, as a group, we develop a deeper and more thorough analysis of any given case than each of us could have done individually. That's significant because at Darden it isn't enough to have the right answer. What's more important is to be able to explain how you arrived at that answer to the other 60 people who share your classroom at 8 a.m. the next day.

Direct, Invigorating Experience

These classes typically start off with another Darden tradition called the Cold Call, which occurs at the beginning of class when the professor calls on a student to give an overview of the case and begin the discussion. Some inside information for those of you who may end up here next year: If you ever find yourself unprepared to start the class off, when the professor scans the room deciding who to call on, maintain eye contact! I once made the rookie mistake of looking down at my computer when the professor looked my way. This is the equivalent of a wayward gazelle limping into the middle of a pack of lions. You can imagine how it ends.

After the Cold Call the class proceeds with a discussion of the case and the various analyses different people have come up with. Instead of lecturing, the professor guides the discussion and most of the talking is done by the students. It may not be the most comfortable way to learn but it makes for an incredibly interesting learning environment.

To date, my experience at Darden has reaffirmed my decision to come back to business school. The best way I can describe it is to quote author Michael Crichton. In his book Travels, he wrote how he would often take trips to various parts of the world to be reminded of who he really was: "Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends and your daily routines, you are forced into direct experience. That's not always comfortable but it is always invigorating."

In making the decision to pursue my MBA, I left behind my friends, my routine, a good job, and the overall comfort of home in Denver. I am working harder than I have in a long time but every morning I wake up in anticipation of the day, knowing that I am going to be challenged and that I will learn something new. The best is the stuff I never saw coming. Like if you have to, you can in fact eat pizza out of a cup.

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