Curriculum Changes Bring MBA Core Front and Center

Eighteen years ago, the Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College overhauled its full-time MBA curriculum, combining classes on functional areas such as accounting and marketing to break down subject-area silos and give students a more holistic view of the modern corporation.

This fall, the first curriculum overhaul at Olin since then will transform the MBA coursework yet again, the latest in a series of such changes at schools such as the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and the UCLA Anderson School of Management. The goal: to cram business fundamentals into the first few classes students take to better prepare them for internship interviews, and ultimately the internships themselves.

It’s called “front-loading,” and at Babson that meant creating a series of courses on business fundamentals such as finance that students will take in the fall semester, says Robert Turner, associate dean of on-site programs. To accommodate the shift, he says, some information was shifted to later in the two-year program, as electives, and a real-life consulting project was moved from early in the fall semester to December, giving students more time to figure out what they’re interested in.

Driven by Recruiters

The front-loading trend is being driven by recruiters, who are interviewing internship candidates just a few weeks after school starts and are demanding fresh-faced students be better prepared. In the past, most two-year MBA programs dispensed core courses in the first year, leaving the second for electives and recruiting. But with internship interviews taking place so early, many schools are revising their curriculums so that the bulk of the core courses take place in the first semester. Many are also manipulating the length of terms to open up windows of time for interviews.

Schools officials behind the “front-loaded” curriculum changes say these give their students a competitive advantage come the interview and the actual internship. Schools that have already made the changes say their students are reaping the benefits with better internship offers, and more permanent job offers when the internships are over.

In 2010, the University of Virginia’s Darden School changed both the order of the curriculum and the length of the classes. The school year is now divided into five terms, rather than four quarters. The first four terms last five weeks and students take four classes each term; the last term is shorter and students take a capstone class. This has freed up a one-week break in the fall for students to schedule internship interviews, and it’s allowed the school to add a second week to the spring break for an international business trip. Fridays are also reserved for interviews, seminars with visiting high-level executives, and other career advancement programming.

First-year Darden students now take four terms of classes such as accounting, finance, marketing, strategy, leadership, and ethics in “lockstep” with each other before diverging to take electives in March.

“These classes are vital to performing well in internships,” says Peter Rodriguez, senior associate dean for degree programs and head of the three formats. Five years ago, he says, students returning from their internships reported wishing an advanced finance elective was available in the first year so they could have performed better. The class is now available to first-year students in the later terms.

Earlier Internship Offers

At some schools, the curriculum changes were suggested by recruiters, not students. A few years ago, Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business heard from recruiters that as collegial and team-oriented as Goizueta students were, they could be better prepared technically. The school introduced a front-loaded curriculum change in 2008 that moved all core courses into the first semester, introduced a first-semester core course about decision-making using incomplete or ambiguous information, and moved the first day of classes from the first week of September to the second week of August. The next year, first-year students who had typically received internship offers in March or April received them as early as November, and more received offers from companies with structured programs that tend to make full-time offers to their interns, says Wendy Tsung, associate dean and executive director of MBA career services.

“Feedback [from recruiters] has gotten consistently better year over year,” she says. “Companies feel our students are more prepared for their internships and more competitive during the process. It’s been pretty consistent across industries and progressively gets better every year.”

The curriculum change at the UCLA Anderson School, to be introduced during the 2011-2012 school year, provides new MBA students with core fundamentals while giving them flexibility to pursue their interests.

All first-year students take communications, financial accounting, managerial economics, and strategy in the first quarter. For the last class in the fall quarter, students can choose between marketing management and financial markets; 57 percent of the incoming class chose the former, while 43 percent chose the latter. During the winter term, students switch—marketing students take financial markets and finance students take marketing management. This gives students the specific skill they need very early in the program to prepare them for internship interviews, says Andrew Ainslie, senior associate dean of the full-time MBA program. “We call it ‘appropriate loading,’ depending on what someone’s career aspirations are,” he says.

Competitive Candidates

For the 80 percent to 90 percent of new students who come to Anderson knowing they want to pursue careers in consulting, finance, or marketing, the choice of finance or marketing tracks is usually obvious, Ainslie says. For the few who don’t have a clear-cut career path, counselors will encourage those with backgrounds heavy on quantitative skills to take the finance course first and those with little or no “quant” skills to take marketing first. The goal: to make both sets of students as competitive as they can be when winter interviews start.

That change is similar to the 2008 curriculum overhaul at MIT Sloan, which added tracks for finance, entrepreneurship, and marketing. In addition to taking core classes in the first semester, students preregister for one of the tracks. The tracks group like-minded students into cohorts and entail an elective, seminars, and industry-specific networking events. Jackie Wilbur, senior director of career development, says this helps Sloan finance students stay competitive in January, when recruiters come to campus for internship interviews.

“Our students were much better prepared since we launched the track,” she says. “Recruiter feedback from every time they interview has been how our students are a deeper, stronger pool [of candidates].”