August 18, 2008

Orientation Is Getting Longer

On a recent warm day in Pittsburgh, as one attendee recounts it, a middle-aged man with tufts of white hair and a broad grin, elicited a pledge of loyalty from about 200 incoming MBA students at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business. "He talked about commitment, and he asked, 'are you ready?'" says Wendy Hermann, the school's director of student services. "And they all said, 'we are ready!'"

No, this was not a tent revival, nor a motivational seminar. John Mather is the executive director of master's programs at Tepper, and his demonstration was a welcome to the incoming MBA class at their fall orientation. "It was a very church-like moment," says Hermann.

For many who attended business school more than five or 10 years ago, MBA orientations may seem unrecognizable. What was once a few days tacked on at the front of the semester, used as a time to share names, explain the course load, and distribute a map of the school grounds, has morphed into something altogether different. For many schools, orientation is now a highly programmed, committee-designed, and rigorous process. Administrators use the orientation period to accomplish a host of weighty goals -- from instilling a sense of ethical responsibility in students to helping them catch up on essential math skills and prepare for an ever-earlier recruiting schedule [, 6/8/08].

In order to accommodate these mounting demands on student attention, a number of MBA programs have stretched their orientation schedules out by days or even weeks. Orientations at the top business schools are often two-week programs, and some stretch to a month long -- meaning "fall orientation" often begins in late July.

Orientation Highlights This year alone, many programs have lengthened their fall orientation to allow their career-services departments to play a greater role. Tepper, for example, doubled its program from last year's single week to two weeks this year -- and that's up from three days in 1993. New York University's Stern School of Business added three days to its orientation, lengthening it to more than a week. At Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, what once was a one-week MBA orientation is now a three-week mandatory "pre-term" including required coursework.

Many programs have beefed up the career-services portion of orientation, incorporating a self-evaluation and assessment into the career department's presentation. "Our career services has refocused their core programming to be more self-reflective for students," says Ann Harvilla, associate dean and dean of students for full-time MBA programs at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business. "We ask: What does it take to be a leader? What are your weaknesses, and what can you work on?"

International students are a particular focus of orientation. Virtually all MBA programs have advance programming exclusively for international students. These students have an even heftier schedule, as their need for orientation -- figuring out where they are in relationship to where they're going -- is often somewhat more literal. "For nine days in August, we teach a select group of international students who haven't had academic experience in the United States about communication, culture, and social norms," says Amy DiMattia, associate director of MBA student affairs at MIT's Sloan School of Management.

Business and Pleasure While orientation is often used as a low-impact way to welcome students, many MBA programs get straight to business -- requiring or recommending pre-term coursework that in some cases doesn't even earn school credit. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania required its incoming MBA class to arrive on campus on July 30, and dive into four weeks of coursework on economics, statistics, accounting, and other business skill areas. Typical orientation activities like icebreakers and information sessions are woven into the month-long pre-term. Wharton has mandated this lengthy program since 1993. "Nobody has had anything as extensive as this pre-term," says Vice-Dean Anjani Jain. "We emphatically communicate to incoming students that it's essential to acclimatizing themselves and getting reacquainted."

MBA orientations, though a different breed than undergraduate orientations, also serve a social function. But MBA students are typically older and more experienced, necessitating social activities of a different sort. MBAs often have spouses or partners to accommodate. Many schools specially design events that include partners or spouses, including Stern, which offers a wine-tasting for couples. "The age of our students means that more of them are married and settling into Pittsburgh," says Tepper's Hermann, adding that the maturity of students contributed to the decision to make orientation longer. "Our days were getting very crowded, trying to give everybody what they need. We really wanted to try and build in breaks for them."

Staples of MBA orientations include team-building exercises such as ropes courses and community service, and social events -- from clambakes to cheer competitions -- to break the ice and facilitate students cohering as a class. At Kellogg, students get acquainted partly through a talent show at the end of orientation. "A lot of them are very talented. You see things from tumbling to different forms of dancing. Other things are more of a stretch," says Fran Langewisch, Kellogg's assistant dean for student affairs. "Like whistling."

Keeping it Simple But even though most business schools have made their orientations longer and more elaborate, some MBA programs have bucked the trend. Harvard Business School actually slimmed its orientation down this year, from roughly a week to three days. Jim Aisner, the school's director of media relations, explained that admitted students visit the school in the spring, communicate in chat rooms, and many have been on campus for international student program or their pre-term "math camp." So come fall, students have been well-integrated into the program. "There are welcoming remarks, I'm sure some sort of social event, some events with faculty and with the student learning teams, and then they're off and running," Aisner wrote in an e-mail.

And some administrators have acknowledged the danger of information overload at this early stage of the MBA. "At some point there are diminishing returns with how much you pour into people's minds," says University of Chicago's Harvilla, explaining why the school cut its four-week orientation in half. "We even think two weeks is a little too much."