Imagine having to choose all of your MBA classes so that you have a full and effective schedule on day one of your academic experience. Now, imagine the opposite—not having any choice at all throughout your entire first year. One must appeal to you more than the other. Do you know at which school you would encounter the first scenario and at which you would encounter the second? Chicago Booth has a totally flexible curriculum, wherein students choose all their classes from the very first day of the program, and HBS has a rigid curriculum, wherein students have no say in which classes they must take until year two. As always, we want to emphasize that neither system is better than the other—each simply appeals to a different constituency.
We at mbaMission worked with a client years ago who credited Chicago Booth’s flexible curriculum with helping him make a successful career transition. “I needed to load up on finance courses in the first term so that I could prove to internship interviewers that I had comprehensive knowledge,” he explained. “I could not have done this at another school where my finance options were predetermined and limited. I might have only had one [applicable] course.” For this client, the approach at Chicago Booth was ideal, but the flexible curriculum experience also comes with what some might consider a cost. When you choose all your courses yourself, bonding with your classmates can be more of a challenge, because you will encounter a different group of people in each class. That great guy (or gal) with whom you bonded so well in one class may never take another course with you again. Still, one could argue that with flexibility comes variety—and the opportunity to interact with a greater number of your classmates.
In contrast, HBS has a standard first-year curriculum that every student must take—so standard, in fact, that you cannot even waive subjects in which you have proven expertise. So, even if you are a practiced accountant, you will be required to take “Financial Reporting and Control,” which is essentially a beginner’s accounting class. What’s more, at HBS, you complete the first-year required curriculum as part of a section, meaning that you will share every class in the entire first year with the same 90 classmates. On the other hand, keep in mind that experienced academics have carefully chosen and structured your courses to ensure that you have a broad-based education and to spare you from having to define your personal educational needs earlier on in the program. And the section experience guarantees socialization and creates a close-knit community that will contribute to your learning and social life, both while you are in business school and for many years after.
HBS and Chicago represent extremes on the flexible-versus-required curriculum scale, and other schools stand at different points across the spectrum. Columbia and Michigan Ross, for example, have core curricula that dominate their first-year programs, but students can waive or opt out of courses on subjects in which they have expertise. Do your homework to make sure you truly understand the nature of the program to which you are applying—and be confident that the curriculum approach fits your personal style and needs before you make that commitment.
By Jeremy Shinewald, Founder/President, mbaMission