Word of mouth speaks directly to students

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There are many reasons for Amanda Hopkins to have chosen Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt University, over the other top business schools that offered her a place. For a start, she liked the fact that, with just 350 fulltime students, the programme had an intimate feel. An avid music fan, she was also pleased that the university campus was in Nashville, the heart of the country music recording industry.

But what tipped her decision was what she read on Owenbloggers.com, a student-run blog, about the business school experience.

“I learned about the culture of Owen, and it made me realise that I could see myself there. I could fit in with these people,” she says. “I could tell it was the kind of environment I wanted.”

Ms Hopkins, who works in Los Angeles and will start at Owen in August, says she checks the blog daily. One of the more memorable posts, she says, was about a quirky accounting professor who turned up in a tuxedo to give his mid-term exams.

“Owen business school is serious, but it’s also fun. And the blog brought this to light,” she says.

In the past, campus visits were the only way for would-be business students to get beyond the slick admissions brochures and canned recruiting pitches and gauge whether a particular school was the right fit.

Nowadays, however, prospective applicants turn to blogs for a no-holds-barred understanding of what life at a certain business school is like.

Hundreds of students write blogs about their business school experience, according to the League of MBA Bloggers, a website of blogs by past, present and future business students.

For the most part, these blogs tend to centre on the social lives of the average MBA – discussions about which extra-curricular clubs throw the most fabulous parties are prevalent. But they also contain candid posts about a school’s administration, policies and atmosphere, which offer insights into how a school operates.

Sharran Srivatssa and Isaac Rogers, both current Owen students, founded
Owenbloggers last year. So far, the site has racked up 60,000 visitors from 94 countries. A large minority of these visitors (40 per cent) are prospective students. Most of the rest are current students and alumni.

Mr Srivatssa and Mr Rogers say their inspiration for the blog came from a desire to give prospective applicants an unvarnished look at the Owen experience from the students’ perspective.

“Business school is such a huge investment of time and money and effort, so it’s important to have as much information possible going in,” says Mr Rogers, who is concentrating on marketing and finance. “We knew that a lot of students would benefit from knowing exactly what this programme is like.”

Credibility

Contributors to the blog include 17 current Owen students, three accepted students from the class of 2009 and one Owen alumnus. The bloggers publish in four languages: Spanish, Polish, Chinese and English.

Mr Srivatssa says the fact that the blog is entirely independent of the Owen administration gives it a lot of credibility among its readers.

“We wanted to cut through that aura of exclusivity and glossy brochures,” he says. “We wanted to show what Owen was like, [once you get] past the application process.”

The blog has adopted a simple posting policy based on the principle: don’t write anything that you would be embarrassed to have turn up in the hands of a recruiter or an employer. An executive board, composed of students, enforces the policy.

“We want to be authentic, but also professional and respectful,” Mr Srivatssa says.

Jon Lehman, associate dean of students at Owen, says that the school administration is comfortable with the blog’s content, in spite of the fact that
it’s not part of Owen’s official admissions material. “It captures the karma of the place. This is the real deal,” Prof Lehman says.

Other MBA blogs were conceived in a similar spirit. Joel Yarmon, who attends Freeman School of Business and writes TulaneMBA.org, says that his blog and others like it, “provide a more open and candid view of what goes on” at business school.

“When I was looking at different programmes, I did all the traditional stuff – I looked at books, magazines, rankings; I did interviews and I visited the campuses. But all that is designed to show the school in the most positive light possible. Everyone knows that as shiny as things look on the outside, there are things they don’t show you that might influence your decision,” he says. His blog is independent of the university, he adds.

Mr Yarmon, who is from Anchorage, Alaska, and is concentrating on entrepreneurship, says he receives a lot of questions on his blog from prospective students about the nuts and bolts of living in New Orleans, where Tulane University is based.

But he also fields inquiries about financial aid, the structure of the school’s curriculum and how the recruiting season works. “My goal is to provide a clearer look at the way things work here,” Mr Yarmon says.

In addition to student-run blogs, business schools themselves are getting in on the act.

Culture

The admissions office at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, for instance, recently started Berkeleymbastudents, a blog that is accessible from the school’s homepage. Peter Johnson, admissions director at Haas, says the blog is meant “to expand communication channels between prospective students and the school”.

The blog is written entirely by students but overseen by university officials. So far Berkeleymbastudents appears to have a pretty healthy readership, with an average of more than 1,000 unique visitors per month.

According to Mr Johnson, the age group of the current intake is more likely to read a blog or listen to a podcast when determining which graduate programme might be appropriate. “The Millennials, those applying to business school now, tend to like open communication,” he says.

“They want to know: does this programme have what I want academically, and does this culture fit with me?”

He says the Berkeley blog offers an informal venue for would-be students to find out everything, from which classes are the hardest to how to find a nice apartment in Berkeley.

“Prospective students will ask me how the core curriculum is structured, but they’re not going to ask me what students here do for fun on the weekends. And if they do, I probably lack credibility,” he says.

Mr Johnson says that the popularity of the blog notwithstanding, it doesn’t replace a campus visit. “A campus visit is still critical,” he says. “The blog is just another tool to get a sense of what a place is like.”

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