Despite the enduring stereotype of MBAs as sharp-elbowed, one-dimensional, destructively competitive Masters of the Universe, the vast majority of MBA students are exactly the opposite: self-motivated, collaborative and concerned about the world around them. As an applicant, in fact, the quickest way to get a rejection notice from a business school is to present yourself as if you fulfill the false stereotype.
Yet, business schools undoubtedly attract highly ambitious, keenly clever and fairly competitive souls. Many school cultures repress the worst tendencies, but some are more successful at this than others.
So which schools have the most competitive students?
Princeton Review ranks the most competitive students based on three questions
Every year, Princeton Review surveys about 19,000 MBA students at some 300 business schools and publishes a top ten list of the schools with the “most competitive students.” Their ranking of the top ten is based on answers to three questions on its surveys: How competitive are your classmates? How heavy is your workload? And how much academic pressure do you feel?
Those questions are among the 78 multiple-choice questions and seven “free-response” questions asked of current full-time students. Princeton Review says that at least 10% of full-time studnets responded “at almost all institutions we surveyed; at many schools, we scored responses from as many as one-third or one-half of the student body–and nearly all in a few cases.”
As we have pointed out in our rankings critiques, however, more often than not the differences among schools on student surveys is so slight as to be statistically meaningless. So in any given year, the results may not be worth the paper or bits they are printed on. (In our table on the most competitive institutions, we list the schools that made this list once in the last five years to satisfy our readers’ curiosity.)
That’s why we’ve taken the results of the Princeton Review surveys over the past five years and combined them. The cumulative result is far more more credible than any one year which can be something of an anomaly. What did we find?
Wharton ranked first in three of the last five years
Hands down, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School has the most competitive students. Not only has Wharton made Princeton Review’s top ten list in every one of the last five years, the school was ranked first in three of those five years–in the 2012 guidebook, 2010 and 2009.
Only two other schools made the list five out of five times: Vanderbilt University’s Owen School of Business and Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management.
At the Owen School, the surveys results have clearly been noticed. “We think that is one of the biggest mysteries,” says Yvonne Martin-Kidd, who as executive director of marketing oversees the Owen School’s involvement in rankings and internal student satisfaction surveys. “We look at that and scratch our heads. I do believe there is something there, but the texture of it is getting lost.
“If you talk to our students,” continues Martin-Kidd, “you will hear the word competition over and over again. But Vanderbilt students are extremely competitive externally. They love to win. They love to perform on the job. Yet when it comes to being students within the community, it’s a healthy competitiveness and not at all cutthroat.”
Adds Owen Dean Jim Bradford: “If this means our students are sharp-elbowed and super individualistic, that’s not us. You don’t get ahead by pushing someone else down here. Our students play well together.”
Dean Bradford says students commonly share job contacts with each other and create enduring bonds while in the program. Employers also don’t view Owen’s MBA candidates as overtly competitive. “What I hear from employers is that they are smart and ambitious, but they don’t have a sense of entitlement,” he adds. “They are scrappy. “
All told, there are 12 schools that made this list at least twice in the past five years–out of the nearly 300 at which students were surveyed. You’d never guess that some of these institutions would make a ranking for having the most competitive students. Who, for example, would ever have imagined that the Sam Walton School at the University of Arkansas would have made the list in four of the past five years? Yet, the Walton School is smack in the middle of Wal-Mart world, where the world’s largest retailer has made its home. You don’t become the largest retailer in the world by playing the game of business with kid gloves.
Texas can lay claim as the state with the largest number of Darwinian schools on this list over the five years: five out of the 21 schools that made the list are in the Lone Star State. In fact, three of the top ten most competitive schools are in Texas: Action, Texas A&M’s Mays Business School, and Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business.
Harvard MBAs in the ’80s: “I’d as soon take a pythin to bed as hire one”
The biggest surprise, perhaps, is who hasn’t made this list. Not a single mention of Harvard Business School, in spite of the common stereotype of the students there. It was Ned Dewey of Harvard’s most famous Class of 1949s who once said of HBS students in the late 1980s: “I’d as soon take a python to bed as hire one. He’d suck my brains, memorize my Rolodex, and use my telephone to find some other guy who’d pay him twice the money.”
It’s also somewhat surprising that Columbia Business School wasn’t on the list. In years past, some overzealous Columbia students were said to hide books in the library so their classmates wouldn’t be able to study for an upcoming exam. Typically, schools located in big cities tend to bring out the most competitive instincts in students, partly because they can disappear in the city during their two-year experience and often feel less connected to the university and their classmates.
When BusinessWeek began surveying MBA students in 1988, it asked a telling question: “What percentage of your classmates would you have liked to have as friends?” The schools that scored highest on what you might call a “friendliness index” were Yale, Dartmouth, North Carolina, Northwestern and Stanford. And which schools were on the low end? Columbia, Chicago, NYU, and Wharton, the Princeton Review’s number one school with the most competitive students.
Business schools with the “most competitive” students
How to read the table: For each year of the Princeton Review survey, we give the actual rank for each school that made the top ten list for having the “most competitive” students. The overall results are based on an index that takes into account each school’s annual rankings as well as the number of times a school made the Princeton Review top ten list.
Source: The Princeton Review
Methodology: To create the index and our own ranking, we awarded each school 10 points for every first place finish in this ranking, nine points for every second place finish, and so on. We also awarded ten points for each year a school landed on the top ten list on the theory that multiple appearances gives more credibility to the Princeton Review’s findings.