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Hidden MBA Gems: Why These Students Love Their MBA Experience

John A. Byrne
·16 min read

What students say after searching for and finding an ideal hidden gem of an MBA program

Ask any MBA student enrolled in one of our hidden MBA gems of a program what makes their experience stand out and you’ll get one of a set of fairly consistent answers.

  1. It’s small and intimate where every single student gets to know all of their classmates well and bond with them.

  2. They feel more supported. The faculty is not only more accessible, they more often than not serve as valuable mentors in a smaller environment. Career management staffers and coaches can provide more individual attention because they are spread over fewer students.

  3. There are unusual if not unique innovative touches to the MBA experience that are highly cherished and admired.

  4. A school excels in a specific business arena like healthcare, sustainability, or supply chain management.

  5. Scholarship assistance is often more generous than it would be at many of the highest ranked programs.


Those are really good reasons for taking a close look at schools that are often overlooked and under appreciated by MBA candidates who focus too much attention on the Top 10 or Top 25 business schools. Truth is, as many students have found, any quality MBA program can pretty much fulfill your career dreams. And that is exactly what graduates of these hidden gems will tell you.

More often than not, many MBA students view size as a critical part of the culture equation. They believe smaller programs attract students who are less likely to have sharp elbows and reinforce a highly competitive cultures. “When I began applying to MBA programs, I very much had the notion that these schools were cutthroat and extremely competitive,” says Spencer Lowden, who is now earning his MBA at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business. “Being a competitive person, I was prepared and ready for that environment. However, W. P. Carey’s program really opened my eyes. In an environment like an MBA, collaboration is really where the real growth happens. Of course, all my classmates want to succeed, but they also want me to succeed. That realization and the value that comes with that quickly made me realize what was important and separated W.P. Carey from the rest.”

Size matters to many, and schools that are MBA factories are often less desirable to many candidates than programs that admit a couple hundred or fewer students a year. The Graduate School of Business at the University of California’s campus in Davis enters just under 50 full-time MBA students a year. To Deepi Agarwal, a former marketing manager who came from India to enroll in the school’s MBA program, it is a perfectly sized opportunity. Faculty can lavish personal attention to their students and classmates can develop deeper connections with each class member, believes Agarwal.


“The small cohort size of our MBA program attracted me the most,” she says. “I believe an MBA is as much about networking as learning management. This networking starts right with your cohort. The smaller the cohort size is, the better the opportunity for stronger and more meaningful networking with classmates. A smaller cohort size also results in more effective in-class discussions.”

Brittany Ouyang, the owner of a communications consulting firm in New York, chose UC-Irvine’s Merage School of Business for its size and sense of community. Merage’s total full-time MBA enrollment is under 100 students. I’ve always known that I learn best in a more intimate setting where every student has the chance to participate in the class discussion and where all questions are heard,” says Ouyang who earned her MBA from Merage last year. “Coupled with this is the strong sense of community that the Merage school exudes. I flew from New York to visit as I was applying. Though I was nervous to move back to the west coast and embark on this new adventure, I was confident that the community would support me.” It did.

Smaller class sizes often translate into a deeper feeling of community, allowing students to forge stronger bonds with faculty and classmates. It’s incredibly common for MBA students in these programs to talk about feeling welcomed and accepted in a way that gave them comfort and emotional support. Agnese De Grossi Mazzorin, a digital solutions expert for BASF from Rome, Italy, zeroed in on Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business for that reason. “Although there are a lot of MBA programs, the main factor that led me to W.P. Carey’s MBA was the inclusive and diverse community of this business school,” says Mazzorin who will graduate in 2022.


“Starting from its leitmotiv ‘business is personal,’ ASU fosters a learning environment characterized by a supportive, collaborative and welcoming mindset. For me it was important to find a university with a primary focus on individuals and on diversity, where every person with his/her unique characteristics counts and plays a vital role in the learning process of others. ASU fit perfectly with what I was seeking.”

Takeya Green could relate to that argument. She graduated from a school with a massive undergraduate enrollment, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and then went on to land a job at Dow Chemical as a senior production engineer. “I was looking for a school that had a more intimate setting,” says Green, who started the MBA program at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business in the fall of 2020. “Coming from a big public university, I did not want to be in class with hundreds of students. I wanted to be in a small intimate place where I could get that 0ne-on-one learning to ensure I was prepared to go into the business world.”

Christina Tamayo believes that smaller environments foster more enduring relationships across the board. The former U.S. Army military police officer is earning her MBA from Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business along with her husband. “There’s a clear philosophy at Rice that prioritizes quality of relationships and learning,” says Tamayo, who will graduate in 2022. “I’m excited by the diverse concentrations offered, particularly in energy and strategy. Focusing on quality education, rather than trying to stomp all your classmates to be ranked #1, makes the environment more conducive towards real, lasting relationships. The spirit of cooperation, family, and individualized success is palpable and tipped my scales to Rice.”

And when the annual intake is small, no one is a mere number, unknown to the day-to-day business school’s staffers who insure that your MBA experience is world class. “From the admissions team to the Career Management Center and Office of Student Engagement, absolutely everyone has a vested interest in seeing you succeed,” says Jeniris Liz Montañez, who will graduate from the Simon Business School at the University of Rochester in 2021. “My first visit to the campus, all the staff knew my name, they knew the names of my son and partner and had arranged so that my whole family could be accommodated at every event. It really meant a lot to me that my family was welcomed with open arms.”

Broad students at a Michigan State football game

Why Students Chose To Get Their MBAs From These Hidden Gem Business Schools

Here’s the question we ask MBA students at each of the following schools in our highly popular Meet the Class series: Aside from your classmates and location, what was the key part of the school’s MBA programming that led you to choose this business school and why was it so important to you? The answers to that question shed much light on the strengths of these hidden gem programs. You can meet the students who answered our question by clicking on the live links to the latest class profiles in the table.

Hidden Gem

Why Students Chose Its MBA

Meet The Students

Arizona State University (Carey)

Innovative reputation, ‘Business is personal’ mission, quality of career coaching, specializations in sustainable enterprise, healthcare & supply chain, inclusive and diverse community, culture of generosity and collaboration

Class of 2022

Babson College (Olin)

Entrepreneurial focus, with extensive startup resources, small & intimate classes, customized approach, one-year MBA option, global student body

Class of 2020

University of California-Davis

Entrepreneurial focus, with extensive startup resources, small & intimate classes, customized approach, one-year MBA option, global student body

Class of 2022

Fordham University (Gabelli)

New York City location, small & intimate classes, diverse student body, strength in finance, focus on ‘Business with Purpose,’ values-based in Jesuit tradition, strong alumni network in NYC

Class of 2022

Georgia Institute of Technology (Scheller)

Technology focus, strength of career center, supportive culture, sustainable business program, alumni network, scholarship support, strong ties to Atlanta business community

Class of 2021

Michigan State University (Broad)

Supply chain strength, approachable alumni, small & intimate, dual DO/MBA program, close-knit community, team-based learning

Class of 2022

University of Minnesota (Carlson)

‘Business as a force for good’ mindset, enterprise experiential learning programs, small class size, medical industry leadership specialization, access to Fortune 500 firms

Class of 2022

Rice University (Jones)

Supportive community, small & intimate, entrepreneurship focus, energy & finance strengths, generous scholarship support

Class of 2022

University of Rochester (Simon)

Emphasis on data analytics & quants, first STEM MBA, class diversity, small & intimate class size, strong support from admissions & alumni network, collaborative culture

Class of 2021

Washington University (Olin)

Extensive global immersion & perspective, experiential learning, focus on data-driven & values-based decision making, generous scholarships

Class of 2021

University of Washington (Foster)

Location in the tech-hub of Seattle, Ventures Fellows Program for PE/VC careers, small & intimate classes, a ‘learn by doing’ experience, student diversity, tight-knit culture, first-year Applied Strategy Project, peer mentors

Class of 2022

Vanderbilt University (Owen)

Superb healthcare concentration, small & intimate classes, enthusiastic alumni base, focus on ‘personal scale,’ excellent leadership development program, location in Nashville

Class of 2021

Carlson School of Management boasts strong ties with the business community in Minneapolis-St. Paul


Or the appeal can be an MBA program’s approach to the learning experience. At the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, experiential learning is a core part of the program. A long-time practitioner of hands-on learning, Carlson operates what it calls Enterprise programs. Here, MBA teams devote a year to working on projects for top employers in one of four areas: Consulting, Brands, Ventures, and Funds. Not only do Carlson students reinforce what they learn in class, but also sharpen their problem-solving skills on c-level issues like interpreting data and developing strategy.

This approach appealed to Linda Nkosi, who entered Carlson’s full-time MBA program in 2020. Before business school, he worked in healthcare program management. Now, Nkosi hopes to transition into the private sector in either corporate strategy or finance. To make this triple jump, he is counting on the Enterprise program to expose him to different industries, functions, and corporate cultures.

“Usually, when you make the decision to go to business school, you are resigned to the fact that you will spend 22 months out of the workforce except for a 3-month reprieve where you have to put one academic year worth of theory into practice through a summer internship,” he explains. ”This is NOT the case with Carlson. Carlson’s focus on experiential learning was a big draw for me. The opportunity to actively practice the theory I learn in class – solving real-world business problems that affect business’ bottom lines – was too large to ignore. I get to show what I’ve learned, flex my professional work-muscles and build connections with professionals in the Twin Cities. A huge win!”


There are, of course, many other reasons why a quality MBA from a school not on a Top 10 or Top 25 list can be just as if not more enticing. Geography is another. Some frequently overlooked programs are in areas where employers are highly supportive of the university or college in their backyards. Those universities are often the source of much of their professional talent.

For Joe Crawford, a U.S. Naval Academy grad who served in the U.S. Marines, the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota was appealing in part because of the school’s close links with the many Fortune 500 companies in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. He had never been a resident of the state before moving there for Carlson’s MBA program in 2020.

“I was struck by the number and variety of Fortune 500 firms that span all different industries,” he tells Poets&Quants. “What makes Carlson such a great place is that there are alumni scattered throughout all these firms who all share a passion for giving back to the school and assisting those of us currently in the program.”


Geography even plays a role in large urban areas where there are big-name rivals that can’t possibly supply the demand for MBA talent in a metro area. Consider New York City. Sure, Columbia Business School and New York University’s Stern School of Business grab most of the attention from MBA applicants, together drawing well over 10,000 candidates for about 1,100 available seats. But several great NYC metro options abound at Fordham, Baruch, and Rutgers Business School in nearby New Jersey.

Carlota Artigas ventured from Barcelona, Spain, to New York to get her MBA from Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business (GBS) partly due to its location. “Of course, GBS is in the center of the world,” says Artigas who will graduate in Gabelli’s Class of 2022. “New York is boundless. There are countless multinational companies and many globally recognized business leaders. Being closer to them could help me gather in vivo powerful insights for my next career steps.”

A similar argument can be made for UC-Davis, just outside San Francisco, or UC-Irvine, not far from Los Angeles. A proverbial college town that revolves around its students, Davis is just 30 minutes from Sacramento, an hour from San Francisco, and 90 minutes from Silicon Valley. It helps that the school, like many of the hidden gems, offers among the most extensive financial assistance of any top MBA program with 82% of the Class of 2022 receiving scholarships or fellowships. UC-Irvine’s Merage School of Business, meantime, is a mere 40 minutes from Los Angeles.


Or location can play a role when a dominant industry of interest to a candidate is largely based in a certain area. Consider healthcare in Nashville, Tennessee. No school is better positioned as a direct pathway into healthcare’s exploding opportunities for MBA grads than Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management. Though Owen’s full-time MBA experience is highly ranked, just outside the Top 25, it is a school that deserves far more attention than it gets. “The Vanderbilt location in Nashville – a healthcare hub with over 700 healthcare companies in the city – was something I really considered because it allows interact with healthcare companies easily,” says Yvonne Caroline Uduba who will graduate from Owen with her MBA this year. She moved to Nashville for Owen’s MBA program from the Philippines and Nigeria where she was a pharmacist and later a regulatory consultant for the creation of Africa’s largest rice mill.

Similar reasoning drew Leah Ku, a former patient support specialist for Celgene, to Rutgers Business School in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Ku ended up becoming co-president of the school’s Pharmaceutical Management Club and landing a job with Bristol-Myers Squibb in the company’s commercial leadership development program. I chose RBS for its reputation within the pharmaceutical industry for producing high-caliber leaders,” says Ku, who graduated with her MBA last year. “It also didn’t hurt that all my target companies came to campus to recruit MBA talent.”

Many of these smaller MBA options also tend to specialize in business niches that give them distinction above and beyond a mere ranking. Take Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business. The faculty’s expertise in supply chain management makes it a first choice school for students keen to enter the fast growing field. “A hallmark of the Broad MBA that attracted me was the world-renowned supply chain management program,” explains Abraham Rusch, who was looking engineer a career transition into the field after being the director of music and liturgy at a Catholic Church. “This infuses our entire academic program with a confident “can-do” spirit. Given the incredible complexity of the supply chain problems we face, faculty members across the disciplines love to give us complicated business cases to tackle with our teams. This is a great opportunity to build relationships,” adds Rusch who expects to graduate from the program in 2022.

Likewise, Dallin Bud Scruggs from Salt Lake City, Utah, was enticed to Rice University in Houston for its access to the energy industry. A former Hydraulic Engineer who earned his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Brigham Young University, he ultimately wants to enter senior leadership in the petrochemical business. “Selecting between business schools was almost as stressful as applying,” believes Scruggs who will get his MBA from Rice in 2022. “My main focus was going to a school that would assist me in becoming a leader who will be able to make an impact in the energy and petrochemical industries. When on campus, Rice was able to do something that no other program was able to: introduce me to alumni, benefactors, and other who had the same professional goals that I did and had gone the path I wanted to go. I knew right then that Rice was the program most dedicated to creating a custom experience that would best shape my future.”

DON’T MISS: Hidden MBA Gems: Under-The-Radar MBA Options To Put On Your Radar and Hidden MBA Gems: How These B-Schools Have Embraced The STEM Surge

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