Are Virtual Tours of MBA Programs Useful? A Review of the Best and Worst Videos

One would think that now would be an outstanding time for MBA programs to introduce useful virtual tours through online video to help potential applicants get to know their business school campuses. After all, because they’ve been closed to visitors since March 2020, business schools have had to suspend in-person tours for prospective students ever since. And with at least five dangerous Covid-19 variants on the horizon and only 11.5 percent of the United States population fully vaccinated at the time of this writing in March 2021, there’s hardly any chance that business school campuses will reopen to visitors anytime soon.

With campuses closed, video tours conducted online address a broad range of needs, both for potential applicants as well as for the business schools. For example, they help potential applicants develop opinions about a program, and especially form impressions about its MBA students based on those the administration selects to appear within the videos. These impressions help possible applicants gauge how well they’ll fit in with the school’s networking opportunities and culture, as well as assess how well the business school fits with such candidates’ ambitions and aspirations.

For the university, a compelling virtual tour delivers sales opportunities that can draw applications from the target market of candidates the business school most wants to attract. Moreover, at a time when inclusion has emerged as a national issue, virtual tours also enable a university to sell its MBA program to the best candidates from diverse underrepresented groups who might be among the least likely to apply.

And video tours also provide branding opportunities for the business school; such videos illustrate the MBA program’s brand promise to potential applicants and depict how its mission and values fit with the overall university’s brand.

Unfortunately, potential applicants who expect that they can rely on a virtual tour to deliver the kind of comprehensive look inside a business school compared to what they would receive from an in-person campus visit are likely to feel disappointed.

As we explained in several articles here on BSchools, in-person campus visits typically include group presentations from and meetings with admissions staff, visits to classes, and lunch with MBA students. Yet none of the videos reviewed for this article even attempts to simulate these in-person experiences.

Spoiler alert: the worst virtual tours we’ve seen range from laughable to hideous. But what’s surprising is that even a couple of the M7 business schools ranked highly by U.S. News and World Report somehow managed to serve up videos containing cringeworthy scenes. And one clip should even come with a warning label that cautions the audience about impending facepalms.

Certainly, not all of the virtual tours reviewed for this article are terrible, and below we focus on two videos that have distinguished themselves as better than most. But when one considers the talent, video production technology, and financial resources of most major research universities, even the best online tours fall short of the standards MBA applicants deserve in 2021.

A Grain of Salt Required

There’s nothing wrong with a business school’s portraying an MBA program in the most favorable light. That’s simply good marketing, which all graduate management programs teach.

However, potential applicants need to be careful not to deceive themselves through assumptions about what they “see” in a business school’s sales videos that the evidence doesn’t justify. Precise interpretation is a crucial reasoning skill that examiners specifically test in several ways on the GMAT, and that skill can certainly come in handy when critically evaluating promotional videos like these.

For example, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois opens its virtual tour with establishing shots of relaxed students strolling through its lakefront landscaping in the sunshine on a warm summer’s day. But potential applicants need to be careful not to jump to conclusions about characteristics that such visuals might imply.

For one thing, the first year of an MBA program at an M7 business school like Kellogg can be a busy and at times intense experience for some students. A typical week might include meetings for learning teams, group projects, and student clubs along with recruiting information sessions and interviews for internships and jobs. Students then need to schedule all those activities around about 15 hours spent in classes, for which they also need to prepare assignments and case studies for discussion. Although lunch outside if the weather’s good might seem possible in theory, a schedule like that one might not leave a student with much time to spend outdoors.

And in Chicagoland, whether the weather’s good is always a big “if.” Those of us who grew up near the Windy City know all too well that the shores of Lake Michigan are often frozen solid during long, bleak, snowy winters that frequently last from October until the end of April. Throughout much of that half-year, the subarctic wind chill gusting off the lake can often feel like 10 or 20 degrees below zero—and Kellogg’s new Global Hub campus opened in 2017 only steps away from all that ice.

Do MBA Student Virtual Tour Guides Accurately Reflect the Student Body?

Exaggerating the panoramic beauty of a campus isn’t the only way these virtual tours can misinform viewers. For example, based on the students that the administration selects to appear in these videos, one might conclude that a business school might typically admit a much more diverse student body than the school actually does.

Underrepresented groups feature prominently in almost all of these videos, including the virtual tours from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Yale School of Management that we discuss below.

And in one particularly slick, polished video—not surprisingly produced by a program minutes away from Hollywood, UCLA’s Anderson School of Management—all four of the MBA student tour guides personify underrepresented groups.

But even though one of UCLA’s three women guides is Black, does that imply that a substantial proportion of Black students attend Anderson?

It does not. BSchools recently pointed out in this July 2020 article that at Anderson, Black students accounted for a mere 3.3 percent of all MBA students in 2019. That’s substantially below the U.S. national average, at only 72 percent of the enrollment average among those 20 of the top 25 MBA programs that report Black enrollment. And it also means that only about 12 Black students might enroll in a typical year at Anderson, a business school with 720 MBA students.

The MBA Socioeconomic Diversity Disconnect

Furthermore, by making inaccurate assumptions based on appearance, a viewer might attribute socioeconomic characteristics to the MBA students portrayed in these video tours that may have little or even no relationship to these students’ actual lives.

Recently on the r/MBA discussion forum on Reddit, five anonymous MBA students all remarked about the lack of socioeconomic diversity that they had discovered among their classmates. All cited this concern within a controversial discussion titled “Worst thing about your MBA program.”

Some disturbing excerpts:

  • “To me, the biggest negative with all of these top programs is the lack of socioeconomic diversity. There’s a diversity of ethnicity/nationality, but it’s a bit hollow when such a large proportion of the class comes from wealth.”
  • “From the sense I get, no one really wants poor people at their program. Coz what’s the point of ‘networking’ with them. You want to network into wealth and power. The schools bump up their ‘diversity’ numbers by selecting international applicants, who are invariably coming from the 1% in their own countries.”
  • “Yeah this was a huge surprise, though shouldn’t have been. The median family income for MBA students at top schools is certainly very high, probably $250k+ at least. Which would put you in some of the wealthiest zip codes in the US.”
  • “This was surprising to me as well. I grew up super poor (housing/food insecure multiple times as a kid) but eventually went into engineering and then the MBA and there was basically no one that shared a similar background. There were a handful of us that were first generation college and grad school students but even then many of them were middle and upper-middle class as kids.”
  • “People who grew up working class / lower middle class / regular middle class but still end up in professional jobs are vastly underrepresented at b-school and its associated industries. . .there is a distinct lack of socio-economic diversity.”

An MBA Virtual Tour Train Wreck

This virtual tour posted by Stanford’s Graduate School of Business appears to be one of the worst examples of this genre. It’s difficult to understand how the GSB’s leadership could possibly believe that this goat rodeo of a video might actually reinforce Stanford University’s brand.

During the opening scene, a blaring stock music track assaults our hearing and continues to do so at various volume levels throughout the clip. Meanwhile, an MBA student named Sawyer Clark shows us the Knight Center’s modern buildings and expansive Town Square plaza, displayed through drone shots in 4K, 2160-pixel high-definition wizardry that enables us to pan around the field and zoom in for a closer look.

However, the more significant problem with this video tour and the many similar university promotional videos, is that the Stanford video devotes so much screen time to buildings, cafeterias, and other facilities about which most prospective MBA applicants couldn’t care less.

Ambitious folks like these want to learn about competitive aspects like the school’s recruiting and job placement programs, the classmates, and faculty with whom they could develop relationships lasting a lifetime, and about the lessons the curriculum will teach them.

Those are the kinds of aspects that make an MBA program great, not the structures that comprise the physical plant; most prospective applicants will dismiss such facility shots as tangential exercises that waste footage along with their precious time.

But wait, there’s more. For some strange reason, business school video directors appear to be enamored with time-lapse cinematography; one can observe this technique on display in the virtual tours from Kellogg and UCLA besides the GSB. In Stanford’s clip, time-lapse footage depicts 10 minutes of action accelerated to elapse during only 25 seconds. But the Stanford director applies this technique to a shot of students taking their seats inside a small, tiered classroom—and most cringeworthy of all—to a student in the foreground typing on his laptop, greeting his classmates, drinking from his water bottle, and finally smiling at the professor, displaying a peculiar gaze that lingers for far too long.

In a no less perplexing scene, it’s difficult to fathom what the director was trying to accomplish through a bizarre shot tightly focused behind a student walking through Stanford’s picturesque but strangely desolate campus. This sequence clocks in at 38 seconds—an eternity of wasted time within a video “tour” that’s merely 337 seconds long.

Two of the Best MBA Virtual Tours

Unlike the troubled video that Stanford released in December 2019—eight weeks before COVID shut down the United States—a new generation of pandemic-era webinar slideshow video tours started appearing online in mid-2020.

For example, this 51-minute slide show from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania presents a good example of this genre. Slide shows like these are easier and less expensive to produce by business schools, whose video production resources have been strained while the programs scrambled to rapidly move classes online early in the pandemic.

Stanford’s GSB would be wise to pay especially close attention to the approach similar to Wharton’s that was applied by the Yale School of Management. In contrast with the GSB, Yale presents viewers with a recording of a slide show webinar focusing not on facilities and technology, but on the business school’s students and their experiences.

We see students interacting during lively class discussions, studying in the SOM’s “bookless” Ross Library, and working on a team project in one of Evans Hall’s technology-equipped breakout rooms. Meanwhile, narrating the slides is a talented and refreshingly engaging first-year MBA student and former Deloitte healthcare consultant named Snigdha Rao. In only 43 minutes, she shows and tells us more than most potential applicants have ever imagined they’d learn about student experiences at the SOM, from an overview of the school’s emphasis on social responsibility to ingenious ways students can satisfy their overseas studies requirement despite the pandemic.

There’s not as much in Rao’s presentation as one might expect about the SOM’s famous “raw case” instructional approach, but she shares plenty of fun facts about student life—such as how students typically arrange trips from New Haven to New York City for interviews as well as, of course, Broadway shows.

The best feature of webinars like these might be that they provide opportunities for potential applicants to ask questions of affable MBA students like Rao. However, don’t assume that the question-and-answer sessions during such a presentation’s second half are completely spontaneous. Admissions staff closely monitor these interactions, and truth be told, probably screen some of the audience’s questions.

Moreover, if some of the answers seem contrived, it’s probably because they are contrived. For example, consider the always-asked question, “Why did you choose your business school?” Expect a response that resembles “Because I wanted to join an outstanding MBA community, like ours.” In the Wharton and Yale webinars, both of the student ambassadors answered that question by citing similar benefits from each business school’s community. And perhaps some investment bankers do exist who care as deeply about contributing to society as Rao passionately insists, but skeptics in the audience might not find her assertions convincing.

Nevertheless, on balance—and free from distractions like music and pointless camera shots—Yale offers a much more compelling presentation than not only Stanford but many of the other MBA virtual tours as well. That’s in large measure because Rao effectively portrays her school as an MBA program that attracts remarkable students, with an international focus, who care far more about contributing to society than their own high earnings. And it doesn’t hurt that she delivers her very own showstopper of a performance.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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