Guide to the Business School Capstone Project - Types & Examples

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An MBA capstone project is the final step in many MBA programs. It’s here that MBA students put all that they’ve learned into practice by analyzing a meaningful and strategic business question. Often, this involves hands-on work within an existing company, but not always: MBA capstone projects can take the form of startup business plans and business simulations, too.

No matter their format or focus, each capstone project is likely to be the most intensive, and possibly the most rewarding, feature of an MBA candidate’s journey.

A capstone project is not the same as a thesis project, although they do share some qualities. Thesis projects are focused on theory and research, and based on the type of situations one would face in academia. Often taking the form of a large research paper, thesis projects can last the entire final year of an academic program, and some students may even begin before that, with the ultimate goal of contributing new knowledge to the canon of business research.

MBA capstone projects, by contrast, are more practical and similar to situations one would face in the business world. Here, students work in teams to answer strategic business questions. MBA capstones are hands-on immersions with real-world consequences, and they can have a major impact on an MBA graduate’s program experience, as well as their career.

To see some examples of MBA capstone projects, and to get a walkthrough of the general process, read on.

Stages of an MBA Capstone Project

Most MBA capstone projects take place during a program’s final year and can last anywhere from four weeks to a full semester. They often include some form of instruction (whether through prerequisite courses or scheduled advising) along with practical application.

While MBA capstone programs will vary in format from program to program, they generally include the following stages:

  • Topic Selection
  • Preliminary Research
  • Project Execution
  • Written Report
  • Final Presentation

It’s not necessarily over after the final presentation, either: some capstone projects carry over beyond the MBA program, leading to successful startup businesses, offers of employment, or investment opportunities.

Choosing a Capstone Topic

Many MBA programs provide some structured options for choosing a capstone topic. This can mean students are allowed to select from a list of possible partnership opportunities; it can also mean that faculty advisors will work with students to find a topic that meets the student’s strengths, weaknesses, and goals. But in other programs, MBA students are given more freedom to choose both their topic and their partner organization.

In their capstone project, MBA students should select a topic where they can answer a meaningful and strategic business question: one that’s complex enough to warrant significant time and energy, but also realistic enough as to be achievable. These are not theoretical questions, though; each one is tailored to a specific real-world business.

Some examples of MBA capstone topics include:

  • What are the short-term outcomes of a mutual fund’s impact-investing initiative?
  • How do the diversity and inclusion efforts of multinational companies adapt to non-Western office environments?
  • What is the market feasibility of a startup’s application in target demographics?
  • How can a recently downsized organization recover employee morale while keeping the budget balanced?

It’s critical for the capstone topic to be specifically relevant to the partner company or organization. To this end, MBA students should heavily research the company’s strengths, weaknesses, and objectives before selecting their topic.

Similarly, MBA students should turn that lens on themselves, too: what problems do they want to explore in their business careers, what causes do they find interesting, and how can their own unique skill set be best put to use?

How an MBA Capstone is Graded

Some programs provide MBA candidates with a rubric for how their capstone will be graded, while others do not. Most capstones are graded through their ability to demonstrate key business skills (theoretical, practical, applied, and reflective) across functional areas (finance, human resources, marketing, and operations).

The final presentation is also a factor, as this is where the candidate demonstrates what they learned, or didn’t, through the course of the capstone.

It’s rare that an MBA candidate will fail their capstone project. After all, they’ve made it through practically an entire MBA program up until then. Even if the project is a failure from a business point of view, an MBA candidate will likely still be able to effectively analyze where and why the project failed, and what lessons can be learned from that failure going forward.

Examples of MBA Capstone Projects

UCLA Anderson School of Management Capstone Project

The MBA program at UCLA Anderson School of Management offers three capstone options: the Global Access Program (GAP), the Business Creation Option (BCO), and Anderson Student Asset Management (ASAM).

In the GAP, students partner with high-growth global companies in a market-entry consulting project. Working in five- to six-person teams, students bid on partnership opportunities, perform five to six months of research, then travel internationally to the partner organization. Combining interviews, meetings, and research, the students develop effective strategic business plans to advance the organization’s growth, and present it to the organization’s executives, potential investors, and industry professionals.

Along the way, students are advised by faculty members who have directed, invested in, and provided consulting services to leading companies worldwide. In the last 20 years, over 3,000 students have completed the GAP, impacting 738 companies across 23 countries.

For students with an entrepreneurship focus, the BCO offers them the chance to launch a company. After taking two prerequisite courses to prepare their business plans, students will work in teams across two academic quarters. Through extensive research, development, and implementation, students will put strategies for every aspect of their business into practice. In three years, the BCO has had 47 teams and launched 24 companies.

The ASAM program is for current and aspiring quants who want experience as successful long-term portfolio managers. Guided by a faculty advisor and oversight committee, students in the ASAM program will select an optimal mix of equity, fixed income, and cash investments. Each four-member team manages approximately $200,000. Students will rotate work roles between that of an executive board member, strategy lead, risk manager, and programmer.

Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business Capstone Project

The MBA program at Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business offers students three different forms of capstone program: Global Study; Strategic Management of the Enterprise; and Management Game.

In the Global Study capstone, MBA students will take a four-week study abroad course in either Mainland China and Hong Kong or Germany. Previous topics of study have included bank lending in China; entrepreneurship in Asia; European economic integration; and operations management in Europe. Each class is complemented with tours of local companies and meetings with local business leaders. Upon completion of the international experience, students return to Tepper to give a final presentation.

The Strategic Management of the Enterprise capstone is an experiential learning course where students are matched with one of several consulting projects to solve business problems faced by partner companies. This is a more traditional capstone program, focused on the practical application of business skills learned through the MBA curriculum. Past clients have included Walmart, P&G, and Ameriprise.

Tepper’s Management Game capstone is an applied management experience. Student teams run a computer-simulated multinational manufacturing company for three years, acting as its executive committee. Taking place at the end of the MBA program’s curriculum, the Management Game capstone focuses on the unstructured nature of business problems and prods students to use all the functional skills they’ve learned so far. External-facing exercises include interaction with industry partners and are related to each student’s career choices.

Uniquely, the Management Game capstone is graded by external professionals on the merit of the results students deliver; students have the chance to receive direct feedback from corporate partners throughout the process.

Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog
Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.

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