Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin School of Business has one of the smallest of the top MBA programs in the country, typically enrolling no more than 150 students per year. But small size has been no barrier to quality, as Olin has shown by regularly making it to the top 20 or so slots of the various b-school rankings. Olin itself considers its small size a strength that allows it to foster close relationships with its students and to deliver an intensive, personalized management education. MBA students can begin taking electives as early as their second semester and can declare degree concentrations in finance (with a focus on investments and asset management or on investment banking and corporate finance), marketing (with a focus on brand management or on marketing consulting), management strategy, organizational behavior (with a client services, general management, or HR focus), operations and manufacturing, entrepreneurship, or accounting analysis. They can also pursue dual degree programs that pair an MBA with a degree in architecture, urban planning, biomedical engineering, East Asian studies, law, or social work.

Here is our 2007 interview with Evan Bouffides, Assistant Dean and Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid for Olin.

What do you think differentiates Olin from other top business schools?

I think that one of the things is that we are one of the relatively small programs among the top business schools. We take in about 140 to 150 students per year. What we believe we can do well because of that size is to offer every one of our students a very personalized experience. That has to do not only with the education that they receive, but also the experience as they think about managing their careers.

When you think about our program in the larger context of Washington University – which is a very significant research institution – what we feel we provide is the intimate environment with all of the resources that are available at a major institution.

Additionally, one of the principles on which we put a lot of emphasis is the notion of applied learning. What we end up doing for our students is putting them in scenarios and situations where they have a chance to practically apply what they’re learning from classroom to real-world situations.

For example, we offer a portfolio of different options for our students under something called the Center for Experiential Learning and also the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, whereby they are able to do what is essentially project-based work.

There are a number of ways that this happens, but the basic premise of this is that companies will come in and they will offer our students project work. Our students serve, essentially, as consultants. So that’s a very different kind of learning experience than what might happen in a traditional case-method classroom or a lecture-based classroom.

The other thing is that we offer quite a flexible curriculum. If you look at the percentage of classes in our curriculum that are elective versus required classes, you’ll see that it’s quite high among the major business schools. It’s probably among the highest. Part of the reason for that is that we want to offer the students, along with this sort of personalized approach, the ability to choose as many of the courses as they want to take to best suit whatever their interests are.

So, after the first half of the first year, virtually all of the core classes – that is, the required classes – are done, and people begin to choose electives.

Let’s go more in-depth on some of the areas you’ve already mentioned. What benefits does your intimate environment offer to students?

I think the underlying theory is that, in the MBA program, part of what students do is sit in class and learn critical material that we think is significant to their learning experience. But the other piece is, clearly, that they are there to make relationships, to network, to think about who they need to meet in order to pursue whatever career interests they have.

We want to provide them with a situation where they know every single one of their classmates. That’s very difficult to do at a larger institution – or at least the largest, I would say. Here they are able to meet all of their faculty and know them very, very well. All of the students know the Dean and the Dean knows all of the students.

That extends to the job search as well, where we’re trying to place them in front of our alums. We have a very supportive structure. The alumni also reflect back upon their experiences here and remember that intimate environment, and they are then more compelled to assist our current students in their job search.

So part of it is just that we’re small and everybody knows everybody. There are pros and cons to that, but we’d say that a smaller environment, and a more intimate environment, is better for what we’re trying to do.

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