How the cluster system changed the learning culture at Columbia Business School

Who better to tell us about Columbia Business School than someone who has been there for over 30 years? Susan Sullivan is the Senior Associate Director of Admissions at Columbia. She revealed the secrets behind their admissions process, and why a change made in her first year at Columbia turned out to be one of the most important.

In short

What is the Columbia Business School cluster system?

Over the course of her 31 years at Columbia Business School, Susan Sullivan has seen a lot of changes. But one of the biggest changes actually came in her first year. Susan arrived at Columbia in the same year as a new dean, who decided to implement what Columbia calls a “cluster system.” She explained to us how it works:

“In August we bring in about 550 students, and we break that down into eight clusters of roughly 65-70 each,” she says. “So you are taking all of the core classes with that same group. Within that cluster you’re doing your work with your learning team of five to six people.” (03:13)

But that doesn’t mean you’re limited to your own cluster throughout your time at Columbia. In your second [semester], after you’ve finished the core MBA modules, you have a choice of electives you can study. It’s during these electives that you have the chance to meet the wider Columbia community. It’s a system which transformed the culture of the school almost overnight.

“A different culture developed with the cluster system almost instantaneously,” Susan says. “The sense of community became something that was a key value for us.” (01:29)

The unique feature of the Columbia MBA interview

Ever since Columbia’s community turned into a key value of the school, finding students who embody that culture has become extra important for the admissions team. To make sure new students fit into that all-important community, the school uses a novel approach in its MBA interviews.

“[MBA] interviews are done almost entirely by our alumni,” Susan reveals. “They haven’t seen your application – all they’ve seen is your resumé. It’s not a tricky kind of interview, it’s really: tell me about your career path to date, what do you want to do afterward, what’s your thought process…” (07:58)

Susan believes that alumni are better-placed than anyone to judge whether prospective new students will truly understand the Columbia DNA. It’s a vital part of the admissions process.

“We like to get the alumni perspective because they have a real sense of the [Columbia] culture,” she explains. “Part of what we ask them is: Can you see this person in your learning team? Do they feel like they fit the culture?” (10:15)

When should you apply for the Columbia MBA?

After you’ve decided why you want to go to Columbia (or any business school), the next question is when: Early in your career, before work and family responsibilities start to take over? Or later in your career, when you’re more experienced with a clearer vision of where you want to go? Susan says there are arguments for both sides.

“It can be helpful early in your career to get an MBA to help you contextualize what you see in the workplace going forward – you have that structure in your mind,” she says. “On the other hand, I think it can be very helpful to start the MBA when you have some experience because you’re not just a blank slate in the classroom. You’re comparing what you’re hearing with your own experiences and adding to the classroom experience.” (15:38)

It’s also important to consider how the MBA will help you get to where you want to go. In fact, it’s an essential part of the process. Susan reveals how to figure that out:

“I think that it’s important to have done research on your own about your target industry, your target function. Talk to people who are doing things that you think you want to do and get an idea of how their career has evolved, so that you know what you’re looking for.” (16:35)

Finding the perfect match for your MBA

It’s especially interesting that Columbia has managed to carve out such a community feel in the context of New York City – because going to Columbia also means preparing yourself for everything that comes with The Big Apple.

“We’re in New York. It is a high-energy place, I would say Columbia is not a place that feels mellow. Everyone’s excited and ambitious, so you need to come in with a clear direction of where you want to go,” Susan says. (17:04)

“Ask yourself if you’re ready to keep yourself open to meeting people who are very different from you, [who have] different understandings of the business world, who have different things that are important to them,” she suggests. (17:40)

Whether or not your own MBA journey begins at Columbia, our talk with Susan highlights the importance of finding a business school that matches your own values. After all, an MBA isn’t a one-way street. It must provide value for you, but you also have to provide value to the business school. And if you can tick both of those boxes, you’ve probably found the perfect match.

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