Love at first sight? You might not think a business school, with its endless corridors, lecture halls and leatherette lounges, could weave much of a spell. But for people who have spent years crunching numbers in anonymous offices, that first date with a classroom whiteboard can sometimes seem like heaven.
That is why schools try hard to show their best side to visiting students. "Because postgraduate programmes are so specialised and competitive, the first 'idea of a school' that students get is very important," says Pascal Krupka of Rouen Business School in France. "They take into account how they've been welcomed, the ambience, the classrooms, the campus, the ease of accessibility and obviously the professors. But it's also a chance to see what other prospective students are like and what type of student groups there are."
Increasingly, schools use the summer months to tempt students in for taster courses, hoping that, if they feel at home with the faculty and facilities, they will want to come back.
Next month, for example, IESE Business School in Barcelona is launching a five-day "MBA in a nutshell" programme. Unusually, however, this course is aimed at managers, not at undergraduates.
"The Bologna Accord is changing the shape of higher education, bringing university courses on the Continent into line with those in Britain," says Javier Muñoz, IESE's MBA admissions director, who designed the new programme. "An engineering course that currently lasts eight years will soon last six." So, although IESE's full-time MBA demands four years' work experience, the school expects that European students will soon be starting work at a younger age – and it is getting in early.
"We're offering undergraduates a programme that's not very long, only a week, in which they can meet students from all over the world from very diverse backgrounds, and find out how it differs from a university classroom," Muñoz says. "It's a sneak preview of what life would be like in a prestigious business school."
Taught in English, the subjects include the usual MBA fare of marketing, finance, accounting, operations, leadership, general management and the world economy. "On the first day, the students will be put in a team, given a business problem and asked to use common sense to solve it," says Muñoz. He had expected one class of 70 students, but there are already two classes of 80.
The cost is €1,200, much lower than the normal IESE fees. But the college itself also gains: it now has the contact details of what could turn out to be the class of 2017.
Other top schools have, for some years, offered summer programmes, though not at such a competitive price. The Stanford Graduate School of Business in California, for example, charges $10,000 (£6,700) for its Summer Institute for General Management, which starts on 20 June.
This course is aimed at "exceptional juniors, seniors, and recent college graduates", and involves intense academic coursework, professional-development workshops, and guest speakers from leading companies.
It also offers "the unique opportunity to learn from Stanford's world-renowned MBA faculty" – and indeed for business schools whose classrooms might otherwise be empty, such courses sweat all the assets in a satisfying manner.
Insead, the European school near Paris, holds six "in-house" events a year for visitors, including a lecture, and the chance to meet students, and there are also information sessions on Fridays throughout the year.
"More and more prospective students are seeing the value in visiting the MBA programmes they are considering before applying, or even accepting an offer," says Helle Jensen of Insead. "A first-time visit to our campuses gives people a taste of what to expect on the programme."
Such visits, of course, are also important to the schools themselves: they represent potential business. Some schools, such as Ashridge in Hertfordshire, are set in beautiful old buildings in landscaped splendour, and use their looks to full advantage.
Ashridge offers a series of free one-day events for prospective MBAs. Henley Business School in Buckinghamshire has drop-in sessions twice a week, and even, for potential executive MBA students, a barbecue on its famous lawn by the Thames.
More urban institutions prefer to display their central location and ready access to investors. The Grenoble Graduate School of Business in France plays host to many technology firms. This summer, for the second year running, it is putting on an executive programme focusing on innovation management and entrepreneurship.
Other budding entrepreneurs will be at Cass Business School in the City of London, where a five-day programme begins today. The New Venture Creation programme aims to "connect participants to the people, investors and networks who know what it takes to turn a great idea into a great business".
Participants will also have the opportunity to submit their business plan to the Cass Entrepreneurship Fund and to be considered for a £2,000 scholarship. Now that's a serious temptation.
'The MBA gave me an opportunity to develop as a person'
Julius O'Dowd, 41, is doing a full-time MBA at Ashridge.
"I was a commercial director for a television company, which was bought out. I had a pay-off and thought that it was a good opportunity to invest in further education, so I started to look into MBA programmes. I wanted a school in or around London
I had looked around, but when I went to the Ashridge "MBA in a day" it was apparent to me that it would be my choice. Most of the sessions I had that day, I thoroughly enjoyed. I realised the MBA could be more than just an academic badge – it was actually an opportunity to develop as a person.
It was the quality of the faculty that appealed to me. They put a lot of emphasis into learning techniques and presentation.
Because I had been working in a small company, it was difficult to know how well I was doing, or to broaden my horizons. The MBA has given me benchmarks, contacts and a lot of confidence."
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