Many institutions are including role-play alongside the traditional core subjects to toughen up students. Kathy Harvey reports

An MBA is designed to prepare you for the real world of business - right? That's the theory. But for many students the contrast between corporate life and academia, with its emphasis on written assignments and exams, can be something of a shock. Before you know it, you're burning the midnight oil in the library and the real world seems a long way off.

It's a problem business schools are increasingly keen to counter, and many now combine practical case studies or exercises with the usual core courses of the first term. But do such exercises reflect real life?

For new MBA students at Audencia Nantes School of Management in France, the emphasis is on the so-called "soft skills" of management. Students are asked to evaluate each others' skills, and to re-evaluate these later in the year. The initial assessment is carried out during a business game with other students.

"It definitely felt like going in at the deep end," says Ian Cathcart, a British graduate of Audencia , now working as a business development manager in the United States for the French company Veolia Water. "I was put in a small group of students from all over the world and we had to come up with a plan for marketing a dairy product. There was a lot of trial and error but we were lucky because our group contained someone who had worked for Nestle - so we tried to learn from her expertise."

In fact, rubbing shoulders with people from different professional backgrounds and cultures is one of the most effective ways of bringing the reality of management into the classroom, according to the Association of MBAs (AMBA). "One of the most rewarding aspects of an MBA programme is the facility to learn from a diverse group of peers and benefit from their experience," says AMBA's chairman, Jeanette Purcell. At the same time, any good MBA programme will require academic application. "You can't overlook the importance of being able to study hard and write well - but these are skills which you'll also need afterwards."

Executive MBA students, who combine study with their job, are less likely to find themselves veering into the realms of academic theory, but Jeanette Purcell points out that there is often more time on full-time courses to combine lectures on strategy with a practical exercise, testing the theories discussed. "People shouldn't feel they are losing touch with the real world if they study full-time," she says. "All good MBA courses should keep you focused on real-life issues."

Guest lecturers and compulsory business projects are designed to bridge the gap between the classroom and the workplace. The Saïd Business School at Oxford University requires MBA students to take part in an entrepreneurial new business project, as well as a consulting project with a sponsoring company. Many schools are angling their more practical assignments so that students have to put themselves in the position of board members responsible for a business.

At Cranfield School of Management, students face a series of crisis scenarios, where they have to defend their fictitious company to a hostile group of journalists. The scenarios include a scandal over baby food poisoning and a luxury cruise where food poisoning puts paid to the trip of a lifetime for passengers.

Steve Carver, who leads the personal and professional development course at Cranfield, believes this kind of business simulation helps with both self-knowledge and leadership skills. "What we do is create an acute awareness of the dangers involved in handling a crisis, and the skills needed to see a company through to the other side. Some students find this incredibly difficult, while others discover an ability they didn't know they had. The important thing is finding out which role you are going to play best."

Not all business schools include crisis training in their MBA programmes, but it would now be hard to find a top programme which did not include some sort of business simulation. Cass Business School in London puts students through a mock City trading exercise, and Insead offers its one-year MBA programme a mini elective entitled "The first 100 days" - where students take the reins of a fictional start-up company.

In an intensive ten-month programme like the one at Insead it is probably hard to forget that the real world is just around the corner. But supporters of the two-year MBA model point out that this allows students to combine the best of all worlds - allowing time for in-depth academic study in the first year, followed by the traditional summer internship system.

London Business School, one of only two UK schools to run two-year MBA programmes, also encourages students to begin developing an entrepreneurial idea early on in their studies.

Simon Schneider, who left IBM to study full-time at London Business School, says anyone tempted into a "tunnel vision" approach to studying heavyweight subjects like finance is in for a surprise at LBS. "The school is very good at bringing you back to reality and opening you up to new ideas. You aren't used to exams, and that's hard, but the nice thing is you feel much younger again."

MBA students on the full-time programme at LBS study leadership alongside finance and are encouraged to take courses in career skills at the same time.

Schneider, who specialised in security technology at IBM, has set up a technology start-up competition for fellow students. "The business school is very keen on this kind of thing. I've had to deal with venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and a range of potential sponsors."