Online is even better than the real thing

MBA fairs are going virtual, with plenty of advantages over traditional ones, says Russ Thorne

With such a vast variety of MBA courses on offer at thousands of business schools worldwide, getting to grips with all the options can be a daunting challenge for prospective students.

Simply getting in contact with potential institutions canbetricky enough, especially for a global qualification such as the MBA that sees students travel all over theworld to study.

Last November, the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) attempted to make the world a little smaller for students with GMATCH, a new virtual MBA fair. “It’s like around the world in 80 days,” jokes Julia Tyler of GMAC. “GMATCH is designed tomake it easier for schools and candidates to connect, wherever they may be in theworld.”

As the owner of the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), taken by some 264,000 students in 2010 and used by 1,900 business schools as an entry qualification, GMAC is well placed to pick up on students’ needs, Tyler explains.

“Our surveys showed very clearly that students want more information, more easily, and online. That reflects where candidates are these days.”

In addition, schools are under pressure to keep budgets in line and travel costs down, she says, while at the sametimewanting more regular and more meaningful interaction with students. Going digital was the perfect solution, she says – “It became a no-brainer.”

To deliver schools and students the kind of interactive communication experience they were looking for, the organisation created an online environment where business schools could set up stalls in a virtual conference centre (presumably without the expensive parking).

Once logged on, students had access to 56 business schools from all over the world. In addition to talking to staff via instant messaging, they could participate in panel discussions about creating effective applications, or get advice on sitting the GMAT exam; they could also watch virtual presentations and take part in real-time Q&A sessions. In total, 1,750 prospective students from 136 countries tookpart,withnocharge for participating, and their feedback was positive. As one student put it: “It was virtual but felt so real. Sitting in Saudi Arabia, I could never have imagined all these universities would be accessible and available to me.”

For the schools, exhibiting at the virtual fair was a rather more relaxing experience than attending one of its real-world counterparts. “It gets a bit chaotic,” says Steven Cousins of Cass Business School. “You get a lot of people coming through in a short period and you don’t get to have a long conversation.

“Online fairs gave a different angle. People could beat home, or they could attend after work. And it’s a format that potential candidates are used to; they’re comfortable with using social media to communicate.”

Tyler agrees, and argues that this kind of event isn’t a sign of future practices. “It’s not the future, it’s here now,” she says. “The people going to business school now were born with this kind of technology and it’s part of the way they work. Interactive communication like this is just the way of the modern world.”

There are many potential benefits to the kind of communication available at virtual fairs, according to Cousins. “During the fair we were able to direct people to specific parts of our website, or arrange follow-up phone calls,” he says. “And we had all our resources at hand during the virtual fair, whereas when you travel to a physical one it depends on what you can carry with you.” He also cites being able to speak to several people at once “without it becoming one big noise” as a distinct improvement on real world events.

Of course, the possibility of instant communication across several time zones didpose challenges. “The reality is that you may be speaking to a candidate on the other side of the world at 3am your time,” says Tyler. “But there’s the advantage that you haven’t had to travel all the way to Asia to speak to them: they’re at your fingertips.

You could be sitting with your feet up!” Cousins acknowledges the same issue, explaining that he and his colleagues adopted a relay system with some staff working late at the office until others took over from home.

Sleep-scheduling conflicts aside though, schools and students agree that the virtual fair gave them much greater access to one another. “The ability to interact one to one with the admissionstaff of the business schools was the best aspect,” according to one student. “A candidate like me would not have an opportunity to speak to so many schools otherwise.”

Stacey Dorang, assistant MBA admissions director at the Smeal College of Business at Penn State University, agrees. “We were excited to take part in the GMATCH fair to interact with potential students we wouldn’t have the opportunity to meet in a live setting,” she says. “The virtual environment opens up a world of information to prospective MBAs and gives them access to schools that they might not otherwise even know exist.”

Ultimately, virtual fairs are less about the technology and more about helping students make informed decisions.

“My advice always is ‘research, research, research’,” says Tyler. “But research in the right place. Using something like GMATCH gives you the opportunity to meet more schools in a short period of time – especially if you want to study outside your own country –than you could conceivably do any other way.”

Cousins believes that GMATCH was a positive experience for Cass, and that the school will be taking part in future events; but he stresses its usefulness for students above all else. “I think online fairs give them the opportunity to find out more about the schools and how they fit with their needs,” he says.

“I don’t know a single MBA course that isn’t incredibly expensive and incredibly hard work, so it’s a bigcommitment. It’s the last professional qualification many people ever take, so it’s important to spend the time researching it and working out what’s going to be the right fit for them.”

The next GMATCH event is planned for this autumn – check www.mba.com for updates and registration details.

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