Cultural vs. Functional fit – what’s more important?

If you’re planning on pursuing your MBA anytime soon, you may have attended a number of fairs, spoken with dozens of schools, and sat in a few admissions panels. When it comes to MBA program selection, you must have heard many times about the right “fit”.

Despite its vague meaning, this “buzz word” does answer a lot of questions. I’ve been contemplating blogging about “fit” for some time and when I came across this great article in @Forbes I knew this was the right time! The article did an excellent job of exploring the concept of “fit”. What makes this article better than the others is that it encouraged me to look at “fit” from multiple angles.

Most candidates focus more on the “functional fit”

According to the author, there are two types of “fit” that employers are looking for: a cultural fit and functional fit. Although the article looks at the “fit” from the employers’ perspective, I truly believe the same applies to MBA candidates.

As an admissions professional who has been in this space for a long time, I tend to notice how some candidates are a better fit for some MBA programs than others. Some are great examples of a “functional fit”. They have high GMAT scores, excellent GPAs, and great technical skills that will allow them to succeed academically and in future careers that require technical skills.

Remember that an MBA degree is a professional development degree. As long as MBA students fulfill their career aspirations, they consider the program successful. Investing two years of your time in a graduate degree program to improve your skills and network should bring strong returns – whatever your understanding of the term “return” is. The return could be financial (higher salary) or more intangible (soft skills, the network you develop and the new concepts you learn in the program).

How does the “cultural fit” fit into the MBA journey?

As we’ve already mentioned, there are two types of fit: Cultural and Functional. While it is true that any business school will look for academically brilliant students, a good cultural fit is no less important. You’ll be spending a lot of time at the school with your peers, employers and various industry experts and thought leaders. If you’re not a good cultural fit with the program, you won’t enjoy your experience and your peers won’t benefit as much from your contribution either.

There are numerous studies and examples proving the significance of soft skills, especially for leadership roles. Your technical skills will get your foot in the door in a reputable company but eventually, if you want to lead other people, you have to fit well into the company culture.

How do I decide?

Before making a final decision to apply to a certain school, I recommend that you do some self-reflection, determine your values, beliefs and character traits, and select the business school that fits well with them. Don’t go after rankings only. Pursuing your MBA at a top school is always a bonus, but if the school is not equipped to provide you with what you are looking for, you will not get a good return on your investment.

When you consider a business school, ask these simple questions:

  • What candidates does the business school admit? What type of experience do the students bring? Talk to current students, take advantage of the Social Media and ambassador programs. Find out more about the culture: is it more collaborative or more competitive (most importantly, decide which one works best for you)?
  • What is the school’s teaching philosophy? What’s its competitive advantage over other business schools? What is it known for? Check out the curriculum; explore specializations and areas of focus. If you are interested in sustainability, pursuing an MBA at a school that churns out mostly investment bankers may not be the best choice.
  • What’s the admissions process like? Is the school genuinely interested to learn more about you? Try to get some insight into the selection process and see if the school attracts the quality candidates that you want to see as your peers. It may be harder to read between the lines of the admission requirements, so please feel free to reach out to us if you need any help!
  • Is there good student diversity? Surely, if you’re targeting schools like Insead, London Business School or IMD, you don’t need to worry about lack of diversity; these business schools do a phenomenal job of admitting the best candidates from all over the world – hence their excellent rankings and employment reports. However, if you’re exploring a school and find out that there’s no “balanced” approach to admitting candidates, steer clear of that school because it may be merely filling the seats.


Do your research!

The above key points and your findings will lead you in the right direction. Before you commit yourself to a program, make sure you feel comfortable with your decision and have no “what if” questions in mind. Good luck finding the best fit for your career!

Need help deciding what business school is a good fit for you?

Book a Free 1-on-1 MBA Admissions Consultation