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Learning in the Times of COVID

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

Today’s discussion is with Christina Gohl, who will be starting the full-time MBA program at IE Business School, in Madrid, Spain this September 2020. Christina is 30 years old, coming from a family business in Vancouver, Canada. Her husband will be joining her for the year in Spain, following which they are open to international careers wherever the best opportunities take them.

Q: At what stage were you in your research and applications when COVID became a pandemic, leading to lockdown?

A: I was actually pretty far along in my process. I had already been accepted to three schools, all in Spain, and I was considering which of them I would accept the offer from in the end.

Q: All in Spain? That must have been pretty nerve racking, considering how badly hit Spain was early on in the pandemic.

A: For sure, the push back I got was mostly from family members - my mom was super worried. I, however, was was pretty focused on what I wanted. Ultimately I decided I would figure out the pandemic as it came, since I wasn't willing to abandon my top choices in Spain.

Q: How has COVID impacted your application process?

A: Since I was most of the way through the application process already, I can't speak to the early stages; however, COVID definitely changed my final selection priorities and impacted my visa process.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: COVID shifted my values. Before COVID-19 arrived, I mostly thought about expertise, prestige, intellectual stimulation, and networking potential when selecting an academic institution. However now, I would say my personal safety and that of others has quickly become more important. These aren’t things you usually weigh heavily when you’re 30 years old. You’re just thinking about excellence and a bright future. COVID has been a reality check for me, illustrating just how fragile people and systems can be.

Q: That’s very insightful. What specific questions did you ask to understand how your shortlisted schools would respond to and manage the program during COVID?

A: I wanted to know how each school was responding to COVID, how they intended to keep us safe, how they would best maintain the in-person experience, and what the plan was if they had to go remote. I wanted each school to show me their Plan A, B, and C, to better understand how they might react to whatever this pandemic threw at them.

Q: Haha….no pressure there, right? So what were your expectations, as in what is most important to you in terms of the context and setting of your future MBA program?

A: I wanted to know how my shortlisted schools would still be able to deliver a great MBA experience with as much in-person interaction as possible, despite COVID. While maintaining our personal safety of course.

Q: How else did you suss out which schools were doing the right things to manage the crisis?

A: I checked out the online programs already offered by my three accepted schools, my theory being that these programs would be a good indication of the online experience I could expect if the MBA moved online as well. We’ve all seen that awkward professor on Zoom before, and I wanted to be sure that my classes would still be engaging and interactive, if we had to go online this fall.

I also reflected on how each school conducted their interviews. Certain schools' conferencing software had perpetual issues, which I took as an indication of things to come - not a good sign!

Q: What school did you finally settle on and why?

A: I ulmtimately chose the International MBA at IE Business School as the right fit for me. However, during the selection process, my choice wasn't always clear. One of the other schools I was seriously considering hosted a webinar, outlining their COVID contingency plan. I was impressed. IE had been my top choice, but there was initially a lack of clarity surrounding their COVID plans. Since I had developed a good relationship with my Admissions Advisor, I explained my concerns. Soon after, IE hosted a similar presentation, adding more depth and leveraging the technology they are known for. I was impressed how quickly they adapted to my feedback. Their reactivity and agility in a difficult situation impressed me and I felt this was a great indication of how they might adapt to the quickly changing world that we call the "new normal." Watching IE live their entrepreneurial core value in this way ultimately finalized my choice to attend IE Business School.

Q: Excellent choice! What are some of the solutions that IE shared with you?

A: Oh, many things. IE prepared a health protocol they entitled, "We Are Ready." This included developing an online daily self-reporting site in conjunction with mandatory COVID testing to create a digital "Health Passport" which is required to access campus. The first semester was introduced in a completely hybrid learning format, allowing students who couldn't access campus (either due to personal health reasons or visa/immigration challenges) to fully participate in the digital format. They have also implemented an intense cleaning protocol to reduce any potential spread of the virus by someone who is sick, and possibly asymptomatic. Lastly, classrooms have been set up to allow for social distancing, with more space between desks, and masks are required in all classes.

Q: What have you learned about IE since your acceptance?

A: I learned that I wasn't the only on impressed by their COVID response! IE’s response to COVID was in so good, they were featured in a Poets & Quants article as one of the leading schools in COVID response. I also reached out to and interviewed a few current students at IE to get a first-hand report how the end of their MBA program was impacted by the pandemic, as their cohort was the first to be affected (and the one caught most off-guard).

Q: What did they tell you?

A: I found out that at the end of the program, they moved to 100% online. They said that although they were disappointed to lose their face-to-face interaction, the quality of education did not decline. IE's online format also allowed those who wanted to return to their home countries during the onslaught of the pandemic to do so, and follow their courses without interruption. IE also installed additional cameras and microphones in the classrooms to enhance the online experience for a more immersive, 3-dimensional feeling. My take-away was that if my MBA year became an online experience, it would still be one of high quality.

Q: What advice would you give people who are beginning their research for an MBA program next year?

A: Be thoughtful about the kind of school that is right for you. I think there will be a major shift in post-secondary education, and the traditional format will be challenged. As schools more to a more online or hybrid approach, traditional institutional rankings won't necessarily reflect the education you end up receiving. For example, how well a school responds to rapid change is a critical indicator of a quality educational experience during volatile times that isn't typically reflected in rankings. The faculty and administration's willingness to adapt, and their experience with the technology necessary to deliver education in new ways will be crucial to ensure a world-class education in our new reality.

Secondly, now more than ever, it’s extremely important to be clear as to why you want an MBA and what you want to get out of it. Doing an MBA has always been a risk, but pressing pause on your career in such an unstable market increases that risk more than ever. As a result, it’s important that you enter with a clear concept of the problem in your career that you feel your MBA can solve. Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions to the schools you’re considering to validate your theory that they’re the right solution. Sometimes you have to push a little; people can’t give you what they don’t know you want. Be persistent and proactive.

Lastly, I'll share a bit more about what happened with me. You just have to assume everything will take longer, so start the process a little bit earlier. COVID adds chaos to the process, so create additional structure for yourself. Personally I had a comprehensive plan for how and when I would prepare the GMAT, apply to the best schools, nail the interviews, and arrive in Europe a month before my program began, to travel and explore before school started. In reality, my GMAT score was 40 points below my target, and I had to decide whether to focus on my applications or retake the test. In the end, I chose not to retake the test, as my GMAT score wasn’t a core tenet of my personal branding. Then my visa application came back - with my name misspelled - and they lost my husband’s which delayed our trip not once, but twice. Ultimately I landed in Madrid, 4 days before in-person classes started, scrambled to get a COVID test so I could access campus and did the first week off of mobile internet. However, I wouldn’t have even managed that much without a good Plan A that left room for a Plan B and ultimately a Plan C! Being prepared and starting early definitely made adapting to setbacks a lot more manageable. Be as patient and as flexible as you can be. If you start early, it’s a lot easier to be patient when things don't go according to plan!

Thanks for reading!

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