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Business schools are increasingly adding support to develop the soft skills, branding and focus that graduates need to set them apart

Once a helpful add-on, career advice has become a core feature of graduate business programs.

Schools are rolling out a fresh arsenal of tools – from online assessments of emotional intelligence and one-on-one interview coaching by industry experts to credit courses on career mapping – for students to use when, and sometimes even before, they show up for class. With access to the new supports, the onus is on students to dig deep, personally, and learn to "tell a story" about what sets them apart as a candidate in a competitive job market.

"What we are trying to demonstrate [to students] is that getting a job is not a transaction, it is part of an ecosystem," says Sharon Irwin-Foulon, executive director of career management and corporate recruiting at the University of Western Ontario's Ivey Business School in London, Ont. "The [MBA] credential won't get you the job. The credential gets you access to these resources, employers and training so you are effective in the ecosystem."

As a result, she says, "the students have to get their heads in the game a little differently."

That was the experience when Anand Koshy, an electrical engineer, applied to the MBA class at Ivey in 2013, keen to build his leadership skills but uncertain about his next career move.

He recalls his Ivey interview, conducted by Ms. Irwin-Foulon, as an "intimidating" experience – but also highly rewarding – as she pushed him to explain his career goals.

"She was very perceptive, with thoughtful questions that were not the standard [ones]," says Mr. Koshy. "It wasn't about having a 95 per cent-plus transcript, she wanted to understand what it is you were able to bring to the table and how you saw yourself, how mature you were and how introspective you could be."

At Ivey, like other schools, career preparation is embedded from Day 1 of the curriculum. After several for-credit sessions on career planning, Ivey MBA students complete a three-day "mandatory capstone learning event" in Toronto that includes mock interviews, networking activities with alumni, workshops on specific careers and information sessions with prospective employers.

"It showed me what potential jobs were out there that I might not have known about," says Mr. Koshy. "It was a lot of exploration and a lot of experimentation."

Over his year-long program, he says he learned to hone his "story-telling" skills so he could talk to prospective employers about his credentials and discover if their work culture was compatible with his aspirations.

Before graduating in 2014, he found the fit he wanted: a job in Toronto with Australia-owned CHEP, a global logistics firm that provides pallet and container pooling services for industry. Now a senior management of key accounts and strategy, Mr. Koshy says as a manager he applies the coaching strategies he experienced at Ivey to encourage meaningful career conversations with the five people who report to him.

Meanwhile, in a move that underscores the heightened profile of career services, the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business last fall revamped its traditional career centre to deliver an expanded focus on the "personal and professional development" of students, with new tools to help them explore their potential.

For example, students can fill out an online assessment to measure their emotional intelligence, such as their level of empathy, self-control and relationship skills.

"We realized we really needed to put emotional intelligence at the core of what we are doing," says Martina Valkovicova, assistant dean at UBC Sauder's Hari B. Varshney Business Career Centre, noting the significant contribution of emotional intelligence to staff management and performance.

"Employers told us they want students who have a positive attitude and who have good communication skills," says Ms. Valkovicova, emphasizing her centre's sharpened focus on equipping students to become self-aware, develop a personal "brand" and build networks with alumni and potential employers.

What many call "soft skills" – the ability to communicate well and work with others – Ms. Valkovicova calls "essential skills" for a changing workplace.

"We know the market is shifting and it is moving fast with the new trends of artificial intelligence, robotics and all that," she says. "We need to change our approach in terms of how we are working with our students."

To that end, her career centre is reimagining its role, still offering tips on résumé writing and job searches but working closely with students and faculty from the first day of class to encourage "transformational conversation" about potential careers.

With the aid of a new online platform, the centre now requires all students to fill out their résumés before meeting with a career counsellor.

At some schools, the fast-changing nature of work creates new openings for career centres to work differently with students, faculty, alumni and employers.

"It is like a mash-up now of career options," observes Karen Jackson-Cox, executive director of the career advancement centre at Queen's University's Smith School of Business in Kingston. "With more options and choices comes a little less clarity [for students] on what is their best career path."

The school embeds career coaching throughout its full-time MBA program, but some activities start several months before students come to class. In the fall before the annual January intake, Smith works with incoming MBA students who conduct self-assessments of their strengths and weaknesses. Once in school, students work on their "personal brand story of what you want to do and why you want to do it," says Ms. Jackson-Cox, with an expectation they can demonstrate technical knowledge and soft skills.

In preparation for job interviews, some students work with "experts-in-residence" – former industry leaders recruited by Smith to share insights about the expectations of a particular sector or company.

The expert-in-residence model, introduced three years ago, "is going very well," says Ms. Jackson-Cox, a certified career coach. "It is really important that students work with people who have credibility and can prepare them technically and test their readiness."

Though schools take different approaches to redefining career support services, they all stress the growing need for students to learn to communicate what they, in particular, can offer to a future employer.

"You need to be able to tell a story to these alumni and companies who are coming out to look at the talent," says Ivey's Ms. Irwin-Foulon. "It's about explaining why an MBA, and why now."

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