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Shaping Expectations to Boost Business School Survey Response Rates

Posted on Sep 18, 2012 8:30:00 AM

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If you are planning to conduct a MBA satisfaction survey, it is important to do everything you can to boost your response rate to minimize cost and speed up the turnaround time. This is one of a series of articles to provide tips and tricks to help you get the best possible response rate from your business school market research.


MBA experience surveys are an extra activity in the lives of students and alumni so it is important to set the tone of why you are conducting the survey and why they should care. Business schools should mold expectations around these stakeholder feedback initiatives. Strategically positioning MBA satisfaction surveys can lead to increased response rates and increased adoption of the survey tools as a part of the school’s continuous improvement efforts.

It is essential to frame stakeholder surveys to fit your school’s culture. Conducting an MBA student satisfaction assessment is a great opportunity to reinforce a collaborative environment from which stakeholder opinions are highly valued and acted upon. Your target audience should believe that the business school needs and appreciates student and alumni feedback.

Just as setting expectations for attendance and participation in class sessions, student engagement in surveys should be positioned as necessary in order to drive continuous improvement in the business school.

The Survey Logistics

Inform your students what they are getting into before they even begin the survey. Creating realistic expectations will prevent a tremendous amount of respondent frustration. Make sure you describe the purpose of the survey, any incentives that are being offered, and how the survey results will be used (check out this related article on pre-alert notification).

Be sure to indicate the time required to complete the survey and the deadline date.  That way your stakeholders will know whether they can budget the time to complete the survey now or defer until later.

MBA Student Exit Survey TIP: Some programs require their students to ‘apply’ to graduate and tie the beginning of this ‘application’ at the end of the MBA exit evaluation to induce census participation. 


When business schools are conducting MBA student satisfaction surveys, the simple act of requiring students to take the survey may be all the motivation you need. However, if the survey will cover sensitive information, it may be important for the school to ensure the respondent's anonymity by using a third-party vendor.

MBA Student Entry Survey TIP: Students are more amenable to responding to surveys as they enter the program. Schools should position the Student Entry Survey as part of the admissions process such that all incoming students are expected to provide responses. Strategically, this is also the best time to introduce our students to the continuous improvement process for the school by alerting them to the additional school-initiated surveys that may follow such as a Midterm Survey, an Exit Survey, and an Alumni Survey.

Another type of responsibility motivation is to stress to your stakeholders how important the information they will provide and how the school will utilize and act on the results.  A great way to demonstrate that the school acts on the results is to provide an example of how the school utilized previous survey results (check out this related article: Broadcast your Survey Results).

As stakeholders are expected to provide feedback through the channels created, the school meets the student expectation to act on the results.

Answer the WIIFM

The biggest motivator for most respondents is enlightened self-interest, also known as “What’s In It For Me?” (WIIFM). The word ME is key: respondents must see the benefit that accrues to them personally, not just to their team or their institution. With a plethora of competing demands on their time, MBA administrators must convince their stakeholders why it is in their interest to respond to your MBA experience survey.

MBA administrators should work with department stakeholders and other interest groups (such as student government or alumni associations) to obtain their endorsement or support before the fielding the survey. Use of this type of strategy depends on the nature of the stakeholder research and target population. Response rates for research among special audiences can be expected to improve if the key association endorses the survey and encourages members to participate.

MBA Alumni Survey TIP: Due to the varying span of direct on-campus contact with graduates, alumni surveys are typically the most difficult to garner high response rates. It is often helpful to seek testimonials from alumni association board leaders or well-known alumni to disseminate how the survey will benefit alumni and serve as influencers to encourage participation. These testimonials can be published in alumni newsletters, social media sites, and the survey invites themselves.

Competing with Survey Fatigue

Typically, in the spring, graduating students are bombarded with surveys (media rankings, etc.). At some point, students will experience survey fatigue. It is critical for business schools to explain that while ranking surveys are important for a school’s reputation, the school actually doesn’t receive the results of those surveys – these surveys are essentially a ‘black box’. 

MBA Student Exit Survey TIP: It is advantageous for schools to schedule outgoing student surveys prior to fielding of media ranking surveys. This approach typically garners higher response rates for the school’s Exit survey and provides an opportunity for unhappy students to relay their concerns first and fully to via the exit survey as opposed to a ranking survey.

Students can also experience survey disenchantment if the business school neglects to demonstrate action from earlier input from a previous incoming student survey or mid-point student survey. Not acting on feedback can cause a disconnection with your continuous improvement efforts that usually ends with the respondent less inclined to completing future surveys.  

It is also important to limit the number of surveys being sent to your stakeholders. If the school constantly sending stakeholders surveys, they will become immune to them and respond less and less, until they do not respond at all. A student who completes a survey once or twice a year is more valuable than one who does not respond at all.

MBA Student Midterm Survey TIP: Midpoint surveys are typically operationally focused and are a good opportunity to integrate surveys from other departments (such as tech services, facilities management, etc.) into a single instrument to ease the survey burden on business school students.


Please leave a comment about your MBA program’s tactics for boosting survey response. We would love to hear about your experience and your tips!


Brian Mahoney, author for this article, is a marketing research consultant and Managing Partner of Percept Research. Brian welcomes your questions and comments.

Topics: Brian Mahoney, Boost Response Rates, Shaping Expectations