Thousands of students are starting their first day of business school over the next few weeks, beginning the arduous journey to an MBA.
Every b-school has its own unique curriculum and culture, but there are common experiences that all students go through.
Alex Dea, who graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School in 2015, shared with us a collection of the best advice for new students he gathered from fellow MBAs and second-year students. Dea runs the site MBASchooled, a resource for business school students, applicants, and alumni.
Here’s what they recommend for surviving the often overwhelming first semester and then making the most of your remaining time at school.
Take the “three pillar” approach.
In your undergraduate years, you may have made a mistake of neglecting your classwork to party on a weeknight or overwork yourself with an internship. Things are a bit different in business school.
Ben Thayer, Kenan-Flagler MBA ’16, says that business school isn’t about studying 24/7 in a classroom or library, and that comes with its own challenges. He developed what he calls a “three-pillar approach” to categorizing his responsibilities: academic (reports and tests), social (clubs and fun events), and career (interviewing with job recruiters). “You have to build up each pillar to succeed,” he says.
Thayer believes it’s necessary to constantly be conscious of giving each pillar equal importance, and that you learn to balance sacrifices you may make in one area with those you make in the other two.
Prioritize with the understanding that it’s impossible to give everything your best effort.
Jill Gramolini, New York University Stern School of Business MBA ’16, says she felt prepared for a rigorous schedule because she had already spent four years as a consultant at Deloitte. She needed to learn to accept, however, that at business school it’s not possible to achieve every one of your goals.
“Prioritize, because as much as I wanted to do it all, I learned I couldn’t,” she says.
She determined in her first semester that she wanted to enter the retail industry after graduating, and so settled on using her first year networking and learning about the industry through Luxury and Retail Club events and a part-time internship. Because Stern doesn’t disclose grades to potential employers, Gramolini decided to make the most of her time by learning as much as she could without worrying about getting perfect grades.
Give yourself a break.
Regardless of their professional or educational background, most students feel some degree of anxiety or go through moments of self-doubt. There is also a tendency for students to become so busy that they spend two years within a business school bubble.
You need to learn to relax, says Philip Blackett, Harvard Business School MBA ’16. “Keep things in perspective: Don’t have a heart attack before you graduate,” he says.
When things start to feel out of your control, remind yourself that you wouldn’t be on campus if you didn’t have the ability to succeed. Set aside time in your week to de-stress through your desired method, whether that’s working out, attending a yoga class, or grabbing a few beers with friends. Blackett says that it’s tremendously helpful to spend at least some of this time with friends you make at school, since they’ll understand what you’re going through better than anyone.
Kayla Cartwright, University of Virginia Darden School of Business MBA ’16, says that she learned in her first semester that making friends wasn’t just fun, it was “critical” to your success at b-school.
Every top undergraduate or graduate school program builds a diverse student body, but business schools tend to have especially eclectic classes. For example, a student who has already spent five years as a consultant has insights she could offer to her classmate who has very minimal formal business training but is building a startup, and vice versa.
“Do yourself and your school community a favor and be intentional about inviting people different from you to socialize and work with you on group projects,” Cartwright says.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help and give as much as you can.
Because business school student bodies have a wide variety of skill sets, that means that any individual student will not be fully prepared for all of the course work.
“Business school can be incredibly humbling, but ask for help when you need it,” Dea, Kenan-Flagler ’15, says. “You’ll probably be surprised at how willing people are to help you.”
If you made it into a top business school, you’re already probably very competitive, but you can’t let pride get in the way of your education.
Add value to your classmates’ learning experience.
And on the topic of competition, you’re not helping anyone if you use your class participation as an attempt to impress your professor and classmates, says John Huang, University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Speak like a “normal human” and don’t roll off memorized textbook material.
To add value, confidently share your own opinions and defend your conclusions. You’ll be taking a bigger risk than giving a standard answer you think your professor would like to hear, but you’ll be giving your classmates an opportunity to learn from a different perspective.
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