Back to school after years on the job means lectures, homework and exams while also juggling campus activities and a job search. Even for those students who are starting their MBA shortly after successfully completing undergraduate business school you may not have enough “real-world” experience to hit the ground running in their first year. We'll give you tips how to navigate through your first year successfully; from refreshing your quantitative skills to getting an internship and setting the course for a successful graduation. No matter what you studied for your undergrad degree or what work experience you've gained, going back to the classroom as an MBA student will be different. Listen in to learn what you can do to ensure you start off successfully and fully prepared.
Peter Regan, professor, Tuck School of Business and founder of MBA Math and www.mbaquant.com, a site dedicated to helping prospective students to understand the quantitative demands of the MBA first year
Katherine Loucks, author of Business School Confidential: A Complete Guide to the Business School Experience: By Students, for Students
Regina Resnick, Assistant Dean of MBA Career Services, Columbia Business School
Going back to graduate school after years on the job isn’t easy. All too soon you’ll be listening to lectures again, doing homework, studying for exams and on top of that you’ll have to juggle all sorts of campus activities while looking for your next big internship. In this program we’ll give you tips on how to navigate through your first year successfully, from refreshing your quantitative skills to preparing for tests. We’ll talk to an author of a guide on business school, a professor and a career management director both from top MBA programs.
Think you’re ready to take on the core quantitative courses that you’ll face your first year? Peter Regan is a professor at the Tuck School of Business; he says a lot of students probably are adequately prepared., but it might not be a bad idea to take a diagnostic test or he says, you can see which of these groups you fall into, “The most neediest group would be complete career switchers who are admitted into a top MBA program because of their leadership potential and the excellence that they’ve shown in the area that they are currently involved in which is say outside of business. So that kind of group would need to get some kind of quantitative boost so that they are ready to sit in class with people who have had a more traditional path to business school, including some quantitative either engineering or business background as an undergrad and then some business related internship or sequence of positions in their early professional life, so when those students go back school they may not need very much preparation, in fact many of them may need none. So you’ve got the career switchers at the bottom, so to speak of the quantitative spectrum and they need a lot of help and then you’ve got some people who know they don’t need any help because it’s an extension of what they have been doing. And then there’s people in the middle who may have needs in one area but not in others.” Regan also offers an online math refresher course called MBA Math, several business schools already provide his course to incoming students but anyone can access the program for just $99.00. “The course covers several different areas, first there’s an accounting module, a financial math module, other modules cover statistics, microeconomics and basics of excel. And the idea of the course is to try to spread it out and make sure that the quantitative mechanics that we know students get bogged down in are covered not the advanced topics, but the basic topics so that they have a basic familiarity with the material that will be the foundation of each of their first year courses and with these foundations and basic skills under their belt they can then focus on the more managerial relevance or the cases, the aspects of the course that is really the main part of the first year experience for the students and from the professor’s prospective.” For more information on Regan’s online course, visit mbamath.com.
If you know you’ll do better in a live class, Regan says just make sure the course covers math that’s relevant to a MBA. “There are some places and you can check with your school and try to get some recommendations, there are courses live as an extension program, say I know of some in the UCLA area and also in different cities around the country, a community college or a state schools or another local school that serves incoming business students. The difficulty that I’ve heard is that people either don’t have a schedule that allows them to regularly attend or they find that it is a course say on statistics or accounting or finance, but it’s not MBA oriented and that the coverage that they have there isn’t necessarily the same, as that they would need to use their time wisely to prepare for a MBA program and so if you have people going in either more technical jobs then maybe those materials be more technical than they need or it could happen on the other side, it could be more conversational learning about something and not learning how to get the kind of answers you’ll need in your MBA curriculum. So I would advise students to rely on what their MBA program offices tell them, check with other students and also consider whether something like MBA Math or specifically MBA Math would be good for them by taking a look at the website.”
Preparing your quantitative skills before arriving on campus will help you have a smoother experience in business school, but if you do need the help the resources are there, says Regan, “The top schools for sure, and probably at all school there are support resources, academic support groups that will set students up with second year tutors, help them with general study skills, with specific tutoring in a given area and also the professors are accessible through office hours to help and there’s generally course assistance in the first year core courses so there’s a whole structured set of resources available to students. The big difficulty with that is simply the lack of time as the first year progresses. You can’t possibly go see a tutor, go to every study session, go to every office hour, there’s just too much happening in the first year. So what we try to do before students arrive is get them informed as much as possible about what the expectations will be so that they can plan accordingly and come reasonably prepared.”
Katherine Loucks is author of a book called Business School Confidential: A Complete Guide to the Business School Experience: By Students, for Students. Loucks graduated from Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management, she says one of the best ways to navigate through your first year on campus is to, “Find a second year who can be your mentor and truly a mentor because there are many programs set up where you get assigned a second year to help you, you know get used to the school, but truly find a friend who is going to give you the skinny on not only balancing your activities but also organizations you want to be a part of if you want to do acts after your graduate. I watched friend do that and it really benefited him, whether it was with job interviews or getting the right classes or learning how to study correctly, really I saw that it helped him a lot. So that would be one piece of advice, I would give is find a second year who is really going to take the time, who’s a friend as well as an assigned mentor.”
As soon as you hit campus, you’ll hardly have a moment to yourself says Loucks, that’s why her advice is to take on less than you think you can handle. “Everyone who goes to business school is motivated I mean for the most part, you know motivated, you excel, you’re there for a purpose, you’re probably paying your own way if you didn’t for undergraduate school as well, that said, when you start I think one of the biggest mistakes that you can make is joining everything. You know, you get there and maybe you think you know what you want to do when you graduate, and so you join the private equity group, the venture capital group, all the finance groups and now you find yourself strung out because you’re the secretary in one, the treasurer in another and you’re planning an event for the third one, I mean outside your academics these are important activities, I mean their much more important than I felt like they were in undergraduate school in the sense that it helps your resume, it helps you learn and make connections, it helps you to make and get introductions to people in the industry, stay on top of what’s going on in the industry so they’re really important in that regard, but at the same time if you spread yourself so thin everything starts to suffer. And there’s this kind of madness when you first start up like all these groups are inviting me to all of these different things and you feel like you have to go to everything and I would say pick some and go to the events but don’t necessarily join everything and don’t necessarily take a leading role in everything. And this is where also talking to a second year is really going to be helpful, and say okay this is what I want to do when I get out of here, this is what I think I want to do because a lot of people change their minds, which groups are the best to join or which are the most helpful, whatever. Because they all have different names and when you first get there you don’t know which group has been around for longer, which group has better relationships in the industry, I would just say feel it out for the first semester. And you’re going to feel like you’re falling behind because all of the other people have joined everything, and I wouldn’t say don’t join anything, but I would stress do not become overly involved to the point of you know, insanity.”
Networking is a buzz word in business school, no doubt. Not only will you attend networking events on campus, you’ll network among your classmates and probably even talk about it in class. Again, Katherine Loucks, “I was in an Organizational Behavior class and the professor had talked about the need for networking and a theory called ‘pruning’ which means you know the two people who know someone more senior, you don’t actually don’t need to know those two people, you could prune one, know one of them and they can get you access to the more senior person. It really kind of sounds very harsh because you’re really kind of trying to be very efficient about your business relationships rather than having a personal relationship with these people as well. And one guy raised his hand and he said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s exactly how it is, if you don’t play the game and you don’t play in the hands of your seniors and understand who’s important to talk to and who’s not then you’re going to lose out because that’s the way it is.’ And then this other woman raised her hand and said, ‘I don’t think it’s like that, from my experience it hasn’t been like that at all.’ She said, basically that is was a meritocracy’ and I kind of raised my hand and was like ‘Look the game exists whether you want to participate or not, that’s your choice and I think it’s kind of gross but it’s out there and if you want to truly accelerate with an organization faster it probably would help you to play. That said if you don’t want to play it, you don’t have to.’ At graduate school, a lot of these people are going to be really influential people, especially if you go to a top tier school. And if you know what you want to do or you think you know what you want to do and you’re belonging to certain clubs, you will get to know and you will learn, you become friendly with people who will be influential and may be able to help you with your career later and vice versa you can help them. And I think there’s also a level of needing to learn it as a skill. One is that specific people that you meet, but two is also learning how to do it. Because if you are so obvious about the fact that you’re networking it becomes a detractor rather than something that is helpful. You have to learn how to be social and make relationships without being so obvious as to convey, I’m only being your friend or only talking to you because I want a job from you.”
Regina Resnick is Assistant Dean of MBA Career Services at Columbia Business School; she says the road to landing a great job after graduation starts way before you get to school. “We have them a lot of work, in what we’ll preterm, so before we have them come to campus we have them already thinking about what it is that is really critically important to them when they think about their career, and not just their career in the near term but in the long term. And once they come to campus and our students come in mid-August, they start meeting recruiters for recruiting purposes at the end of September. There are some recruiters who are involved in our orientation but at that point they are not engaged in discussions related to recruiting and during that month we have events where, for example, we have a day in the life of an investment bank, we have a management consulting forum and each of those events alumni from probably over 20 companies for both of those industries will be on campus providing a prospective on you know what these industries are like from a content stand point.”
Internships and business school are considered one of the best ways to get your foot in the door of an industry or even a company you’ve been eyeing. But the hiring process can be viciously competitive and you can probably understand why. Internships often turn into job offers, says Resnick, “What the internship does is it gives them the chance to really understand in depth a little bit more what a corporate culture is all about, what a job function is about and it’s an important time, an important part of their career education in essence it can also depending on which company, which industry you’re going into that’s often the platform for hiring students for a full-time position so that it’s in essence a really extended interview, a 10 week interview. And it’s an interview, I think that’s it’s important for students to know that it’s their chance also to explore, it’s not just about the company assessing them, it’s again a part of their self assessment, is this the right industry for me, is this the right function for me, is this the right corporate culture for me and then when they come back in the second year to make sure that they spend again enough time thinking about if yes all those things work for me, I am even prepared to accept a job if I get an offer from this company. That’s great; they may not be searching in the second year. But it also can be equally great if they decide, you know what, I thought I was really going to love this industry but that wasn’t right for me or loved the industry but I am interested in a different functional area or loved both the industry and function but this particular company just wasn’t the right fit culturally for whatever reason and so all that goes into them forming their second year search.
Choosing good professors for classes your first year is another smart tip for students says Katherine Loucks and it’s another good reason why you would want to hook up with a second year mentor early on to give you the low down on all the courses. And in class, Loucks says be prepared for a lot of cold calling. “In cold calling it’s just the professor calls on you out of the blue whether you raised your hand or not and you know at first I think people are intimidated by that and really after you go through a class or two of that you find that it’s actually beneficial. I mean it really keeps everybody engaged, keeps you on your toes, makes you do your work.” And Loucks says forming good study groups is key to managing your class assignments. “While you’re in business school you do a lot of work in groups and it varies from class to class whether they’re assigned or you get to choose them. But I would say either way it was really helpful to form study groups if your professor does not require them on an on going basis it was helpful to have a study group especially in preparing for exams. And that’s primarily because you don’t work in a vacuum in the business world, you work with other people and in the business world you have a lot of different opinions, and you have a lot of different information to manage and people to manage and that’s one of the reasons why business schools stresses the use of groups. And in preparing for exams the same thing, people are going to have different perspectives and they’re going to bring up things that you haven’t thought of.”
Active participation in class is what business school professors want, but for those who love to speak up, Loucks says don’t go overboard. “There’s a wide span of personality it’s just that act in humility, comment and then be involved on a regular basis but don’t kind of dominate your classmates and really there’s almost like a subtle blacklist of people who get excluded from groups. You can quickly create a reputation of trying to be dominating and too full of yourself and start get excluded from good groups and good groups are really important in some classes. So I would just say cognitive in how you come across to other people and then always be prepared for class especially in those cold calling situations. I mean it’s just so silly not to do your reading or not to do the homework it makes a bad impression on your professor and also you’re not going to pay attention in class.”
Prepare for classes, boost your quantitative skills, network, get an internship and find a mentor. Your first year in business school will be an intense one. So Loucks says you can also get prepared to be exhausted. I think that it’s helpful to take a little vacation between your job and starting school. We kind of stress that. Take a break, don’t go directly from your job because it is intensive, I mean you forget, especially graduate is all consuming, it is every waking moment. I mean I would have group meetings at 11 PM not to say that it is every waking minute is spent dragging yourself from class to meetings, it’s more fun than that, you know it’s more enjoyable. But it is all consuming and there is a lot of work and it is really truly your whole life.
For more information, advice and to register for your weekly MBA Podcast, visit mbapodcaster.com. I’m Janet Nakano and this is MBA Podcaster, thanks for listening. And next week we have a special co-production with GMAC discussing MBA’s in the consulting industries.