The Most Surprising Things About Business School


In business, most people hate surprises. They associate them with missed deadlines and cost overruns, overhauling plans and working weekends. So they do everything in their power to reduce risk. Applicants employ that same mindset in choosing a business school. They scrutinize every internet thread or grill peers and alumni about their experience. While they take notes in the process, most incoming MBAs really don’t understand their programs’ pace, pressures, customs, and charms until they live them.


Indeed, the biggest surprises among the Class of 2015’s Best-and-Brightest MBAs produced a mix of groans and grins. Kellogg’s Bruno Valle lamented how he thought he’d have more time. Wharton’s Stephanie Landry marveled at the “achievement, drive and intelligence of my classmates.” And Notre Dame’s Elizabeth Owens discovered that much MBA learning takes place outside the classroom.

Kenan-Flagler's Taylor Mallard

Kenan-Flagler’s Taylor Mallard

For many, diversity was a major plus in business school. “Far fewer people come from a traditional business background than what I expected,” writes Taylor Mallard, who graduated from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. I think it’s pretty natural to think that your own story is insufficient for the way it has prepared you for the challenges of an MBA, but that’s simply not true. The diversity of experiences and perspectives are what makes the program exciting and enriching.” Even more, adds MIT’s Liat Kaver, being exposed to such a community fueled her “exponential personal growth.”

Others were stunned by how their fellow students were so unlike the win-at-all-costs climbers whom they’d worked alongside in their previous jobs. “I was most surprised by the collaborative environment and the extent to which people would bend over backwards to help classmates,” says Peter Nurnberg, who moved into private equity after graduating from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In fact, many MBA students were seemingly heeding a higher call, adds MIT’s Elena Mendez Escobar, who noted that the number of people who were “driven by the desire of building a better society” and had placed “social impact at the forefront” was more than she had anticipated.


Alas, many graduates, such as the University of Pittsburgh’s Sourya Datta, quickly learned that business school was no two-year vacation. “[I was surprised by] the amount of work that I needed to finish my assignments, the deadlines, the busy days, and that there was no time to relax for months on end (not weeks, and not days, but months). I didn’t think that there would be so much pressure.”

The University of Rochester's Kanika Chopra

The University of Rochester’s Kanika Chopra

At the same time, many learned that there was far more to the MBA experience than case studies, modeling, and PowerPoints. “School is fun in whatever we do,” gushed Kanika Chopra, who’ll be joining Citigroup after graduating from the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School.While making presentations, we always incorporate the fun aspects still keeping it professional. Brainstorming in the team meetings is taxing, but the interactions and time spent with people makes it fun. In all my time here, I have participated in four dance shows. I have almost become an event planner after organizing tons of events. And it’s all fun!”

And that’s a big part of business school’s charm – and success. The learning isn’t all about academics. It is also a place to experiment, practice, challenge, and dream. “I expected business school to be less of a community and more of a work environment,” Ohio State’s John Lockwood admits. “I learned that it was actually both.”

Here are some other surprises that many of our top MBAs didn’t expect.

University of Oxford's Daniel Drummer

University of Oxford’s Daniel Drummer

Camaraderie With Peers

“The amount of camaraderie amongst students. Not only did we have good times when celebrating but when it came to exams, people were eager to help each other out – comparing notes, sharing helpful material and even self-organizing support classes. This helped us manage through a demanding academic curriculum.” – Daniel Drummer / University of Oxford, Saïd Business School

“…Over the course of my MBA experience, my peers were always there to help me. There was never an issue or conflict that I couldn’t find someone to confide in. My peers helped me to push my own boundaries and to discover potential that I never knew I was capable of realizing. My peers are my champions and I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude to them for helping me to develop and find comfort in the person I have evolved into over the past two years.” – Alexander Brown / Carnegie Mellon University, Tepper School of Business

Vanderbilt's Gina Bruno

Vanderbilt’s Gina Bruno

“I expected business school to be full of fiercely competitive A-types, so I was surprised by how collaborative my classmates are. I’ve found myself surrounded by intelligent and ambitious individuals who also think beyond themselves and will do whatever they can to help others achieve their goals.” – Nikita Mitchell / University of California-Berkeley, Haas School of Business

“Owen prides itself on being “competitive, not cutthroat,” but that seemed too good to be true. The biggest surprise for me was the truth I found in this adage. My classmates are incredibly supportive. For example, last fall, when a classmate and I realized we were applying for the same internship, we decided to work together rather than compete with each other. We talked and even proofread each other’s cover letter. Then, before our interviews, we shared company research and practiced interview questions together. My friends at other business schools find this hard to believe, but it speaks to the culture at Owen. I want to be my best—only if you are at your best, too.”Gina Bruno / Vanderbilt University, Owen Graduate School of Management 

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.