The Biggest Surprises Awaiting You At Business School

what surprised businessman

In every board room, you’ll hear executives pay homage to business as a force for good. Too often, it amounts to little more than syrupy sentiments and half-hearted measures. Not for Libby MacFarlane, who graduated from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business with her MBA in May. She is a true believer that business can create value and fuel social good. It is an ideal she lives by — the cornerstone of everything she does.

Libby MacFarlane

Libby MacFarlane

When earthquakes ripped apart Nepal in 2015, killing nearly 9,000 people and wiping away over 800,000 homes, MacFarlane swung into action. She used her nonprofit, HeartMind International, to deliver culturally appropriate mental health treatment to survivors. Before that, she successfully executed several initiatives at InfoSys to reduce the firm’s impact on the environment, following her CEO’s call: “If you see a gap, fill it.” In fact, you could argue that MacFarlane’s legacy at Fuqua, whether it was her stewardship of Net Impact or organizing workshops and case competitions, was leading where there were gaps — and inspiring her peers to do the same.

Looking back, MacFarlane had her reservations about joining Team Fuqua. “Coming to business school,” she confides to Poets&Quants, “I had imagined that I would have to put on some sort of protective armor over my beliefs. I thought I would have to defend my core values — my values of sustainability, feminism, honesty, work-life balance, and being present with others.” While she may have imagined MBA students to be cold numbers-crunchers, her fellow students quickly turned the caricature on its head. “I soon realized just how many like-minded people walked the halls of Fuqua with me and that it was I who needed to open my mind and expand my definition of who goes to business school and how you can change for the better once you’re in it. This surprised and also changed me. “

Indeed, business school is full of surprises. No matter how many blogs they read or brains they pick, candidates are bound to overlook a key piece of the experience. That’s true of even the MBAs who graduate at the top of their class, and it’s one reason why Poets&Quants asked its Best & Brightest MBAs from the Class of 2016 to share “the most surprising thing” they learned from business school.


Guess which answer topped the list? Business school is no party. That was the big takeaway for Yale’s Sarah Esty, who earned a joint MBA-JD degree through Yale Law School — the top-ranked law program in the United States. “If going to business school is like drinking from a fire hose,” she quips, “I was drinking from two fire hoses in balancing SOM and Yale Law School.” She quickly learned that earning an MBA was as equally consuming a venture as law school. “There’s this stereotype that business school is one giant party or networking event, but at SOM we work hard. There are constant problem sets due, short papers, presentations, and lots of team meeting times to do group work.” That said, the exhaustive nature of the MBA experience came with a caveat, Esty adds. “SOM does throw really good parties too.”

Wyatt Batchelor

Wyatt Batchelor

It’s a different kind of busy, too. Even students who’d seemingly mastered time management in the work world sometimes found themselves overwhelmed. Take Jessica Davlin. Before entering Duke, she worked in cybersecurity for both the FBI and the White House — not exactly 9-to-5 gigs. Still, business school presented quite an adjustment for her. “Until I was in the throes of a full course load, recruiting, classwork, and extracurricular activities,” she explains, “I didn’t fully comprehend just how little time there was in the day. … It forced me to be intentional with my time.”

One reason for this adjustment: B-school schedules appear (at first glance) to be pretty open — deceptively so. That’s what tripped up Wyatt Batchelor, a U.S. Army Ranger who enrolled at Columbia Business School. “Your academic schedule seems like you will have a relatively good portion of time throughout the week to do whatever you want. However, you quickly learn that networking, clubs, social events, and recruiting put demands on your time and easily make your schedule competitive to what it looked like when you were working a full-time job.”

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