No one was super-excited about the assignment. It was the end of MBA orientation, and everyone was looking forward to a relaxing weekend before classes started. And yet, at about 4 p.m. on Friday, we were placed into our project teams and given our first task. Little did I know this project would set the tone for my entire MBA-student experience.
The rules were simple enough. We were to take a popular song and change the words to reflect our thoughts on what being an MBA student would be like. We had until Monday morning to write the lyrics and prepare to sing our masterpiece to faculty and fellow students. The winning team, as determined by popular vote, would receive tickets to any show at the school’s performing arts center.
I didn’t think we would win. There were certainly more clever entries, and many teams had considerably more musical talent. One group changed “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys to “I Want My MBA.” Another team transformed Will Smith’s “Welcome to Miami” into “Welcome to Urbana” (“ …party in the cornfields to the break of dawn!”). My team, by contrast, went with a classic—morphing John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s “Let It Be” into “Get a B.” Our message was this: Do more than just study. Much to my surprise, we were a hit and won handily! During our live performance, most of our classmates (and even some faculty) joined in for the last chorus, which went something like “Get a B. Get a B, not a C, Get a B…”
DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE VALUE OF EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING
As it turned out, our lyrics were more prophetic than I knew at the time. I quickly learned that some of the most valuable and enduring learning experiences would happen outside the classroom. They would happen in China while I toured the Great Wall with my classmates. They would happen at case competitions when our team went up against students from other top schools and came out victorious. They would happen when some classmates and I decided to start a company. They would happen as I barely escaped death on a whitewater rafting trip in New Zealand. They would also happen informally over a meal or at “Mugclub”—our Thursday evening social.
Ultimately, the experiences I had during my MBA not only led to an exciting job in a new field, but also transformed me into a better professional with a wider global outlook. And so, while I appreciate the academic rigor of my education, I’m equally thankful for the opportunities I was given beyond the confines of the classroom.
Now, as an MBA program director, I work with students all the time who underestimate the value of experiential learning. One memorable example was a student named “Tom” who dropped by my office about two months before graduation. Tom had earned all As in his classes but was struggling to connect with potential employers on job interviews. “I’ve had eight interviews in the last two weeks, but none choose to bring me on-site for a second-round interview,” he lamented. I asked how he thought he was differentiating himself from others applying for the same job. Without hesitation, he said, “I have a 4.0 GPA. That should be enough.”
‘I WON’T HIRE ANYONE WHO HASN’T HAD A POSITIVE IMPACT ON THOSE AROUND THEM’
Instead of arguing, I suggested he contact the people who interviewed him to ask for candid feedback. By the next week, he had gotten in touch with two of his interviewers. “One told me he really liked me, but the other candidates had better answers to her situational interview questions. The other said he won’t hire anyone that can’t demonstrate that they’ve had a positive impact on those around them.” With that feedback in hand, Tom decided to make some changes to his job-search strategy.
His efforts paid off a few weeks later at an alumni reception in Chicago. He connected with an alumnus at one of the companies that had rejected him earlier. He followed up and asked if he could shadow this person to learn more about the company and the industry. Two interesting things happened that day. First, he was introduced to a hiring manager in a different division who agreed to interview him on the basis of the alumnus’s recommendation. Second, by missing class to attend the job shadow, he missed a quiz, resulting in the first B of his MBA career. Tom didn’t graduate with a 4.0, but he left with a job offer from a Fortune 100 company. Had he continued to put academics ahead of everything else, the reverse probably would have occurred.
It’s not that grades aren’t important. In fact, top firms in investment banking and management consulting typically require nearly perfect grades from candidates they’re even remotely considering hiring. Employers in many other industries, however, are most interested in hiring well-rounded individuals with demonstrated leadership, managerial, and interpersonal skills.
Brian Precious has managed the admissions, recruiting, and marketing teams at three major MBA programs — Oregon State University, Purdue University, and, his alma mater, the University of Illinois. Brian’s passion for business school education stems from his own experiences as a student in the Illinois MBA program from 2004-2006. During that time, he gained the skills required to change careers, had the opportunity to start a company, travel the world, and make some of the most enduring friendships of his life. Get In, Get Connected, Get Hired is his first book. Brian can be reached via email at Brian@BrianPrecious.com.