Going Beyond Grades In Business School

Columbia Business School - Ethan Baron photo

Columbia Business School – Ethan Baron photo


As an MBA student, I had the opportunity to participate in Illinois Business Consulting[1] (IBC), a for-profit management-consulting firm run by business students at the University of Illinois. Those with previous consulting experience served as the leadership team, which interfaced with clients and trained less experienced students. Projects ranged from helping a Fortune 100 company create a new product-development strategy in China to working with a local car wash looking for ways to attract new customers. Many of our clients were alumni with hiring authority in their respective organizations.

Because IBC is a mostly volunteer entity, the hours were long and the pay was (very) low, but the experiences I gained as a result of participating in IBC have helped me to this day. I learned how to develop, motivate, and train others; manage projects; and track expenditures to budgets. Most important, I learned the value of providing excellent customer service. Interestingly enough, the job-placement rate for students in my graduating class who chose to participate in IBC was one hundred percent. Almost all of us had multiple offers.

I recommend taking advantage of any coursework or IBC-like experiences that allow you to work on real projects sponsored by real potential employers. Whether it’s developing a financial model for a huge corporation, helping the local bakery streamline its operations, or working with a regional nonprofit to more thoroughly engage its donor base, something powerful happens when MBA coursework is applied in a real-world context. Such projects reinforce concepts learned in the classroom, but more important, they provide students—particularly those with limited work experience—the ability to showcase their problem-solving, managerial, leadership, and interpersonal skills to future employers.


Many universities, particularly large research-oriented universities, actively commercialize the technologies created in labs on campus. There are many reasons to do this, including enhancing the university’s reputation, financial incentives, and the intrinsic value of bringing to the marketplace products that improve human quality of life. For example, the first magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, light-emitting diode (LED), and web browser (Mosaic) were all developed at the University of Illinois.[2]

Why is this relevant to you? Because start-up companies, particularly those focused on commercializing new technologies, need business expertise to improve their likelihood of success. They need professionals who can help them identify the best markets for their new products, analyze competitors, develop a marketing plan, interface with customers and partners, manage cash flow (in start-ups, cash is very limited, so this skill is especially beneficial), and facilitate the day-to-day operations of the new enterprise. Volunteering your time with a start-up company that interests you can be a win-win situation. The skills you are learning in class and through extracurricular activities will help the company prosper while the experiences you gain in the process will propel your career forward. In my experience, however, relationships between the companies in a university incubator or research park and the MBA program are not always formalized. Early stage start-ups are sometimes so focused on the technology that their leaders don’t even think about the business they are trying to create. Often, MBA students have to take the initiative to connect with entrepreneurs and incubator staff. Students willing to take this extra step are often rewarded with some very interesting opportunities.

My first post-MBA job was with a start-up founded by electrical-engineering professors at the University of Illinois. It was one of the most challenging and exciting jobs I’ve ever had. The opportunity came about as a result of my summer internship at the university research park. I met the CEO of my eventual employer at a networking event at the university’s incubator for tech start-ups. We hit it off, and I wound up doing some consulting work for him during my second year in the MBA program. Upon graduation, he offered me my dream job as the director of marketing. Over the next few years, we worked together to transform a three-employee company with limited funding into a venture capital–funded entity with more than fifty employees, several product lines, and a viable customer base. This transformational and mutually beneficial experience solidified my belief in the importance of seeking out extracurricular learning opportunities in your areas of interest.


Although grades are important, employers of MBA students typically look for well-rounded individuals with demonstrated managerial, leadership, and interpersonal skills. Throughout this lesson, we discussed opportunities to enhance your abilities in these areas through experiential learning, or learning by doing.


Talk with at least ten MBA students who are in their second year or are recent graduates of your program. Ask them about their most significant moments in the program. Which activities were most beneficial to them? What do they wish they spent more time doing? What do they wish they spent less time doing? What advice do they have for a student just starting the MBA experience?


1.     As an MBA student, how important are each of the following to me? When time conflicts occur, which should be higher priorities?

·      academics

·      personal development

·      career search

2.     What experiences as an MBA student will better prepare me for my chosen career?

3.     Where can I gain these experiences while in business school?

4.     Am I planning to study abroad? If so, have I factored the cost of a study abroad trip into my overall budget?

5.     How important are grades in securing a job in my chosen industry? If I don’t already know, how can I find out?

6.     What unique, non-curricular opportunities exist at the program(s) I am considering?

7.     What will my legacy as an MBA student be? Ten years from now, how will my classmates and faculty remember me?


Author Brian Precious

Author Brian Precious

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

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