The Toughest Challenges MBAs Face In Business School

Yale School of Management's Fona Osunlaye

Yale School of Management’s Fona Osunlaye


As a whole, if you asked the “Best & Brightest” MBAs where they struggled most as first years, you’ll probably get a two word response: “Saying no.” Would you really expect anything else from such students? Take any group of high achievers and toss them into an environment with a myriad of clubs, events, and opportunities; you’re certain to see most run themselves ragged, thinking they can do it all. That mindset plagued UCLA’s Maeghan Rouch, a Dean’s Scholar ticketed to Bain & Company. She found that taking on too much inevitably detracts from the overall experience. “The truth is, when you are in this environment, it’s so easy to want to take advantage of it all,” Rouch confesses. “With too much on your plate, you can’t fully reap the benefits of everything you’re doing.”

Nadine Thornton

Nadine Thornton

So what advice does the Class of 2016 have for avoiding this pitfall? First, says Cornell’s Nadine Thornton, come to campus with priorities. “I made some missteps and signed up for things I was not as passionate about or overcommitted more than once.” Wharton’s Ami Patel, who founded a charter school for Teach For America, made tradeoffs and became more patient and disciplined in the process. “I want all the learning and development at once,” she admits. “But it’s essential to focus and go step-by-step, and slow down, to actually sustainably learn anything.” Duke’s Libby McFarlane offers another helpful nugget: “Less is often more.” And Blair Pircon, an award-winning entrepreneur who focused on her startup during her two years at Northwestern, approaches the issue from a contrarian angle. “The sooner you can define what you don’t want to do during business school,” she emphasizes, “the better.”

In other words, saying no is often a first year’s big test when it comes to self-management. In the aftermath of being blitzed and buried, they come away with a key lesson: Everyone has limits. For Fona Osunloye, a McKinsey recruit who focused on education and African business during her time at Yale, business school involved finding her limits and then respecting them. “The hardest part of business school has been coming to terms with the fact that there are way more interesting academic, social, and professional activities than any one individual can possibly make the time for,” she explains.


For other first years, the real trick to business school is finding that balance between staying focused without losing touch — or taking the larger university for granted. That was the big regret from Ohio State’s John Petersen, a former U.S. Army company commander.  “I tend to get really wrapped up in classes and projects,” Petersen confesses, “so it’s easy for me to get tunnel vision and forget that there is a whole university here. I think it’s really important to go meet grad students in other fields and spend time outside the business school…At the end of the day, I think this is one area where I’ve struggled and I wish I had spent more time meeting people in other departments.”

Marie-Renée B-Lajoie

Marie-Renée B-Lajoie

Another delicate balance for the 2016 “Best & Brightest” MBAs was remaining true to their goals while keeping an open mind to new avenues. At the University of California-Berkeley, Dan Fishman, a prolific fund-raiser who eventually headed Haas’ student government, realized he wanted to use business tools to help “seniors age with greater purpose.” At the same time, however, he discovered new interests in b-school that risked sidetracking him from why he entered Haas in the first place. “I’m often pulled astray by tempting opportunities that appear more lucrative or easy to accomplish,” he reveals. “It’s a struggle not to betray this passion in pursuit of more immediate, gainful options.”

Along with these temptations, some first years are also contending with a variation of survivor’s guilt. Their FOMO involves being unable to let go of their past life and embrace business school. Instead, they are constantly looking back on those they left behind. INSEAD’s Marie-Renée B-Lajoie, an emergency physician before entering business school, wrestled with the sense that she was being selfish in enjoying her “transformative journey” at the expense of others. “In my case, the hospital I worked at is experiencing increasing patient volumes, with a very limited number of physicians, stretching their resources to the max. Part of me feels guilty that I am not working on the ground and instead investing in my own education.”


Of course, these larger philosophical questions sometimes take a backseat to the day-to-day headaches. And the biggest one of them all, naturally, is managing conflict between people. That’s particularly true in an environment like b-school, where your success, let alone the quality of your experience, is predicated on your peers. Babson’s Siddharth Astir understands this dynamic all too well.  “With top minds and strong personalities from all over the world with experiences from different sectors in life, it would sometimes become difficult to come to a decision in the case of a conflict,” he confides. To counter these tendencies, Astir counsels mutual respect and active listening. However, Astir admits that such strategies don’t always yield a happy ending. “It is not a flawless method and there are times when people are left unsatisfied or disgruntled at the end of a decision making process.”

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