Adcoms’ Must-Reads For Incoming MBAs

Congratulations! You received your acceptance letter. The hard part is over, right?

Not exactly…

Remember all those evenings you spent beefing up those critical reasoning skills? Consider that child’s play compared to your core financial accounting course. Think it was uncomfortable dredging through your past to discover those patterns and turning points that shaped you? Think of an MBA program as a boot camp for becoming a lean, keen self-aware machine. Oh…and be sure to treat every peer interaction as a high stakes interview. They’re not just your network; they’re also your future business partners, bosses, or angel investors.

The next five months are going to fly past. Bet you’ve already started your checklist. Obviously, you’ll want to tie up those loose ends at work. Chances are, you’re boxing up and moving to a new zip code to start your life anew. That doesn’t count the R&R you’ll need before you start drinking from the proverbial b-school fire hose. Here’s one more item to add to your first-year to-do list: Reading.


One of this year’s most popular selections by adcoms

Wait, won’t you be reading 100 or more cases come fall?  Maybe more, actually. This is a different kind of reading. These books don’t cover why there is a Starbucks on every corner or how Porter’s Five Forces apply to that startup idea you’re toying with. In fact, they will pose more questions than they answer. No, before you step on campus, you’ll want to read the books that challenge you to think…like an MBA, an innovator, and a global leader.

In many interviews, adcoms will ask, “What is your favorite book?”  The question behind that question, however, is “What ideas have shaped your life the most?”  You are what you read, as the cliché goes. That begs the question: Is what you’re reading truly bringing out your best? Any MBA candidate can pick up the how just by showing up for class. For business school to be a truly life-changing experience, the real takeaway must take the why. That process can start now, by exploring what the best minds have to say about purpose, process, and performance.

Recently, Poets&Quants set out to identify those books that would best prepare students for the MBA experience that lies ahead. To do this, we surveyed admissions directors at nearly a dozen top MBA programs, with responses coming from programs as diverse as Harvard, Northwestern, Emory, and UCLA. Adcoms chose these books for a number of reasons, such as how they changed them personally or mirrored the approach that the school takes with business and social issues. It’s an eclectic mix of texts too, with one school even pairing up Clayton Christensen and Dr. Seuss.

Ready to dive in? Good! Here are the books that admissions decision-makers suggest for incoming MBAs:

Haas’ Morgan Bernstein

Life is Good: The Book – How to Live with Purpose & Enjoy the Ride

Bert and John Jacobs

What can business school students learn from two brothers who sold t-shirts out of their minivan (the same one they were also living in), survived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and at one point had just $78 to their name?

Perhaps more important than the story of building a $100 million lifestyle brand with thousands of retail locations, Bert and John Jacobs teach how to live with purpose and enjoy the ride.

The book leans into 10 “superpowers” that are the tools for living a happy and fulfilling life: openness, courage, simplicity, humor, gratitude, fun, compassion, creativity, authenticity, and love.

I started this book at a time when I was feeling overwhelmed – by work, by family, by life. My tank was near empty. Life is Good refueled my optimism with its personal, humorous, and, at times, raw stories of struggle and success. From the profoundly simple opening “Life is not easy. Life is not perfect. Life is good” to the practical takeaways like “Three Ways to Practice Compassion” and “Ten All-Time Not-to-Be-Missed Comedies,” the book put my own challenges into perspective and provided me with action items to infuse more positivity into my own life.

As an MBA alumna myself, I know that business school can at times feel overwhelming, if not like drinking directly from a fire hose. Life is Good will encourage students to hit pause on life’s daily stresses to be more open, courageous, and grateful. And — bonus — it will also equip students with a healthy dose of songs, quotes, and original artwork for inspiring a “half-full” outlook. Enjoy!

Morgan Bernstein

Executive Director of the Full-Time MBA Program

University of California-Berkeley, Haas School of Business


Carlson’s Linh Gilles

10% Happier

Dan Harris and Joseph Goldstein

I doubt a book about mindfulness meditation typically tops a list of must read books for MBAs, but even for the most prepared and “centered” student, the rigorous pace and demands of b-school will inevitably create moments of self-doubt, frustration, and stress.  10% Happier is more memoir than self-help, as Dan Harris —  ABC News and Nightline Anchor — guides you through his personal journey from skeptic to promoter of mindfulness meditation. This book digs into a world where businesses, scientists and even the military are using these methods to improve focus, happiness and productivity at home and on the job. It’s a light read, witty, has a healthy dose of self deprecation, and will provide a straightforward, useful takeaway for incoming students seeking to make the most of out of their MBA experience.


Linh Gilles

Director of Admissions and Recruiting, Full-Time and Part-Time MBA Programs

University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management

Go to next page for suggestions from Harvard, Yale, Emory, and UCLA

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