Making The Most Of Your Pre-MBA Time

For most people, applying to an MBA program is something of a marathon. Early mornings and late nights are spent polishing off essay after essay in anticipation of those looming deadlines. You would think that once all that is over and you have received that coveted letter of acceptance, that it is finally time to relax. But the reality is, the marathon is only just beginning.

Most students will find themselves entering the recruitment cycle within a few weeks of arriving on campus (depending on the school), so it’s now time to begin thinking about your next set of applications. Furthermore, the MBA will thrust you back into the university environment which you’ve probably not experienced for several years. Speaking with several first-year students on campus last year – many remarked that this was a tough adjustment.

This apparent downtime that you now have can be put to use to refresh your knowledge, upskill, and try new things to ensure you are as prepared as you can be when you arrive on campus in the fall. However, if you’re anything like me, there are perhaps dozens of things you might want to work on, and only limited number of hours in the day. To whittle it down, I asked myself three questions to decide how best to spend my time in the lead up to my MBA.

What can I do to kick start my post-MBA goals?

In some cases, the MBA is a rite of passage as people continue to climb the ranks in their chosen profession. But for many it means a change in career direction. This change may be to a new industry, a new function, or even a new location. Either way, the lead up to MBA matriculation is a valuable opportunity to make a start on that career shift.

So, what might this look like? Well for a start, there are several opportunities to participate in career treks or camps where you will get brief exposure to potential future employers. These are often short group trips which involve visiting companies in a particular industry for short presentations on what they do and how they operate. Conversely, if you’d prefer to get more in-depth exposure to a single company, many investment banks and consulting companies now offer short internship experiences for pre-MBA students. These are typically a few days to a couple of weeks long, and may result in scholarships or pathways to future employment, so are certainly worth investigating.

Companies open their doors to these experiences because it gives them early exposure to the next wave of MBA talent. In past years, they have had to wait until the on-campus recruitment cycle was in swing and were left competing with the dozens of other companies trying to woo candidates at that time. Interestingly, Poets & Quants have recently published a new article which covers this topic in much greater detail – it’s definitely worth a read.

Increasingly, pre-MBA students are looking for more substantial internship experiences (4-12 weeks) to get exposure to a new industry. Think of it as similar to the internship that you might do between years one and two. There a couple of very early stage start-ups which aim to connect companies and pre-MBA students – I expect these will become more commonplace in the coming year or so. In the meantime, some students are reaching out to start-ups and other organisations directly in the hopes of securing a short-term position.

If you are interested in moving into a career that requires an expansion of your technical skills, now is a great opportunity to begin working on them. For example, I am further developing my programming skills and learning a new language, both of which I hope will serve me well during my MBA and beyond. While I expect that computer programming languages will be among the most common technical skills that pre-MBAs might focus on (particularly those who are transitioning into tech or attending a school where tech is a focus), I’m aware of other MBA students who have focussed on spreadsheet skills, data analysis skills, and other skills that are specific to their chosen future industry.

Am I prepared for the demands of the MBA program?

While the MBA may not be as academically rigorous as some other graduate degrees, it will place demands on your mathematical and language skills; not to mention, some subject-specific skills (e.g. finance and data analysis). As someone who has worked as an engineer in an English-speaking country for five years, I’m comfortable that my numerical and language skills are where they need to be – but I’m also aware that I have a complete dearth of knowledge in accounting and finance – where a basic understanding on day one will likely be beneficial. As such, I’ve found myself a couple of introductory books on finance, accounting, and tax so I can get a handle on the terminology and grasp a few of the basic concepts.

Further to these foundation skills, some business schools offer multiple “streams” for a given subject, ranging from a basic level (for those with little prior experience) to an advanced level (for those with comprehensive prior experience). Stanford, for instance, requires students who intend on enrolling in the advanced level courses to pass a placement exam. If you have worked or studied in one of these areas in the past, you may wish to study up and take one of these exams. I’ve recently spent time refreshing my knowledge in microeconomics for that very reason: it’s something that I studied at university, but which I haven’t applied since graduating – thus the need for a quick refresher.

What are my other priorities?

At this point, I’m reminded of a TED talk that my fiancé recently shared with me which offered lessons from the world’s longest running longitudinal study. The study followed two groups of men for 75 years to better understand what keeps us happy and healthy. It concluded that our long-term health and happiness is directly linked to the quality of our relationships.

I currently live in a different country to most my family and childhood friends, and between work commitments, extracurricular activities and MBA applications – my connections with some of these people have suffered over the last couple of years. I believe that the time I have available before commencing my MBA is an opportunity to maintain and grow my relationships with friends and family, and I’ll be spending some time in New Zealand over the next few months for that reason.

While it’s important to focus on maintaining established relationships, it’s also time to look forward to new relationships and the business school community that you are now a part of. I see that many of my future classmates are now taking the opportunity to travel to experience new countries and cultures – and to connect future classmates. After all, one of the primary advantages of attending business school is in the networks that you come away with, so why not take the opportunity to connect early and begin cultivating those (hopefully) lifelong relationships?

The time before you start your MBA is a great opportunity to do some of those things that you have always wanted to do, but never really got around to. Learn an instrument. Take up yoga. Travel the world. Expand your mindset. You can make yourself a more well-rounded individual and better prepare yourself for your upcoming MBA challenge.

GSB-bound Dane Renner

Dane Renner is an MBA candidate at Stanford Graduate School of Business (class of 2019), an experienced chemical engineer, and an LGBTI+ advocate. His stats are off the charts: He racked up a 3.8 GPA in commerce and engineering at the University of Auckland in New Zealand as well as a 770 GMAT (44V/50Q). In addition to Stanford, he was admitted to both Harvard Business School and Chicago Booth School of Business. This is the first of a five-part series by Renner who will chronicle his interview preparation, with recaps of his HBS and GSB interviews, how he decided which school to attend and what he intends to do to prep for his MBA experience. 

The Series: