The Biggest Surprises Awaiting You At Business School

Few people like surprises. They often stir anxiety and doubt. And most MBA candidates aren’t thrilled with surprises, either. Who can blame them? They quit their jobs, take out a $200,000 loans, and move across the country. Make no mistake, surprises are bound to occur. Strange thing is, they don’t usually happen the way that business school students might anticipate.

Reading blogs and chatting up alumni can help with the learning curving. In the end, nothing can really prepare first-years for what’s ahead. Just ask Arizona State’s John Masline. With “full-time” emblazoned in the name of the program, Masline knew the next two years would be busy. Until he jumped into the fray, he didn’t appreciate what was all involved. “When I first looked at my schedule and saw that I only had class Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to noon, I thought I would have plenty of downtime,” he acknowledges. “But adding in the group meetings, homework assignments, additional educational requirements, extracurriculars, internship, and job search takes almost all of that free time away.”

University of Washington’s Lydia Islan

Masline calls this full schedule a “pleasant surprise.” If there was a theme for this year’s Best & Brightest MBAs, it would be that these surprises tended to be gratifying. At Booth, Victor Ojeleye was initially taken aback by how early career development started, receiving 360 degree surveys and career exploration tools long before classes even started. These activities, however, also gave him a taste of the workload and pace he would soon need to meet. “Things moved quickly in business school,” he observes, “but I believe that there is such a great variety of opportunities to get involved that the environment does a great job of simulating the types of situations that many of us will be in post-graduation. Business school allows students to learn how to balance commitments like work, board fellows, volunteerism, and personal life.”

It’s much harder than it sounds. Lydia Islan, the Leader of the Year at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, was bewildered by how quickly she would “get sucked into tons of activities.” The upshot: she began to learn how to say “no,” a lesson also reaped by Northwestern’s Adam Maddock, a member of the U.S. Marine Corps Honor Guard. “I had zero notion of how busy I would be outside of the pure academics of school,” he admits. “The first months are non-stop social activities, clubs, group projects, and networking. It was vitally important to quickly learn that it was OK to prioritize and turn people and events down in an effort to keep my sanity, schedule, and bank account in check.”


Another pleasant surprise for the Class of 2017 was the quality of classmates. Entering the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Kate Archibald imagined a program packed with “future leaders” who’d be constantly wrestling for authority and influence. Instead, her classmates changed her definition of leadership. “I’ve found that I’m surrounded by true leaders – people who empower those around them,” she shares. “My classmates constantly seek each other out to praise a great comment in class or pass along a job lead. We celebrate the accomplishments of others and want to see each other succeed. In short, I’ve been surprised at school to find that eight hundred aspiring leaders don’t crowd each other out.”

Washington University’s Markey Culver

In contrast, Joshua Rodriguez was blown away by the diverse backgrounds of classmates at the University of Washington. A West Point grad who rose to become a Troop Commander, Rodriguez stepped onto campus with few civilian friends. When he left, he had deep bonds with people from nearly every walk of life. “I met people who just left the intelligence community in D.C.; classmates who just returned from Peace Corps duty in South America; a Libyan who fought against Qaddafi to free his people (alongside a Foster faculty member who became the Prime Minister); and a buddy who helped create and is responsible for all the FarmVille requests on my Facebook page!”

Such classmates don’t reflect the usual MBA student stereotype. After founding a social enterprise in Africa, Washington University’s Markey Culver expected a “cut-throat, competitive environment with students who are razor-focused on profit.” The University of Washington’s Vanessa Kritzer assumed she would be an “anomaly” after working in human rights. Instead, they found inclusive communities filled with students that, in Kritzer’s words, “were just as interested as I was in leveraging business for social and environmental good.”

They weren’t alone in making that surprising discovery. “I’ve been thrilled by how prevalent the community-service and triple-bottom-line mindsets are at business school,” says Ohio State’s Matthew Nordman. “Our generation cares deeply about investing in our communities and serving our customers and employees well; it’s refreshing to be around others who are passionate about seeing that play out in the future of business.”

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