Having just spent 20 months at Columbia Business School, I wanted to share my tips and tricks for getting the most out of an MBA program. I was known in my class as the person who always found the most interesting events, speakers, classes, books, and advisers, and who constantly sent classmates interesting job opportunities. I squeezed every last drop out of my time at business school and I’ve compiled my top pieces of advice so you can do the same.
One general piece of advice is to try to hold onto that feeling of awe and inspiration you had when you first walked on campus — that pinch-me moment. It’s strange how quickly being at an Ivy League university becomes normal background noise. I had to remind myself how incredible it was to be there, and I found that this helped me through some of the more stressful times in the program. And apparently practicing gratitude leads to more happiness, so be thankful!
Second piece of general advice: Read the book “Mindset” by Carol Dweck. Right now. Be the growth-minded person who views risks and failures as learning experiences, not condemnations of your intellect or self-worth. The MBA is about GROWTH. You need to be open to failing.
1. Grades. Don’t. Matter.
Check your fear of rejection at the door and take risks. Now, by this I don’t mean neglect your studies; I mean focus on learning as much as you can about STUFF YOU DON’T KNOW, not on getting the highest GPA. Once you embrace this, you will start taking more risks in your learning. Don’t take the safe route, take the challenging route. Take that data science class, take intro to Python, enroll in a startup course to launch an idea. The goal should be to learn as much as you can and grow as much as you can. Take classes and join clubs in topics you know nothing about but want to learn. Do one or two business case competitions and consulting projects, do one in a topic outside your comfort zone. Business school is about exploration and stretching.
2. Challenge yourself to rise to the standards of the brightest people in your class.
Don’t get caught up in pointless competition over grades (that don’t matter anyway). Don’t succumb to feeling threatened by smart classmates and try to “beat them.” If you’re trying to beat them, you aren’t learning from them. Challenge yourself to get to know the people who make you feel the most threatened; discuss cases, get their perspective. Do they think about the problem differently? Can you incorporate that into your thinking? Flip the script from trying to win to trying to learn — it will be a much more enjoyable journey.
3. Treat classmates like future business partners — don’t leave a bad impression.
Study groups often have a member who is dead weight, who would inexplicably not complete work or contribute to discussions. Do NOT be this person. You are really only hurting yourself. Your classmates are the pool from which you will draw future business partners or job opportunities in the decades that follow business school. Do you think they will want to partner with someone or vouch for someone who burned them during group assignments? No. You are building your future partnerships in business school, treat these budding relationships with respect.
4. Just. Show. Up.
If you just show up without an RSVP or invite to an event or speaker, to audit a class, sneak into a happy hour, etc. — 99% of the time you will be allowed in. Showing up is half the battle, show some resilience if you are told no initially. Just because someone told you no, doesn’t mean the answer is actually no. And if an event has a strict RSVP policy, offer to volunteer. I recently attended one of NYC’s largest Venture Capital networking events by volunteering to check people in — I then got to network the whole night with a crowd I had no business chatting with.
5. Forge deeper bonds with classmates.
Columbia has “CBS Matters” where every student has the opportunity to make a brief presentation about themselves to their class. It can be anything from your passions, business, idols, hobbies, travels — whatever is important to you. The act of sharing your own personal story really forges a deep bond with these classmates. I will never forget these stories, of accomplishment, and culture, and family, and heart-wrenching obstacles they overcame to get here. Encourage your classmates to share their passions and you will enjoy much deeper friendships and partnerships in the future.
6. Don’t get caught up in the campus recruiting frenzy.
I was shocked by how quickly students are thrown into “MBA feeder” recruiting process. One month after arriving on campus, before anyone has had the time to explore themselves or what they want to do, students are expected to interview for a summer internship that often decides what they will do after school. This is crazy! Now, certain careers — like value investing, real estate, and private equity — require this immediate networking and interning. For these people, getting that internship immediately is critical. But if you went to business school to decide what you want to do, be more open-minded and take the time to find what excites you. It’s OK not to know what you want to do — expose yourself to people and topics and see what catches your interest, then network with the people in that field. Also, your job right out of business school doesn’t decide your whole future; just take a step in the direction of where you want to be. It will be worthwhile. Don’t get paralyzed by trying to find THE perfect job right out of school. There are interesting jobs and industries that you can’t even think of yet, give yourself the time to explore and find them rather than jumping straight into the cookie cutter jobs.
7. Don’t get overwhelmed.
While I encourage you to expose yourself to as much as possible, it’s also important to have some method to avoid becoming overwhelmed. I like to think of it as having a guiding star to help you make decisions. In one of my classes, we had to make a value tree — we thought through our goals for the next 6 months, and listed out the handful of values I would need to prioritize to achieve those goals. Then when you are faced with a decision, consult the tree and choose the item that is the highest priority. So an example for me was to go watch a very famous but slightly irrelevant (to my career) speaker, or attend a class where we would be diving into a case study that was very relevant to my career goals — I consulted my value tree and selected the class because it was higher on my list of prioritized values. Thinking about it this way took away some of the FOMO and how much I would agonize over choosing “what to miss” and turned it into a “what am I choosing to learn.” You can always get the download of the thing you missed from friends who went.
8. Actually take advantage of the resources offered to you.
I am still perplexed by how many students never visited the career management center, or made appointments with the executives and entrepreneurs Columbia made available for us. They also never audited classes or signed up to be a TA (teacher’s assistant) for a class. Plenty of students didn’t even realize the access to research tools we had in the library — databases that would be very expensive to get access to otherwise. These are all missed opportunities. Understand the tools at your disposal, and exploit them.
9. Take classes at other schools associated with your university.
The Business School partnered with other schools (like the Media school and SIPA) and you were permitted to enroll in classes in other schools. Very few people actually did this but I highly recommend it! If you want to broaden your network and your horizons, take one of these classes. You’ll meet future business partners with completely different skill sets than you (take an engineering class, or a design class).
10. Do something memorable for the class.
This sounds silly, but it’s not. Doing a small favor for the class will make everyone remember who you are, and maybe even feel more inclined to help you out at a later date (the psychology of reciprocity is your friend!). Something like planning a trip (DEFINITELY go on a few trips too!) or organizing a class night out will go a long way. One of my classmates undertook an initiative to order custom CBS Patagonia gear with our class info embroidered on it — he organized it and contacted the suppliers, collected the orders, collected payment, and distributed the gear individually to each student. No one will forget that. I had never spoken to him before that and now I know his name.
There is so much that you can get exposed too. Show up every day with the attitude of wanting to learn, of being inspired by the passion of the people around you. I hope that by considering some of this advice, you can get as much out of business school as I did. Happy learning and growing!
Nikki Fernandez is a graduate of Columbia Business School exploring how startups can empower people around the world. She started her career at Deloitte in audit and M&A diligence before joining Avis Budget Group to help with the acquisition of Zipcar and went on to hold a variety of transformational and strategic roles.