A TIME FOR DISCOMFORT
This type of support – from the U.C.-Berkeley and beyond – made Melissa Hulme feel like she couldn’t fail. It also gave her the confidence to take risks. One of the best risks, says the University of Wisconsin’s Michael Hilfiker, is to interact with people who are much smarter than you are.
“Don’t be intimidated by learning outside of your expertise,” he advocates. “Before coming to Wisconsin School of Business, I had no experience or exposure to investment banking and was intimidated by the nomenclature itself. With determination, I brought myself up to speed with my investment banking peers to become well-versed and knowledgeable.”
Academics is only one facet, however. Looking at the six-figure cost and two years without income, Vanderbilt University’s Nile Imani Marshall chose to squeeze the most out of her MBA. Her advice: Take on whatever makes you uncomfortable.
“An MBA is an investment in yourself,” she observes. “Take the challenging courses taught by the professors who intimidate you: they might be the professor you learn the most from. Travel with your international classmates to their home country: this is a great opportunity to get to know them and experience the world from their perspective. Spend time with classmates who may not seem to share similarities with you: you will discover that looking beyond the surface will reveal unexpected treasure. Use these two years to build your network, learn as much as you can, and experience new things.”
DON’T SHOOT FOR PERFECTION
That wasn’t the path that Caitlin Styres initially followed. At Arizona State, she had been told that the school intentionally puts too much on the students’ plates. Despite this, she launched a courageous – and ultimately futile – effort to do and be everything. Looking back, Styres regrets treating her grades, not the experience, as the “be all end all” of her time in business school.
“Twelve-hour days, five or more days a week was my normal schedule so that I could maintain a 4.0 GPA. Looking back now, I wish I was more comfortable accepting an A- to make time for personal priorities such as sleep [a perfect example of diminishing marginal returns]. I eventually came to this realization but how nice it would have been to get those lost hours back!”
At Ohio State, Obi Nnebedum carved out extra hours by following a “Don’t let great be the enemy of good” philosophy. His secret? Focusing on crafting solution parameters over finalizing every detail. Similarly, Orvil Savery applied project management concepts to achieve his goals. That started with religiously following the 80-20 rule.
“I adopted the mindset that 80% of the results originate from 20% of the effort,” writes the University of Missouri MBA. “That way, you can start to stack the odds in your favor. I’ve lead multiple projects in the past, but truly understanding proper time management and project scope is essential to getting things done on time and done right.”
MORE THAN JUST A DEGREE
So too is understanding just how different the business school model truly is. Going in, Taylor Henning expected the experience to be pretty nondescript: “You went to class, studied hard, explored job opportunities, and earned your degree.” Turns out, she learned that was just the tip of the iceberg.
“I had no idea how much impact students can make outside of the classroom through engaging in clubs, community building, and mentorship activities,” she admits. “I was overwhelmed by the number of these opportunities, and quickly had to figure out a balance between academic, career, extracurricular commitments, and enjoying time with friends. Looking back, I would have done more research about these opportunities in advance, which would have made me that much more prepared and excited to begin in the MBA program.”
That said, some business school realities simply defied preparation. At HEC Paris – where 89% of the 2019 Class hailed from outside France – Isabella Ganem Espinosa posits that knowing a third language is just as important as a high GMAT since it levels a key barrier that keeps people from connecting. In contrast, NYU Stern’s Lia Winograd sometimes found herself alone. She had co-founded a company that took off during business school. As a result, she was often learning on-the-fly, shouldering heavier burden than her classmates.
“I wish I had known how difficult it would be to be both a full-time founder and entrepreneur and the sacrifices I would have to make to get through it,” she laments. “For example, while all my MBA colleagues have been traveling for over a month during the winter break, I’ve been working non-stop to expand our product line, plan out marketing initiatives, and hire a team. It’s been a very rewarding experience, but in a dramatically different sense than it has for all of my closest friends.”
THINK MARATHON, NOT SPRINT
For IESE’s Kittredge, the big takeaway was learning to get away from the MBA bubble before it consumed him. “During the first year, I personally let many things that I value – reading, exercise, time outdoors, relationships, cooking, contact with family and friends – go by the wayside. I have managed this much better second year, but I wish I had made more of a conscious effort to protect them from the get-go.”
Make no mistake: it is a long road, says the University of Chicago’s Anish Bhatnagar, more of a “marathon than a sprint.” This mindset requires a certain degree of patience. During her first-year, patience was in short supply for Kashay Sanders, who expected to transform and make an impact upon arrival. As Sanders prepares to start her job at Microsoft, she realizes how “silly” it is to draft detailed plans and push growth before it was meant to happen.
“I wish I knew that over the course of the MBA program you can accomplish the goals you set out for yourself—but not all at once,” writes the Michigan Ross grad. “In the months before starting school, I researched Ross and its offerings endlessly…I made lists of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to show up as a leader. I came to campus ready to dive in. Then the realities of school set in. I was taking classes in brand new topics I’d never been exposed to. I was recruiting for private sector jobs for the first time. I was adjusting socially. I looked at this brilliant list I had made before starting school and kept beating myself up for not moving on my development goals fast enough. And then slowly, as the rhythm of school normalized, I started moving towards what I came here to do, almost without realizing.”
‘I WISH I HAD DONE…’
To put it another way adds Wharton’s Jibran Khan, there is no “one way” or “right way” to do business school. “Everyone has their own unique goals, priorities, and life circumstances. As much as it’s beneficial to stretch beyond one’s comfort zone, it’s equally important to remember why you came to business school, and that you keep your own North Star in mind when deciding how to spend the limited hours in the day (which always slip by far quicker than expected!).”
Regardless of long-term priorities, Babson College’s David Lefkowitz offers a three-word remedy for MBAs who may someday look back with regrets…
Make. It. Count.
“Use your time wisely. Have a hypothesis about what you want to do, and a vision for what you want to achieve, and chase it down with unrelenting passion. Stare down your weak spots, take the classes that seem terrifying. You’ll be better off for it.”