‘If I only knew then what I know now…”
That wish infuses everything from Elizabethan sonnets to American country songs. In business school, such sentiments aren’t inspired by fading beauty or feckless sweethearts. Instead, they are driven by regret, of missed opportunities and time wasted in a hyper-stimulating, all-consuming milieu.
It all starts so fast. That’s what the Class of 2019 says, at least. In theory, most first-years understand that the starting pace will be “fast and furious” in the words of Emory Goizueta’s Jay Mathes. A 2019 Poets&Quants Best & Brightest MBA, Mathes admits it took him until “the [first] semester was halfway over” to get comfortable. By that time, notes the University of Illinois’ Mohamed Faras, recruiting had already kicked fully into gear.
KNOWING THE TRADE-OFFS TO MAKE
“I wish I had known how early in the year recruiting begins,” Faras, a Google hire, writes. “Just one month into my first year, my classmates were receiving offers. Being an international student, you take time to settle in before even begin thinking about career search. In an MBA program, recruitment almost begins on your first day. I wish I was a little more prepared to hit the ground running.”
This time crunch was one of the biggest laments for this year’s Best & Brightest MBAs. As part of the nomination process, these students were asked to look back and share “the one thing you wish you’d known before starting your MBA program.” For Jennifer Francis, that wish was being able to master the b-school balance act. As a University of Washington MBA, Francis had to juggle academics, sleep, extracurriculars, and job hunting – not to mention making new friends, building a network, and maintaining her health. That requires setting priorities, she says – and accepting that she may come up short on certain dimensions from time-to-time.
“I used to believe that I could get everything done if I put my mind to it,” she concedes. “I soon found that another priority on my list would take a hit. Leaders who know their priorities are more effective—I learned to say “no” to different aspects of business school, allow others to grow from those experiences, and hold some priorities closer. This was a hard lesson for me.”
SHIFTING SET OF PRIORITIES
It doesn’t necessarily get easier as time passes, either. Just ask IESE’s Tom Kittredge. During his first year, he bounced between a heavy courseload, competitions, and internships. The advice he received? “Don’t worry, next year you will have lots more time.” Turns out, the demands were the same – just in different areas – a truth he wishes that he’d absorbed earlier.
“Yes, you will have more time, but only if you do not take on club leadership positions, invest heavily in a career search, start planning a business, or latch onto any of the other countless interesting opportunities that will come your way,” he asserts. “You will have more choice over how you spend your time, but you will also have to choose among many more options. If the first year teaches you the fundamentals of business, second year really teaches how to prioritize and manage your time effectively.”
Those priorities often shift dramatically, adds Columbia Business School’s Briana Saddler. “Every semester, my priorities have been different: first semester was very career-focused; second semester was focused on recovering from first semester, and these last two semesters have been focused on strengthening my leadership capabilities and building stronger relationships with my peers.”
JUST SAY “NO”
Of course, it’s always easy to counsel others to “prioritize,” “stay focused,” or “manage your time.” If there was anyone who’d lived this advice, it would be Naila Kassam. Before the Ivey MBA, she served as a primary care physician and medical director. In her medical residency, Kassam would work shifts lasting up to 28 hours. Still, such experiences didn’t prepare her for how “time-consuming” a one-year MBA could be – let alone the work involved in being ready for dreaded cold calls. Despite this, the load did come with an unexpected silver lining…
“What I found to be a pleasant surprise was just how much personal growth I experienced throughout the program and how much room there was for individuality,” she points out.
This custom nature of business school is one area where the Best & Brightest wished they’d better understood earlier. The sheer volume of opportunities, argues Northwestern Kellogg’s Allison Howard, makes it easy for first-years to quickly become distracted. The lack of structure, she adds, simply heightens the difficulties. That’s why she urges future MBA students to use “No” early-and-often.
“When you first start, there are so many things to do, and you’ll feel pressure to do everything,” she contends. “It’s okay to say no to every opportunity so you can say yes and focus on the right opportunity for you.”
PEOPLE ARE THE PRIORITY
What should first-years say “Yes” to pursuing? At London Business School, Allie Fleder had the opportunity to try everything from Python programming to wakeboarding. When she had to boil down what was truly important, she followed a simple rule of thumb: Always prioritize people.
“That doesn’t mean always choosing to go for drinks with classmates instead of studying for financial accounting—but it does mean that if there’s a chance to meet someone new, or to do an activity with someone else instead of doing it alone, take it.”
That doesn’t mean just meeting up with fellow MBAs either, adds the University of Maryland’s Stephanie Gomez. Her big regret was failing to tap into potential networks at nearby schools early in the process.
“Only in my second year did I form friendships with MBAs in programs at Georgetown, American, George Washington, and Howard universities. This has made my Smith experience more valuable, and I look forward to possibly working with them in the future.”