How To Excel In An Online MBA: Ten Ways

Business school doesn’t come with an easy button. You can’t just press down so your schedule magically falls in line. And “easy” doesn’t apply to an online format, either, says S. Ryan Newcomb, a 2021 Rice University MBA graduate who studied online while working as a project director.

We know that Rice Business’s programming is 100% the same and the in-person class students,” he points out. “As well, we have the additional level of difficulty of navigating distance communications and complex time commitments sometime across multiple time zones and very late at night.”

Online MBAs may have it all, but they also do it all: work, family, school, and interest – full time and full throttle. These commitments require tradeoffs that sometimes mean missing out. In the end, success hinges on two key factors: planning and community.


Lucy Nguyen, USC (Marshall)

“With only limited time available, students who have thrived are organized and disciplined about the lectures, readings, and assignments,” writes Lucy Nguyen, a recent USC Marshall MBA who spent part of her online studies in South Korea. “Beyond group assignments, going through a graduate program together is a “team sport”, where students lean on the knowledge and expertise of the cohort and learn from each other.”

What does it take to excel in an online MBA program? This spring, P&Q broached this topic with 54 graduates from the top online MBA programs. The question asked: What is your best piece of advice to an applicant for thriving in an online MBA program? For that, the University of Florida’s Kevin Neff offers a pithy reply: “You get out of it what you put into it.”

“It is incredibly important to stay engaged and to actively participate, be it as part of a team or even just on discussion boards for your classes,” adds Neff, who recently transitioned from media planning to client engagement. “Actively engaging with your classmates gives you many different perspectives and gives you a broader understanding of the business world. I made many friends and connections from my time in the program by doing this. I put a lot into this program and got so much more out of this transformative experience. It was the best decision and investment I have made in my career to date.”

What else can current and future online MBAs do to carve out more free time and boost their academic and professional performance? Here are the best pieces of advice from this year’s Best & Brightest Online MBAs:

1) Set Your Non-Negotiable: “Balancing a full-time job and a top MBA program is challenging. Pick one non-negotiable activity to recharge, which for me was road cycling on Saturday mornings. In addition to stimulating motivation, this time truly enhances performance professionally; it allows for reflection and comprehensive integration of MBA material to implications and applications at work.”
Lindsay Case, University of Michigan (Ross)

2) Prepare Ahead of Time: “Form new habits before you start the course. I admit that I am more of a visual person and less of a reader. So, in preparation for the start of the course, I suggest possibly cancelling your TV streaming subscriptions (optional but recommended if you are anything like me) and start reading 1-2 hours a night 5 days a week instead. When the course started, I simply substituted what I was reading with the course texts, articles, etc. Ultimately, I had built that learning time into my day and it was a good on-ramp to returning to study.”
Graham Alltoft, Warwick Business School

Jono Hirsch, University of Arizona (Eller)

3) Block Out Time: “While an online program offers an incredible amount of flexibility for your busy life, you still need to dedicate a regular time for study and put in the work. Normal life will also sometimes take precedent, so coordinate your schedule early with not only your team members in school but also your team at home and work. It will be a constant balancing act of priorities, so establishing set study times, due dates, and meetings into your calendar early is critical for success. I also found it useful to maintain my own Kanban board for managing course activities each week.”
Jono Hirsch, University of Arizona (Eller)

“Plan out a few dedicated blocks of time where you can fully devote to study each week. And create a backup plan to account for extra study time or when life happens! Also, don’t get too comfortable on your breaks between courses. Celebrate the accomplishment of finishing your last class but remember the next semester comes back around fast! You can use that break to get a head start on your next course.”
Andrea Cerulli, Jack Welch Management Institute

4) Know What You Want: “Be very clear about what your priorities are and what you want to get out of a program. Do you care about relationship or network building? Is it important to finish your degree quickly? If you are going for a work-compatible program, are you going to have the mental and physical bandwidth to be successful in all your endeavors? Also, make sure to have sounding boards, support systems, and mentors. When things are going well, it’s easy to feel like you can take on the world – your MBA included. When things are rough, it’s so important to have people ground you and put things in perspective.”
Tiffany Shen, University of Washington (Foster)

“Make sure you understand your “Why” statement. An online MBA program requires you to really push yourself. Trust the process and re-prioritize your life. When things get hard, you need a rock solid “Why” statement to fall back on and keep you going.”
Andrew Solomon, Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper)

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