5 Biggest Surprises Of Online MBA Programs

It had been a long time for the Class of 2021. Most hadn’t returned to a classroom in a decade or more. Back then, they were busy scribbling lecture notes and cramming for tests. In some cases, they were just there to chase a grade and make it to break. After all, they’d learn everything they’d need to know on the job, right?

A few years ago, these graduates returned to school. And school had completely flipped. For one, they were pursuing their MBAs online, where the lecture hall had become a digital screen. For another, they weren’t carefree twentysomethings anymore. They had jobs and families, debts and demands. Forget lounging, these students were returning to business school for very specific reasons.

Man, were they in for a surprise!

Sometimes, surprises are the best part of school.


Lucy Nguyen, USC (Marshall)

Take the online format. To some, an online MBA means you take what you can get. You keep your head low and your expectations even lower in exchange for the flexibility. As the Class of 2022 learned, the online platform — coupled with their professional backgrounds — often gave them a big advantage in learning.

“Today’s technologies for live virtual meetings have changed my initial impressions of online learning,” explains Lucy Nguyen, a USC Marshall grad who joined Amazon after graduation. “With my cohort logging in at the same time twice a week for our classes, we still experience the live discussions while being physically located all over the world. Our diverse experiences and the broad array of industries represented add depth to our discussions and learning. I was also able to bond with my cohort and alumni while abroad through informal virtual events and formally through USC sponsored events.”

Indeed, many MBAs felt like they were a central part of the program. That was certainly true for Robert Anthony Woblesky, a senior product manager at Adobe who earned his MBA this spring at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School. While he never met “in person” with faculty and classmates, he was struck by how engaged they became despite the distance between them.

“Many teachers offered virtual open weekly office hours for any students that had any questions,” he writes. “This allowed us to read materials and watch lectures on our own time. At the same time, we then could focus on core questions in the office hours, allowing students to engage with the professor and other students weekly…Almost every class had some sort of weekly discussion board assignment in which we would post our analysis or opinions on a topic…It’s one thing to learn from a professor, but learning from other students’ analysis or unique perspectives created unique connections and learnings between students.”


In fact, student bonds became quite close. This was a big surprise for IE Business School’s Steffen Baecker. He points out that his cohort met physically “only two or three times” — a huge feat when you consider the dozens of group assignments and team meetings they completed. In the end, Baecker adds, his classmates literally became family.

“We took care of each other and shared our lives beyond the classroom and academic work. Two of my teammates each became a father during the program and shared this momentous event in their lives with the rest of us – it was incredibly touching!”

One reason for this dynamic: there is no place to hide in an online MBA program. That includes the messiness of everyone’s work and personal lives — insights that are a constant reminder that online MBAs are never truly alone.

Jose DeJesus, University of Maryland (Smith)

“In a traditional classroom, you have very little visibility into your classmates’ lives,” adds Jose DeJesus, a 2021 grad from the University of Maryland’s Smith School. “With an online program, you see people taking class from hotel rooms, trains, at home, and in offices. There is something powerful in seeing how everyone “grinds” it out through the program. Everyone is facing different pressures but still looking to learn and better themselves. There is nothing more motivating than that.”

What are some other surprises awaiting future online MBA students? Each year, P&Q honors over 50 of the Best & Brightest online MBAs from over two dozen top business schools. As part of the nomination process, we ask graduates to share the “most surprising part of an online learning environment. Here are five areas that came as unexpected benefits and hurdles for the Class of 2021.

1) Preparation For The Real World: “The online learning environment forces us to master and consolidate a number of skills that are now critical in today’s hybrid workplace environment. Time management, remote collaboration, and fluency within the digital realm have been tremendous value-adds to my personal growth. The online format also forced me to take ownership of my learning experience. If I’m going to watch a lecture, it’s solely up to me to set aside time in my schedule and click that link.”
Jono Hirsch, University of Arizona (Eller)

2) Lots Of Interaction: “An online learning environment encourages lots of human interaction because I had to frequently partner with my teammates and other students to complete group projects and assignments. Additionally, there is plenty of interaction and discussion that goes on in a virtual classroom with the professors. Plus, I am able to see everyone else “face-to-face” via webcam.”
Jared Leong, University of Washington (Foster)

3) Goes Beyond Online: “I was happily surprised at the high level of engagement that I felt in the online format. ASU’s program was designed to maximize student collaboration, and they also provided a plethora or professional networking and extracurricular opportunities. For example, I was able to team up with a group of in-person MBA students to complete a pro-bono business consulting engagement for a startup company looking to scale their energy efficiency business. I was also able to participate in a study abroad experience with other students from the online and in-person MBA programs.”
Kristin Zaitz, Arizona State (W. P. Carey)

“I have been incredibly impressed by the power of the experiential learning components of the online learning environment. One of my favorite experiences at Kelley so far was a virtual start-up weekend called “Idea Blitz,” in which we worked in teams to develop a product from initial idea to crowdfunding pitch within 48 hours. I came into the weekend unsure whether this was something I would like, then ended up garnering a lot of interest from my initial idea, leading a team, and going to the finals. The experience changed how I think about innovation, entrepreneurship, and my own strengths – all in a single weekend, and all online!”
Kit Spielberger. Indiana University (Kelley)

4) Quick Application To Work: “The most surprising thing is how quickly I can deploy knowledge gained from courses in my current role. Because I have continuous access to course material and recorded lectures, I have been able to immediately provide an impact for my team and organization. Recently, we crafted a linear programming model in my Business Modeling class. The next day, after the live session with our professor, I used that model as a base to help my team better predict the future fuel costs for flight operations.”
Collin Timothy Sturdivant, University of North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)

Victoria Sherwood, University of North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)

5) Interpersonal Connections: “I was most surprised about the level of camaraderie across class cohorts. Given the online structure and the fact that the majority of students juggle work, school, and family, I did not expect people to have the bandwidth, time, or energy to devote to building relationships outside of the classroom. I was gladly surprised to find that the overwhelming majority was eager to make time for one another and to meet outside of class for virtual events.”
Jordan Lopez, USC (Marshall)

“The most surprising thing about learning in an online environment was the ability to connect personally and form friendships with classmates remotely. A variety of social and professional networking opportunities supported this, such as the school-facilitated “Hallway Discussions” led by Student Ambassadors and using student-initiated social media channels. The nature of various COVID lockdowns and UNC Kenan-Flagler’s commitment to inclusivity contributed to a collegial atmosphere where students were eager to connect and share with each another. I know I can call on these connections for mentorship and advice moving forward in my career.”
Victoria Sherwood, University of North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)

The sense of community that Tepper cultivates in their online cohorts is something special and will be my most treasured part of this experience. Initially, I had assumed that participating online from my home would be isolating. Fortunately, this unique learning environment provided plenty of opportunities to build relationships through group work, zoom happy hours, and of course, in-person Access Weekends. All of us were undergoing a similar challenge of juggling work, school, and family, which made it easy to relate to one another. This fostered a strong sense of community that allowed us to grow closer together throughout the program.
Michael Reid Hyland, Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper)






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