20 Biggest Surprises For First-Year MBAs

Optimists love surprises. They treat a stroke of luck as proof of life’s rich possibilities. And they frame a setback as an opportunity for learning and growth. Worriers? To them, a surprise opens the door to another time-sucking and soul-crushing exercise. A surprise may be a gift, they say, but so was the Trojan Horse!

You’ll find first-year MBAs divided into similar camps: the wired and the wary. The wired are ready to jump right in, while the wary are busy making lists. Each side shares a common concern: They don’t want to miss out. Sure, they’ve pored over every forum post and jotted down every point from every coffee chat. In the end, there are still plenty of unknowns in business school — the kind that can easily distract if not overwhelm.


Austin Ward, Stanford GSB

It’s one thing to read it, but quite another to live it. That’s what Austin Ward discovered two years ago when he joined the Stanford Graduate School of Business. After spending four years surrounded by MBAs at the Boston Consulting Group, Ward admits that he “unconsciously expected” that his classmates shared many of his same experiences. The reality turned out to be far different — and far better — than he anticipated.

“What a surprise [it was] to show up on campus and realize the sheer diversity of my peers’ backgrounds: pro athletes, pop stars, teachers, political aides, elected officials, doctors, non-profit leaders, veterans, and so many more,” Ward tells P&Q. “To be sure, there are some industries that are routinely well represented in a class. But I think that more and more people from all walks of life are seeing value in an MBA and contributing a lot to the classes they join.”

Contributing? In many ways, MBA students are the ones leading classroom discussions — not to mention clubs, activities, treks, and even interview preparation. Entering Texas A&M’s Mays School, Nicole Streifert was looking forward to engaging with peers who “represent[ed] hundreds of years in the workforce.” The big surprise, however, involved how she learned as much from her classmates’ observations as the lectures and readings.


“The vastly different professional experiences in the room grew my ability to consider problems and situations from many different perspectives,” Streifert explains. “At the start of the program, I viewed everything through the lens of my previous experience, but now I am careful to understand biases that might be present in my initial instincts and to consider problems from the strategy, operations, marketing, financial, and HR perspectives before making a decision.”

First-years didn’t just absorb lessons from hundreds of industries, companies, and functions. For many, business is synonymous with a mission to make money and move up — co-workers, competitors, and consumers be damned. At MIT Sloan, Riana Shah found the exact opposite. Instead of rivals, she found resources who looked out for her interests as much as her own.

Riana Shah, MIT (Sloan)

“One thing that surprised me about business school is the sheer amount of time that my classmates have spent helping me and others successfully achieve their MBA goals,” Shah points out. “For instance, when I was going through the investment banking internship recruitment process, I am certain that my classmates combined poured a minimum of 100+ hours of work into prepping me to recruit for IB. Even folks who I had never met before would spend hours with me getting me up to speed on a topic. I was touched and excited to pay it forward!”


Naturally, the first-year worriers will fret over a six figure cost and losing a year or more of income. That doesn’t take count the career momentum lost by taking the exit ramp back to campus. In the end, as UC Irvine’s Eric Williams notes, the biggest surprise may be how much first-year MBAs will enjoy being a student again.

“The idea of going back to school as an adult seemed like a spinach problem (tastes bad, good for you),” Williams admits. “On one hand, I knew that this was what I needed to develop myself professionally and get the career I wanted. On the other hand, I really wasn’t looking forward to being a student again. What I didn’t account for however was how much more engaging graduate studies would be compared to my undergraduate experience. Being a graduate business student helped me understand that being in an environment where I’m constantly pressured to learn is something that I’m truly excited by and passionate about. Becoming a student again has easily been one of the best decisions of my life both professionally and socially.”

Those are just a few of the surprises awaiting the incoming Class of 2023. What else can these newbies expect this fall? To answer that question, we asked this spring’s graduates — the Best & Brightest MBAs and the MBAs to Watch — to share what part of the business school experience surprised them the most. From the true value of grades to the frenzied pace of fall, here are 20 realities that you won’t learn from a brochure or elevator pitch.

Olawunmi Esho, Cornell University (Johnson)

1) Professors Are Colleagues: “The relationship between professors and students is highly collegial.  I suppose that I had been expecting a continuation of the ‘undergraduate’ model, in which students appear for a lecture and then file out at its conclusion.  Instead, it is extremely rare for a Kelley class to end without the professor and an MBA interacting afterward, whether to relate a professional experience, clarify a point, or show a card trick (yes, this has happened). Furthermore, Kelley professors have met us out for dinner, participated in charity auctions, and even attended morning workouts at 6am.  They respect us as colleagues, and we respect them for their expertise, humility, and commitment to our success.”
Jake Frego, Indiana University (Kelley)

2) Business Is Harder Than You Think: “Coming from a science background, I always thought that business concepts would be much easier to master than organic chemistry or biochemistry. It was a humbling experience to realize that some of my business courses were just as intellectually rigorous as some of my science courses.”
Ola Esho, Cornell University (Johnson)

3) Two Words: It Depends: “There is never a right answer because it always “depends”. Coming from an engineering background, there was always a right answer. You either knew it or you didn’t. You crunched the numbers until the equation worked. It’s not like that in business school. I learned how to stop thinking in the 0’s and 1’s or black and white and instead in grey. “It depends” means that anyone and everyone could be right and it always “depends” on how you argue your point. Even in finance and accounting, two disciplines that you’d think have right answers to most problems due to their numeric nature, approach the problem with “it depends on how you look at it.”  I learned that even numbers can lie, and “depending” on how you use them you can get buy-in from your manager to the CEO. In a way this is a beautiful thing! You learn how to have an open mind to the different ideas and perspectives around a certain topic. This encouraged diversity, collaboration and great discussions.”
Dunia Alrabadi, Brigham Young University (Marriott)

Teddy Shih, Wharton School

4) It’s a Time To Reflect and Experiment: “I came into school thinking it was all about getting ahead in my career and rounding out my business skills. While that is certainly important, it’s also a time for self-reflection and discovery both personally and professionally. On the professional front, because I went into consulting straight out of undergrad, I thought the world of business contained nothing else except my own field. It has been refreshing to hear my classmates’ stories in PE/VC, banking, tech, etc. On a more personal side, business school has given me the space to try out new hobbies and rekindle old ones. I started getting into chess again (Queen’s Gambit could not have come at a better time) to the detriment of my other obligations at times, and I also bought a keyboard when COVID first hit to try out some old Chopin etudes again.”
Teddy Shih, Wharton School

5)  You Don’t Just Build a Network: “One thing that has surprised me the most has been the friendships I have made. To some extent, I imagined going into Business School I would find a lot of type A, career-focused people. What I have actually found in my communities at CBS is many engaging, fun, creative and thoughtful people. It goes beyond having a ‘network’ – I have made genuine connections I hope to carry with me beyond school.”
Chanel Washington, Columbia Business School

6) The Pace Will Be Insane: “Though I expected business school to be busy, I had no idea just how hectic it would feel at the beginning and how many different directions I would be pulled towards on a given day. Balancing the needs of academics, recruiting, case competitions, student leadership, networking, socializing, and more can be utterly exhausting, and requires you to constantly evaluate alternatives and make trade-offs. Learning how to set my own priorities and then make decisions in line with those priorities was a life saver for me throughout my MBA. In addition, the experience underscored the importance of setting aside time for self-care, whether that means skipping a happy hour so you get some extra sleep or finding time to take a walk or meditate in between hectic days of meetings, classes, and interviews.”
Shoshana Seidenfeld, UCLA Anderson

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