In business, you learn to ‘read a room.’ You watch and assess, always looking for clues on how to make the right impression. You size people up, seeking those who convey confidence, warmth, and influence. At best, this practice helps you pair up with those who share similar styles and interests. At worst, it triggers comparisons — a competitiveness that dredges up the worst possible question…
Do I really belong?
Many MBAs ask themselves that same question when they first arrive on campus. Picture it: they are sitting next to NFL stars and decorated officers, quant jocks, and tech gurus. Their classmates likely include Ivy Leaguers who check all the boxes and forces of nature with 780 GMATs and a half dozen patents.
Who wouldn’t be intimidated in such company?
FOMO IS A NO-NO
That’s exactly how Ruchi Senthil felt when she started at IMD Business School. A medical doctor by training, Senthil developed the first tuberculosis laboratory to receive national accreditation from the Indian government. Despite this, Senthil describes herself as an “outsider” compared to some of her corporate classmates. She was “plagued with self-doubt” and wondered whether she had a “place” in her cohort. On top of that, she adds, her introversion sometimes made it difficult to speak up in class. Looking back, Senthil wishes she hadn’t lost time in worry and instead jumped right into the mix.
“I didn’t understand that, while my opinions may differ from my colleagues, they were equally valid,” she explains. “If I could re-do my MBA experience, I would have more faith in my ability and in the admissions team, who obviously felt I would be a valuable addition to the class when they admitted me.”
Juanita Pardo Varela’s biggest regret also centers around time. A 2021 graduate of Georgetown University’s McDonough School, Pardo Varela suffered from FOMO — Fear of Missing Out — when she started her MBA two years ago. During first semester, she sped out fast — worried that she might miss out on some life-changing opportunity. As a result, she tells P&Q, “I joined many clubs, attended all types of career events and company presentations, and went to other events that were not necessarily aligned with my future career objectives.” Eventually, Pardo Varela’s commitments caught up to her and exacted a real toll.
“With the many social events on top of these meetings and my academic workload, I was always physically and mentally exhausted,” she recalls. “Looking back, I have only blurry memories of the semester because I was not fully present due to the desire to be everywhere and do everything. If I could go back to the beginning of my experience, I would still like to feel the excitement of starting an MBA program — but not overcommit. I believe it is better to do one thing very well and with all my attention than to do too many things I will not even remember.”
NO DAY BUT TODAY
Sometimes, business school is compared to a boot camp. It is a year-long exercise in pursuing priorities that produce the greatest value. That means tradeoffs along the way. In classes, for example, MBAs learn that “good enough” is sometimes better than making those time-consuming finishing touches that set a new bar. Such priorities can also be reflected in classes taken. That’s how Daniel Cortez views it. A Dean’s Scholar and Deloitte Senior Consultant, Cortez would urge his pre-MBA self to be more selective in choosing his courses.
“As an MBA, it can be easy to get swept up in the race for earning more credentials and concentrations. MBA students love to talk about how they have multiple concentrations,” writes the Vanderbilt Owen grad.” The reality is that these don’t matter nearly as much as you think they will. Few employers actually care that you concentrated in finance, operations, and strategy. They rarely ask to see what specific classes you have taken. All they care about is that you are earning an MBA. That’s why I would be more careful when selecting classes. Instead of choosing a class because I thought it would look good or because it would help me earn another concentration, I would prioritize classes that I was genuinely interested in or that were known to be taught by fantastic professors. Your time as an MBA is too valuable to be spent taking classes you don’t want to be in.”
The Class of 2021 is leaving campus with plenty of regrets. After all, they were the COVID class were forced online by the pandemic. Classes were moved online and classmates were separated. For Sarah Izzo, COVID-19 imparted an unforgettable lesson on these newly-minted MBAs: Do it today because you can never take tomorrow for granted.
“I’ll never know what I would have gained or lost had I done something different,” she writes. “That said, the pandemic in many ways did take opportunities away from us. I wish I had been more present or mindful to appreciate what I had pre-COVID-19. I think of the small things, like a hallway run-in with a friend or an after-class conversation with a professor. Had I known at the time we could lose these overnight, I would have cherished those moments much more than I did.”
This year, P&Q surveyed 239 MBA graduates from 68 business schools to share their biggest regrets about their MBA experience. From ignoring their health to being self-conscious, here are the 20 biggest mistakes that MBA students made during business school.
1) Focus More on Romantic Relationships: “Between getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night, traveling most weekends with GSB friends, getting Honors in my courses, and working on my biotech startups, the one thing that I was truly, abominably deficient in was focusing on my love life. Yet, funnily enough, I believe that this dimension of my life is what would make me the happiest. I can only imagine how different my GSB experience would have been if I had been in a relationship.”
Joshua Young Yang, Stanford GSB
2) Take Classes Outside the Business School: “Georgetown has some amazing schools — McCourt School of Public Policy, School of Foreign Service, the Law School, etc. As an MBA student, we have the opportunity to cross-register for classes in other schools to further develop in different disciplines and grow broader networks. If I could have a do over, I would have taken one or two more electives in the other schools.”
Leena Jube , Georgetown University (McDnough)
3) Practice More Self-Care: “B-school is a rigorous, challenging two-year marathon (well, three years if you’re really ambitious and want to try your odds at two degrees at once). Looking back, I would have slowed down more to enjoy the here-and-now to reflect and absorb the whole MBA experience. Grades are super important, but nurturing the relationships with my peers even more so. The MBA journey is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect with incredibly brilliant people,. Most importantly, it is a chance to reconnect with yourself.”
Dewin Hernandez , Boston College (Carroll)
“In retrospect, I wish that I had prioritized my holistic well-being. Before starting business school, I was an avid gym goer, closely monitored my diet, and practiced mindfulness in various forms. Dropping these habits during my first semester as I was going through the investment banking recruiting process increased my stress levels. While the interview process is rigorous, looking back I realize that I could have been less anxious if I devoted at least fifteen minutes each day to help calm me.”
James Clinton Francis, Wharton School
“The one thing I would do differently is realize that energy management is essential. I committed to a lot of things my first year and did not know how to say no. Because of that, I easily burned out and actually got sick. Now, when I speak with prospective students, I encourage them to be strategic and put their health first. Fear of missing out is real, but it should not come to the detriment of your health.”
Aria Aaron, USC (Marshall)
4) Focus Less on Classes: “I would take a bowling class with my MBA friends who filled up an entire bowling section. BYU has an on campus bowling alley, and they offer bowling classes. Because this is our last semester, we no longer have core classes together, and so many of us were on Slack planning our schedules to take bowling together. I wanted to take every single MBA class the program has to offer, and therefore opted out of the bowling class to max out my 21 credits with MBA classes. I am now realizing that those kind memories can’t be gained on the job or in the classroom, and that I should have prioritized being with my classmates one more time before we graduate. Let’s be honest, none of us will remember how to run regressions without Google, but our friendships will remain with us forever.”
Dunia Alrabadi, Brigham Young University (Marriott)
5) Be Less Self-Conscious: “I came to Grounds my first year feeling so behind, so underqualified, and so overwhelmed. I really took my time convincing myself that I could add value in the classroom or to companies during recruiting – and I wish I’d jumped in wholeheartedly sooner. I viewed my “non-traditional” background as an obstacle when it was actually an asset. I definitely value humility, but there is something to be said for faking it until you make it.”
Amanda Wiggans, University of Virginia (Darden)
“I wish I had stepped out of my comfort zone sooner. The MBA experience is a safe environment to practice and improve on anything that makes you uncomfortable. I was initially very self-conscious about my accent, which held me back from speaking up in class. It took me a while to become determined to work on it. By trying, I was able to gain feedback from my professors and classmates on how I could improve my public speaking. I have become less concerned about my accent and more confident in voicing my opinions, which will be very beneficial for my future career. I wish I had been able to overcome my fear by challenging myself during my MBA experience sooner. Regardless of people’s race, ethnicity, or accent, our opinions always add value. We need to have the courage to take the first step.”
Heidi Xu, Cornell University (Johnson)
“The one thing that I’d do differently would be to speak up and ask questions in the finance and economics core classes. Everyone is brilliant—we have classmates who’ve worked on Wall Street. As someone who is already shy about quant skills and abhors public speaking (coupled with crippling imposter syndrome), I think I wall flowered my way through a lot of the core quant classes. I would tell anyone starting business school to not be afraid to speak up when you have questions and to definitely pick the brains of your classmates who know what they’re doing, especially in classes that scare you. I promise everyone is willing to help!”
Aditi Bhandari, UC Berkeley (Haas)
6) Quit Comparing Yourself To Classmates: “I’d try to get over myself sooner. Being surrounded by so many deeply talented and accomplished people, I found it hard not to judge myself harshly or take myself too seriously – in my attempts to contribute to class discussions, in my interactions with others, in how much I was or wasn’t doing in the various aspects of MBA life. Most of the value of the MBA comes from being immersed in an incredibly supportive environment. I’ve found the idea that humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less is a guiding light for redirecting energy toward making the most of the moment you’re in. It’s important to remember there are only so many moments in these two years.”
Mike Treiser, Duke University (Fuqua)
* Next Page: Advice from MBAs from Wharton, Chicago Booth, Northwestern Kellogg, and Berkeley Haas.