Starting An MBA This Fall? How To Hit The Ground Running

UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School students

Small group of MBA students. Photo by UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

 This fall, over 20,000 students will start a full-time MBA program.  This learning journey will no doubt involve a substantial investment of effort, money, and time on your part.  You now have a runway of about four months until your program commences and you have to be in the air.  So what specific actions should you take to be off to a flying start in August? In order to have a superior business school experience, you have to be proactive, and not wait for the MBA Program orientation to get underway later in the summer.  Based on our experiences, we, therefore, devise four points of advice for a successful pre-MBA preparation strategy.  

Business Media.  No matter how incomprehensible some business news stories might be at first sight for an incoming MBA student without much of a business background, embracing regular consumption of business news is critically important to prepare for business school success.  Digesting business news is the first step towards being able to speak business, which is the end goal.  For example, if you aspire to do business development in the area of FinTech, knowing what were the largest tech transactions in the financial services space in the past year is critical.  For someone seeking to enter PropTech, familiarity with who the major industry disruptors are, and why they have been successful, is key.  

Today’s media landscape offers a richer variety of access to business news than ever before.  Regularly listening to podcasts like Marketplace, The Economist, Freakonomics, or The David Rubinstein Show in the car or during commuting is a worthwhile investment.  Bookmarking and browsing the landing pages of the Wall Street Journal daily is not only for Wall Street bankers in the making but for business professionals more generally.  If you want to become a brand manager post-MBA, knowing what PepsiCo is currently doing, and why, is clearly important.  And then there are the classic longforms: “How to Win Friends & Influence People” (by Dale Carnegie, 1936) or “Good to Great” (by Jim Collins, 2001) among others.  Scores of MBAs have already been influenced by them.  

How To Jumpstart Your MBA 

Once in business school, you will have many learning experiences involving case studies, but a solid understanding of business news will make those cases more approachable and valuable.  A solid grasp on current events, deals, and innovations in the sector you aspire to get into is naturally also very important for successfully securing an internship for next summer.  

Academic Preparation.  Imagine two applicants with pre-MBA roles in consulting who want post-MBA roles in portfolio management. Applicant A starts finance classes well before matriculation, strategically chooses electives and advanced finance classes, takes leadership roles in finance clubs, and perhaps even works with finance professors on cutting-edge research projects. Applicant B starts finance classes during business school, struggles in class because of the newness and fast pace, and feels intimidated when looking at classmates who are strong in finance competing for the same jobs. Who is more likely to achieve their career goals? Who do you want to be?

Business school is rigorous. Period. It will feel even more challenging to those who want to use the MBA to transform themselves, like the above applicants. The greater the pivot, the stronger your starting point needs to be. This translates into being academically ready on day one.

To start, inventory your skills and experiences and be realistic about your potential blind spots. The more you can bolster your knowledge before starting your program, the more you can focus on higher-order thinking in the classroom. To strengthen your blind spots, use free resources on Coursera and Khan Academy or paid ones like Harvard Business School’s Credential of Readiness (CORe) and MBA iQ. These resources provide you with an MBA ‘lingua franca’ so that you will be ready to apply them in a case discussion, within your study group, when writing your business plan, or in an interview setting.

The MBA classroom is the epicenter of your growth in knowledge, skills, and relationships. A strong academic foundation opens doors to explore more complex electives and ‘network’ with confidence. Don’t let academic struggles take away from your potential.

Career Exploration.  ​​The internship between the first and second years is the hallmark of a two-year full-time MBA. To maximize this opportunity, many applicants are using the summer before their first year to pursue a pre-MBA internship. In other words, career exploration now begins once the admissions letter is firmly in hand.

Many schools do not formally offer assistance to their matriculants for pre-MBA internships, and to be honest, it doesn’t really matter. Pre-MBA internships are a sign of initiative, self-direction, and grit. You can obtain them through old-fashioned means: Reaching out to companies you admire, attending local job fairs, reaching out to mentors and relationships for introductions, and of course LinkedIn.

A pre-MBA internship lets you move from imagining your dream job to seeing day-to-day what a potential role would encompass. The second summer internship – between the first and second year – can let you move to a different role in the same company or industry – or give you a chance to explore another field entirely. Additionally, it may simultaneously inform which classes you want to take in your first year. The trend is to front-load a variety of academic and professional experiences into the MBA journey. 

If the pre-MBA internship isn’t a realistic option for you, there are plenty of ways to continue exploring your career goals. Start by reaching out to managers and executives in your existing company who reflect your professional aspirations. If your goal is to move into supply chain, for example, reach out to colleagues who support the Chief Operating Officer to understand the challenges and opportunities facing them. Perhaps there is a cross-functional supply chain project to which you can contribute. For those who are returning to the same employer or industry, ask your supervisor to support you when crafting your own informal ‘rotation’ program across the functions you’d like to further explore. A good mentor / supervisor / employer will want to see you succeed, even after your tenure with them.

Networking.  First of all, it’s important to update your LinkedIn profile and Resume once you have accepted an MBA Program offer.  Before leaving your current company to pursue your MBA degree full-time, connect with executives in your company, especially those with an MBA, and learn how they leveraged the MBA experience to launch their careers and how an MBA has advanced their careers.  Even if you don’t desire to return to that company, or the industry for that matter, leaving on a good note while asking questions is the preferred way to depart and maintain your network.

Most MBA Programs do not provide access to their Alumni Database until you’ve student status.  But in the meantime, you can reach out to your MBA school’s alumni association in the city where you currently live, and also in the cities that you target for your first post-MBA position.  Another important way to prepare for the MBA program is to conduct “informational interviews” with alumni from your undergraduate institution or those in your network.  For example, if you are trained as an engineer, but aspire to work for Netflix or enter the film industry post-MBA, learning how to leverage the MBA education to be successful with such a career transition is useful preparation that can begin well in advance of the MBA program start.  Some schools organize MBA Admit Weekends as a meet-and-connect opportunity for incoming students.  Most schools also create groups on Facebook or other social media platforms (WhatsApp, WeChat) to facilitate admitted students to network ahead of arriving on campus.

In addition to the above advice, ask your MBA Director for what he or she recommends and what has been successful pre-MBA preparation paths for past students.  Benjamin Franklin once quipped “by failing to prepare you are preparing to fail.”  With an investment as significant as an MBA, this statement is clearly relevant.  Failing to be academically ready can negatively impact your grades and cause you to fall behind, but equally importantly, leads to less informative class and group discussions and learning experiences.  By arriving to your MBA program well-prepared, you will shine in front of your peers, corporate recruiters, as well as your professors. 

Authors Henrik Cronqvist, incoming Dean at Chapman University’s Argyros School of Business and Economics and outgoing Vice Dean at University of Miami Herbert Business School, and Devi Vallabhaneni, Managing Director at mbaMission and former HBS Admissions Board member



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