15 Biggest Surprises For First-Year MBAs

What did you expect?

Ask the Class of 2022. They’ll tell you: Business school was a lot different than they pictured sometimes. It’s not that MBAs started out blind. They’d spoken to alumni, students, and adcoms – and scrolled through every message board seeking “the truth.” In the end, they learned the same lesson as their predecessors: Business school is just something you need to experience.

For starters, men and women aren’t decked out in suits. It’s business casual – just like the pre-pandemic office. No Metallica shirts – but no pinstripes either. In fact, Sam Buck jokes that men could graduate from the University of Michigan’s Ross School without ever donning a jacket and tie (though he wouldn’t recommend it). That said, the MBA dress code represented a fundamental shift in business to him.  

“Being a businessperson no longer means joining an old boys club and heading straight to Wall Street,” Buck asserts. “The business world is changing, and the halls of business school reflect that.”


Olivia Koziol, University of North Carolina (Kean-Flagler)

Those halls are populated by very different people than decades past, says Katharina Klohe. Entering IESE Business School, she imagined “a group of Alpha-personalities…many Type A individuals, bursting with confidence, knowing exactly what they want to do post-MBA.” Turns out, they too had joined business school to figure out the next step – and they were neither elitist or pretentious, either. Even more, the concept of business diverged greatly from popular notions. Olivia Koziol had studied theater and psychology as an undergrad. Like many creatives, she considered business to be a “rigid, scientific process where there are right and wrong answers that you have to find.” After joining the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, Koziol discovered business was as much art as science.

“Business is more about finding a strong answer that you can iterate on and deliver well, not about finding the perfect answer,” she tells P&Q. “Along these lines, I was surprised to find out how creative and artistic members of the business school community are! They are designers, storytellers, and creators just like my colleagues in the dance and theater community.”

At the same time, business school wasn’t a two-year break from work where students could just have fun and reflect. Instead, it was a time to experiment and build – more of a test of endurance than a break from reality.

“As my second year at the program began, I was surprised by the collective hustle shared by my classmates outside of class,” observes Christopher Collar, a spring graduate from Boston College’s Carroll School. “Almost every person I caught up with was either working full-time, part-time, volunteering, working on a second degree or professional certification, or founding a company. Given the amount of course work that we share in and the business school stereotype of pairing study with travel or leisure, I assumed that taking on additional responsibilities would be less common.”


Business school also required the Class of 2022 to adjust their mindset. When Olaniyi Dada started his MBA at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School, he believed academic success would be reflected in past degrees, GPAs, or employers. Turns out, he says, business school is more of a “reset button” – a place where the best ideas and biggest growth could come from anyone. It was a lesson also absorbed by Torrey Mayes, who graduated from UC-Berkeley’s Haas School before joining Bain & Company.

“The biggest surprise was the full focus on experimenting and learning,” he admits. “Up until business school, it always felt like GPA and test scores were the most important criteria to be a successful student. Once I got to Haas, I learned that what matters most is learning and growing. I was encouraged to take the classes that were difficult and interesting because it mattered more that I challenged myself than to maintain a certain GPA.”

Andy Whitaker, Michigan State (Broad)

Undergraduates may chase grades, but MBAs pursue opportunities. At business school, the sheer number of options stunned students. That’s one reason why MBA graduates describe business school as so transformative. They can take on new roles and learn new industries – pushing their boundaries and bearing discomfort with a safety net of classmates, faculty, and even alumni behind them. Andy Whitaker started out as a college football coach before moving into technology implementations. After two years at Michigan State’s Broad School, he has branched out into finance transformations as a senior consultant for Deloitte. It was a transition made easier by all of the options available to him at Broad.

“It seems like almost every day there is an opportunity to connect with an employer, attend a webinar, chat with a professor, compete in a case competition, or attend a company visit,” Whitaker explains. “Of course, these opportunities to learn and grow are only as good as the effort one puts into them, but if you open yourself up to these experiences the possibilities of where they might lead you are endless.”


Problem is, business school isn’t endless. After 12 or 21 months, students graduate and move on. For the Class of 2022, maybe the biggest surprise was that graduation wasn’t actually a destination. Instead, it was a starting point – one that provided a toolset, network, and confidence that will reverberate through the coming decades of their career.

“Classroom learnings, managing your career, relationships with professors, and more are not confined to the two years at school,” observes Adam Cochran, a spring graduate of Indiana University’s Kelley School. “If anything, the learnings from courses just whet your appetite to become a lifelong learner. Career services show you how to continually manage your career for many years. Relationships with professors can extend into the professional domain through guidance, mentorship, and partnership. The MBA is just the start.”

Wondering what surprises – good and bad – await you at business school? Here are 15 lessons that top MBAs from the Class of 2022 learned on their way to graduation.

1) You Can Access Anyone: “The exploratory opportunities and networking access that business school provided is what surprised me the most. I have been able to talk directly to the former U.S. Deputy Attorney General regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion; work with cabinet members from the country of Georgia on farming reform; moderate a Q&A session with the CFO of Bank of America; and develop a case study with one of the CEOs of the Federal Reserve Bank. Interestingly, this is only a fraction of the opportunities and connections I have been able to make the last two years, and they were all possible because of business school. The experience has truly been astonishing and life-changing.”
Andrew Hazel, Dartmouth (Tuck)

Breanna Spurley, Emory University (Goizueta)

2) Business School Isn’t A Cutthroat Environment: “I didn’t have a close relationship with anyone who had pursued an MBA before coming to school, so I was left to ask questions of the admissions team, alumni, and current students. Although all my conversations said otherwise, I still entered my first semester at Goizueta believing that I would be in an extremely competitive, cutthroat environment. I was completely wrong! I quickly realized the importance of community and how much staff, students, and alumni rally around each other. There’s absolutely no competitive angst amongst the students. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of classmates and alumni who have selflessly volunteered their time to help with tutoring, adjusting to virtual classes, interview prep, or just to check-in. I’ve been able to connect with my classmates and professors in a much more meaningful way than I’d ever expected!”
Breanna Spurley, Emory University (Goizueta)

3) The Structure Is Heavily Hands-On Learning: “The learn-by-doing curriculum was pleasantly surprising. Many of our courses did not take on the traditional form consisting of a single professor standing on a pedestal delivering knowledge. Instead, our learning experience was supplemented by a number of activities including simulations, excursions, discussions, debates, projects, and adventures!”
Samuel Deason, HEC Paris

“I was surprised at how project- and team-based most of my classes were. In undergrad, almost all assignments were done individually. Even in my career post-undergrad, I acted as more of an individual contributor. The switch from individual work to teamwork was a crucial component of my education because it taught me how people and communication skills can make or break a project.”
Taylor Facen, MIT (Sloan)

4) Opportunities Abound: “I was most surprised by the number of doors that business school has opened for me. When people say your degree is what you make of it, they are not lying. The more time I put into coffee chats, class, conferences, and panels, the more connections and opportunities I was granted. I am grateful I decided to take the leap to business school because it accelerated my career, knowledge, and relationships far more than I could have imagined.”
Emily Aguilar, USC (Marshall)

Ingrid Zagzebski, University of Texas (McCombs)

5) Coursework Can Be Pretty Tough: “One thing that really shocked me was how intense the first semester was. Trying to readjust to being a student, taking a packed course load, while also attempting to network, and determining the direction of my career pivot ended up being far more overwhelming than I expected. I assumed that my experience as a Division I athlete studying engineering would adequately prepare me for it, but the social expectation of the MBA program was something I underestimated!”
Francesca Sally, Georgia Tech (Scheller)

“The thing that surprised me the most about business school was how tough the core semester was. The academic rigor of financial accounting and corporate finance, coupled with adjusting back to being a student after working for five years, was really tough for me. I had to lean heavily on my cohort and study group to get through my first semester. Although it was very challenging, the professors went the extra mile to help you. I feel like in undergrad you are just another student in a large lecture room. As an MBA student, it is a more concentrated experience and each professor wants to share in your success. I would also say how fast the program goes has surprised me. I knew two years would fly by, but it really does.”
Ingrid Zagzebski, University of Texas (McCombs)

6) You’ll Face Competing Priorities: “We are all adults and I was prepared for the academic rigor. However, I was not ready for the stress of having to choose between two professional events that I really wanted to attend and studying for an important exam. The decisions, and decision fatigue, set in very quickly and it was helpful to have an outside, neutral community to be a sounding board and help keep me centered.”
Iboro Ikene, Duke University (Fuqua)

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