The 15 Biggest Surprises Awaiting MBA Students

MBA surprises

There are good surprises and there are bad surprises. The good? That list starts with a kind word or a chance meeting. The bad? Picture an audit or a layoff. A good surprise lifts your spirits. A bad surprise robs you of time and money. Call it the yin-and-yang of serendipity and zemblanity: pleasant jolts balanced by unwelcome curveballs.

You wouldn’t expect first-year MBAs to be surprised by anything. After all, they’ve plunked down six figures and eschewed a year or two of pay for the business school experience. Forget the leap of faith. Most students tip-toe through the beaten path. They cozy up to every alum or message board, hoping to gain an edge on their application or reassurance they’re making the right choice. Now that summer treks and orientations have passed, the Class of 2025 is starting the core curriculum and employer recruiting. For most, it has been a real wake up call. Two weeks into September, they now know that their champions really didn’t tell them everything.

Maybe they didn’t want to spoil the surprise!


Jeetendra Khilnani, New York University (Stern)

Jeetendra Khilnani fell into this trap two years ago. A first-year at New York University’s Stern School, he’d left his job as a controller believing business school would be a breeze. After all, his peers had shoved him off to Greenwich Village with these parting sentiments: ““Enjoy B-school – it’s a two-year long party you’d never experience again in life.” Turns out, maybe Khilnani’s circle was pranking him. Stern was far more demanding than he expected. The bigger surprise, however, was how business school turned into a different kind of party for him.

“I’ve been busy (if not busier) trying to keep academics, recruitment, social life all alive while being a part of student-run clubs and organizations,” he admits. “There’s so much to do, every single day, and I enjoy it so much too. So, it is (in a way) a party, but not the singing-dancing-drinking kind. Every day is an invaluable lesson in leadership, time management and people management.”

When Alec T. Dietsch joined the Class of 2023, he was seeking professional growth. A Morgan Stanley hand who transitioned to consulting at the University of Rochester’s Simon School, Dietsch led quant-heavy workshops and tutoring sessions for his classmates. While he pulled a 3.7 GPA or better every semester, Dietsch believes his biggest takeaway has been personal growth.


“The MBA afforded me two years to reflect on how I’ve lived my life up until now and strategize around the life I want to build for myself moving forward. Where do I want to live? Who do I want to surround myself with? How can I be a better son, brother, friend, and citizen? What aspects of my desired lifestyle are non-negotiable? How should I prioritize my mental health and other non-professional priorities like travel, fitness, and family? My two years in business school served as a critical reset period for me.”

That doesn’t mean business school is all just sweat and reflection, adds CEIBS’ Karen Xi Manqi, who joined Bayer’s in-house strategy consulting arm after graduation. “Being on a campus ‘de-ages’ most people! I found the energy and enthusiasm of my MBA classmates very reminiscent of my undergraduate years, which was very endearing. I have heard that even the Executive MBA students rediscover this vibe when they are on campus!”

What should the Class of 2025 brace for? What should future MBA applicants factor into their decisions? During the Best & Brightest MBA nomination process, P&Q asked spring graduates to share what surprised them the most about business school – and why! From pace to professors, here is what surprised the Class of 2023 about the business school experience.


1) It is really hard to say ‘No’: “Perhaps this shows my lack of foresight, but I have been surprised that the biggest challenge in business school is learning to say “no” and knowing your priorities.  I am a person who likes to be involved in multiple extracurriculars and loves to support others and offer help whenever I can. There are countless opportunities to get involved in clubs, take more classes, go on trips, help others in academics and job search, plan conferences, or just hang out with friends. Yet, there are only 24 hours in a day and prioritizing my time based on what I want to get out of my MBA has been a major learning curve. I am glad that I was able to figure out what I wanted to do, which clubs I was interested in, and areas I was passionate about early in my MBA journey. That way, I was able to accomplish my goals to fulfill my own expectations.”
Dipika Garg, Wisconsin School of Business

Neville Williams, University of Minnesota (Carlson)

“It is OK to say no. At Carlson, there is a lot to learn and many people will ask you for some of your time. You may not always be available in ways that allow you to be present in a constructive manner. By all means, push your boundaries and see what you are capable of but do not do it to the detriment of your personal well-being.”
Neville Williams, University of Minnesota (Carlson)

2) The professors really care: “What surprised me most about business school is how much the Olin professors truly care about us, not just as students but as people. In undergrad, I had professors who never knew my name. My experience has been completely different in business school at Olin. Every professor has genuinely taken the time to get to know us students beyond our names, and they have taken an interest in our career aspirations and personal goals. I knew that Olin had very distinguished and established professors, but I was genuinely surprised by how invested they are in the success of their students.
Allison Wise, Washington University (Olin)

3) There is a heavy focus on soft skills: “I was surprised by how much we focused on human identity, and vulnerability. Having not come from a business background, I had assumed business school would be all about data, numbers, and spreadsheets. While that’s part of what we learn, much of what we learn about is being effective leaders, which often puts humans at the center. When asking alumni about the most valuable class(es) they took at Darden, it is without fail that they mention the leadership courses. This was a pleasant surprise but exciting because this is an area in which I excel.”
Tyler Kelley, University of Virginia (Darden)

“While there’s no denying that business schools are extremely competitive, I found that people who gained the most out of their MBA were the ones who chose collaboration over competition. It is possible to thrive in school while taking others along. I am indebted to my batchmates who helped me in small and big ways: whether spending hours explaining tricky concepts, generously sharing notes with the class, offering extensive feedback on resume, pitching in to help with solving cases and mock interviews or simply lending an ear during tough times.”
Soumya Mohil, IIM Ahmedabad

4) It is totally non-stop: “Between classes, recruiting, case competitions, club events, leadership positions, and socializing with your classmates, it can be hard to catch your breath sometimes. I thought I was busy when I had a full-time job. At school, there seems to be a never-ending list of activities and opportunities that can fill up your calendar before you know it. You certainly will never be bored. What’s most important is prioritizing how you want to spend your time so that you don’t over commit yourself and burn out.”
Olivia Glick, USC (Marshall)

“I was surprised by how quickly everything starts once you set foot on campus. You begin with a rigorous class load, jump straight into recruiting, interview preparations, career events, and social events. Combining that in the first semester when trying to get back into the school mindset can be a challenge, especially if you land multiple interviews and must prep for those while studying for tests.”
Ryan McEnaney, University of Georgia (Terry)

Alyssa Patel, Vanderbilt University (Owen)

5) Your classmates will love to travel: “I was shocked at how many times the average MBA student travels. Whether it’s local California locations (Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Napa, Monterrey, Lake Shasta) or international trips (Peru, Italy, Mexico, Colombia, Canada, Japan), my wallet wasn’t prepared for the amount that I spent on travel. That said, there is so much to do within Berkeley and the Bay Area, so I intentionally chose to travel. My best memories with both Haasies and other MBA students were when we were outside of the classroom, but I would encourage folks to set aside some extra cash if they want to participate in the amount of trips you can take.”
Charlie Yates, University of California (Berkeley)

6) You get to practice what you learn – immediately: “I have been most surprised by how many opportunities there are to practice the skills you learn in the classroom. Owen has myriad student extracurricular organizations. As a student leader, I’ve been able to try many of the leadership tactics that I have learned in the classroom in a low-stakes environment before trying them out in a full-time role. I have practiced having critical conversations, setting visions and missions, and delegating tasks. The safety of the Owen community has given me the confidence to take some leadership risks and receive feedback from my peers while refining my leadership style.”
Alyssa Patel, Vanderbilt University (Owen)

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