5 Tips for Incoming MBAs

Lets be honest, business school can be a bit intimidating at first, especially if you haven’t been in a classroom for many years and your last academic experience was in undergrad. Your classes will be more intense – it is not unusual to have 200 + pages of reading to do a week, on top of homework and case/group work. Group collaboration will make up a very significant percent of your grade (up to 40% in some classes), requiring you to have sharp people skills and carve out the necessary time on weekends and week-nights when you’d rather be doing something else. The grading curve is also stricter: a C may be forgivable in an undergraduate transcript, but for a grad student it is almost equal to an F. Take heart, everyone in the class with you is feeling the same way!

Below are five tips on how you can make the most of your first semester, and develop the right attitude that will offer you the most ‘value added’ experience:

1.    Be Nice

This is the first and foremost rule of business school. Be kind and considerate to everyone in your environment: your fellow students, teachers, staff, librarians, and even the security guards at the gate. Being nice is important for two reasons. First of all, its important from a perspective of morality – do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and what goes around comes around! If that isn’t sufficient enough incentive for you, consider that being selfish, self centered, and cut-throat is going to reflect on how others see you.

Your success and failure in school depends largely on your ability to leverage human capital, which means you had better evidence to people that you are an ethical, trustworthy person from the get go.

Of course, we’re all flawed individuals and none of us are perfect. We will have days where the stress will mount heavily and we’re just not in the mood to be ‘nice’. But by making an effort to increase our positive thinking, we can learn to deal with life’s negatives (which, as you all know, will always be there in some form) and improve our quality of life. School can serve as an excellent, safe opportunity to confront your negative personal traits, which you certainly want to minimize in both your professional and personal life. I highly recommend “The Power of Positive Thinking In Business” by Scott Ventrella, to gain some helpful perspective on how to make the change.

2.    Be Open

Often, when we go back to school the kid inside of us comes back as well. We get a little spoiled with our greater sense of freedom and choice. What ends up happening is that we start forming our working relationships with people whom we have an easy time socializing with, or people whom we are attracted to for whatever reason: looks, undergrad buddies, same country of origin, same career goals, same favorite sports, etc. On the one end, its perfectly natural to do this – like attracts like. On the other end, b-school is not a beauty pageant. Social compatibility and attractiveness is not a satisfactory criteria for forming working relationships in the business world, and in some cases it can even cause complications.

It is important to take some risks in school, even if that means working with people who seem like they’re going to be difficult at first. Good working relationships often result in good friendships, the opposite may not always be true. I’ve had two cases where I initially thought it would be difficult working with a team member, and I couldn’t have been more mistaken in the end. As a result of our excellent cooperation, we became very good friends. Perhaps you’ll be able to have the same results if you’re open.

3. Have commitment

What I am about to say might be seen by some instructors as heresy, but I think its true: the greatest educational value of group projects is in learning to work with people, the material you are dissecting is almost secondary by comparison. Great managers are not necessarily the biggest experts, their main talent lies in being able to listen to opinions and get people on board the right train.

For this reason, it is important to develop a sense of commitment to making your group work well. When you do encounter difficulties in your group, be it in coordinating schedules, having conflicting opinions on a case, or – the problem everyone dreads the most – differing opinions on each partner’s ‘value added’, challenge yourself to solve the problem without external intervention. Chances are whomever you are working with wants to get a good grade, too. If you try hard enough, you will find a way to hammer out a common path to that goal and create a win-win situation.

It is always tempting to think in terms of short term performance and hit the ‘bail out button’ when things get tight, e.g. switch groups, get the teacher involved, or worst of all, play ‘hero’ and take over the project. While you may have that luxury in school, in the real world the bail out button usually doesn’t work, or pressing it incurs a great cost. The less flexible you are with challenging situations, the less attractive you’ll be as an employee, the weaker you’ll be as a manager, and the less sales you’ll capture as an entrepreneur.

4.    Be Prepared

The initial few weeks of classes are almost always light, because you are being given basic concepts that you’ll be building on with more detail later, which in turn you will need in order to succeed with your case/group assignments as well as exams. Don’t let this fool you – it only gets tougher from here.

The intensity starts to pick up just before the midterms, when many students are behind in their readings and begin frantically playing catchup. After the midterms, the intensity continues to build as people struggle to make up for poorer performance earlier in the semester, and finally begin to get to their long-term group projects which have been put on the back burner.

As the finals approach, the intensity gets even greater as group papers/cases come due, and there is more ‘grade catchup’. This is where all-nighters start happening. Finally, the finals are upon you, which usually represent 30% of your grade and one last chance to bump up your class average. The more poorly you have done so far, the more likely this period will be stressful for you.

The solution to this is fairly simple: don’t procrastinate, and encourage your group members not to procrastinate either! Have realistic assessments of how long tasks take. For example, I’ve found that when I’m reading difficult material, it may take me as long as 6 minutes per page to do the first reading, and I try to budget my time accordingly.

Unfortunately, this is often much easier said than done – time management is a skill that requires a life time commitment. School is an excellent, relatively low risk environment for your learning curve – so take advantage of the opportunity now. There are plenty of excellent books on the subject, one of my favorites is “Successful Time Management for Dummies” by Dirk Zeller.

Part time students with full-time jobs have a particularly serious challenge with adjusting to the school regime, especially those that brave more than 6 credits and/or have a long commute. They very quickly realize that for the next four years of their lives, they will have very limited weekends and weeknights. Its a tough transition to make not just for the student. Loved ones, family, and friends can end up feeling neglected. It usually takes some time and communication for your close circle to adjust to your ‘new normal’.

If there’s one word of consolation I have to offer here, its that experience helps. By the time you will have gone through a semester, your time management muscles will have gotten a good workout and you’ll already be much more prepared.

5.    Have Perspective

Some teachers will tell you things like “There are more things to life than GPA”. “Hah”, say you, “That’s not what the recruiter at [insert target employer’s name here] is going to say when they see I got a B+ in your class!” Indeed, its very tempting to get upset and wrangled up when you don’t perform as well as you aimed to. In a tight job market, where every little point of difference helps us rise above those competing for our slot (aspiring investment bankers will know what I’m talking about), GPA can be an important tool to fight through the clutter of resumes coming from the ‘brand name’ business schools.

But instead of always thinking about the HR person cautiously eyeballing your transcript and preparing to ask incendiary questions about the C you got in statisics, perhaps you need to look to the GPA as something you need for yourself first. You need to keep score somehow, even if you’re in school simply for your own enlightenment, it will help you to build a stronger work ethic. That said, what do you do when you pushed the pedal to the metal and things just didn’t work out?

One Zicklin alumni and HR professional said a wise thing, “There is no mistake that you make that isn’t correctable”. We’re all human beings, and we all have our flaws. School, as I have underlined repeatedly, is an excellent low risk environment for rooting out our flaws and making ourselves into better people.

As you bag your credits, work hard on not just getting new vocational skills, but add people skills, time management skills, and other intangible skills into the bag as well. If you have achieved that, you will leave the program having increased the ‘owner’s equity’ on your personal and professional balance sheet, instead of simply getting your ‘ticket punched’ so you can put the letters MBA on your resume. Even if you won’t get into the organization of your choice right away, or come rolling out of school with a successful startup, by maximizing the opportunity for growth today you can create options in your future that you never thought were possible.


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