Going to business school is a bit of a paradox. You’re working toward your future, but in many ways you’re also reentering your past. MBAs can be in danger of reverting back to a sophomoric lifestyle common to 20-year-old college students. From time to time, they’ll skip class, get drunk on a random Tuesday and copy the notes of friends. But even more often, they’ll cram for a brutally difficult finance exam, memorize case studies and practice conversational art as if it were science.
Most every business school graduate we interviewed said the experience was different than they expected. I asked four of them why, and what honest advice they’d give those soon to enter the same halls. Here’s what they said.
(Note: Three of the four went to a top 20 full-time U.S. business school – the other a top 50. Two are on Wall Street, one’s a consultant and the other now owns his own business. Each graduated within the last four years).
It’s not a magic pill: Some business school graduates admittedly get their MBA because they want to get out of the industry in which they’re currently toiling. It’s not that easy, both in terms of getting the initial job out of school but more so succeeding at it, said one grad that’s recently done it.
“Expect you will have to work twice as hard as someone with industry experience to get up to speed in your first post-MBA role,” he said. “I was at least a year behind my class peers when I started and didn't realize this until six months into the job at which point I was probably 18 months behind them in knowledge.”
Recruiting starts immediately: If you want to get into finance or consulting, recruiting firms will be on campus soon after you arrive. At NYU, for example, some consultants began recruiting for summer internships during the third week of September, said one graduate. This means three main things:
- Schedule your core courses – accounting, statistics, strategy etc. – during your first semester. You’ll then have a more solid base during the first round of internship interviews.
- If some concepts are fairly new to you, take an online course during the summer so you aren’t cramming while networking/interviewing. This also helps getting acclimated toward being back in school.
- If for some reason Wall Street or consulting isn’t your end-goal, don’t schedule your core business school course for the first semester. “The competition is way too intense and you won’t be meeting the right people,” said the business owner, who himself made the mistake.
Get ready to drink, a lot: Business school is one part learning and one part networking. The latter activity often involves booze. In the first few weeks of school, especially if you attend early, networking means getting drunk with new classmates, reminiscent of college. Later on, it’s meet-and-greets with banks and sit-downs with alumni. “Don’t confuse the first kind of drinking with the second kind,” recommends one business school grad.
No need to dress up: There is no need to dress like a banker in class unless you are presenting or meeting with a potential employer at school. “A guy who’s now working at McKinsey wore mesh lacrosse shorts to class every day,” said the consultant. “Another kid wore a tie every day and is a nobody.”
Networking tools are mostly junk: Top-ranked business schools offer students a ridiculous amount of material and workshops aimed at helping students interview and network. Just check out this absurd networking worksheet.
If you know how to talk to people, and you’ve already done it in a business setting, don’t waste your time, said one current Wall Streeter. If anything, training to network can teach you the wrong skills.
“Networking is the biggest BS term in business school,” he said. “They give you tips, packets, books, advice on how to network – you see these people who have no social skills get 45 cards at an event and think they have ‘networked,’” he said. “I’ve always found that funny.”
If you’re outgoing, use it to your advantage: This tip comes from the same source, unsurprisingly. Business school consists of a lot of group projects that culminate in presentations. If you are comfortable being the point man or woman, you can get away with doing less of the grunt research work, he said.
“So many people are scared of presenting that oftentimes I could trade doing all the heavy lifting analysis if I said I would present the project - a little trick I found that would save me lots of time with my group,” he said.
Popularity matters: Making actual friends is important, said another MBA grad. Real relationships with classmates matter and you’ll need favors. You’ll also want access to the best and brightest for group projects. “Find out who’s smart – be aggressive and ask to be in their group,” said one of the Wall Streeters. “If you aren’t smart enough, become the organizer.”
It’s full-ish time: “Even in the first semester, you have so much more free time on your hands than you ever do working a full time job - even if you do all the readings and all the work,” said another recent grad. Be prepared. Like in college, free time can be detrimental if you don’t know how to use it properly. “I watched a lot of SportsCenter and dipped a lot,” he said.
Don’t get pressured: Top business schools offer dozens of clubs, daily networking opportunities, near-nightly lectures and every extracurricular activity under the sun. Don’t be pressured into taking part in everything and spreading yourself too thin, said the NYU grad. Other students will give you the ““you’re not going to the…?” Assess the value of every opportunity selfishly, he said.
However, try to lead a group: While you don’t need to take part in every event, taking a leadership position in the industry group you’re targeting is highly recommended, said one current banker who ran his finance club. In addition to looking good on your resume, it will give you direct access to deans and working alumni, he said.
Recruiters rarely remember you: Often the goal of networking events is to chat with a recruiter for a minute or two, but ultimately to get their card so you can “thank them” and start a real dialogue. “They meet 100 people and rarely ever remember you,” said one MBA grad, who would often no-show events and get the recruiter’s contact information from friends.
If you are married with a kid, good luck: With all the extracurricular activities and networking events, going to a full-time, top-ranked program would likely be difficult. “I couldn’t have done it,” said one MBA who now has a wife and kid.
Finally, know if you really need it: “Think about what you plan to do with your MBA and if there are alternative paths to accomplishing that goal,” said the consultant, especially if you’re taking out loans on your own behalf. With the expense of an MBA and two years of lost salary, most MBAs are losing out on north of $250k.
“In many situations, skills and experience can be more valuable than a credential,” he said. “This especially true if you do not go to a top 10, top 15 MBA program. Schools don't help prospective students think through this.”
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