Sink or Swim? Making the Most of your MBA Study

Sink or Swim? Making the Most of your MBA Study main image

Studying for an MBA at Harvard Business School (HBS) is, “…like drinking vintage champagne from a fire hose." This one-liner captures the sum of the HBS MBA experience; a quality education that delivers large volumes of knowledge with the expectation that you assimilate and digest it with gusto (and speed). An MBA candidate's schedule when enrolled at any of the top business schools is likely to rival the 40-50 hours demanded of an average work week. The Quora search that pulled the champagne quote also offers this HBS graduate's comment on her MBA experience at the end of the 1980s; “I graduated from HBS. It's much like boot-camp if you are familiar with the United States Marine Corps (USMC).The first year they beat you up (this lasts solely 13 weeks in the USMC ) - the second year at HBS they build you back up."

A day in the life of a student at a top business school conjures up the idea, perhaps, of pilates (or similar) squeezed in at 6am, followed by a morning class from a professor at the apex of their career. The afternoon packs in a meeting with an angel investor, a late sushi lunch and a peer tutoring session. Rounding the day off, meanwhile, is an evening preparing for a group presentation due early the next morning – and for a genuine account of a day in the life of an MBA at Stanford Graduate School of Business, please see here.

With an average salary uplift of 75% for North American full-time MBAs and an even higher uplift (at 84%) for full-time MBAs graduating from European business schools, the promise of returns – not only financial, but also in terms of the lifestyle and status that an MBA might afford is undeniably alluring. But what of the nitty-gritty of the MBA study experience? Isn't the grit applied at top business schools needed to get to the 'glamour'?

Successful MBA students have it all planned out                   

With the understanding that the MBA experience is immersive, successful business school graduates are likely to have researched and developed their plan of attack well in advance of even beginning their MBA study. Be it launching a startup, switching career, networking, or simply taking skills to the next level, it is essential to weigh up which areas will need the most (or least) time and dedication. Imperial College Business School, for example, asks its MBA students to start working on compulsory pre-study modules in advance of their course explaining that, "to maximise your chances of success, it is critical that you start thinking about your career as early as possible. The careers pre-course work will ensure you are best placed to start working with the careers team as soon as you start the program."

Top business schools offer a vast array of opportunities during the MBA experience. You will have a good spread of courses to choose from, many different clubs to join, parties to enjoy, an abundance of companies to which you can apply and many people to get to know; and that is just at the beginning of your MBA study. You will not be able to embrace every single opportunity. Success will depend on your ability to make the right choices for you.

The MBA journey is not a flat race

Every MBA candidate has their hurdles, but some people face larger challenges than others, and it’s worth highlighting three:

Unfamiliar subjects in the core MBA curriculum

Key parts of the core curriculum may have little or no relation to your existing knowledge base. This is a call to dig out the textbooks and start preparing ahead of time. It’s also important not to be deterred by MBA peers who do steam ahead. Rather than only seeing them for their competitive edge and sinking into a bleak and inconsolable depression, consider asking them for help - you can always return the favor later.

Nisha Asher did her MBA at Duke's Fuqua School of Business and says that after getting a poor score in a statistics quiz, “it seemed like this grade alone would prevent me from getting a good stats grade, would prevent me from getting good job interviews, and possibly keep me from getting my dream job. In hindsight, I’ve realized that stats class was just another color in the crayon box, and one low grade isn’t the end of the world and doesn’t mean that I’m a complete failure." So, even if one of your marks suffers, it can be a small blip in the grand scheme of things.

Re-programming your mindset after a long hiatus from study

For some MBA students, being out of the university system for years presents a somewhat intimidating obstacle. It’s worth edging into a study routine sooner rather than later - for example, why not get the business school's required reading list in advance of the course?  

Adjusting as an international student

Getting used to a new environment is challenging enough, but language can present itself as a major hurdle for many MBA candidates. Kaz Kawaguchi from Japan describes his pre-MBA study week at Babson College as,"the toughest moment for me. I remember that I couldn’t participate in the first group discussion at all. Even though we were all international students, other team members spoke English very fluently and aggressively expressed their opinions during the discussion. I needed more time to come up with and express my ideas than others, and the discussion topic had changed while I was thinking about it." Kawaguchi chose not to be disheartened by this incident, nor by other group situations that made him feel excluded or snubbed. Instead, he used the school’s speech resource center to improve his English, engaged in extra-curricular activities that would allow him to further develop his communication skills in real time and focused on achieving his own goals without worrying too much about what others think. Now a winner of the Babson Global Student Leadership Award, and with his MBA well and truly earned, Kawaguchi is an example of how perseverance pays off.

MBA application accepted: You’re in for a reason

While you may feel like you’re in a well-greased uphill struggle, it’s good to be reminded that every MBA student slides. A successful MBA will see the challenges not as struggles but as a series of tests to be passed – they may have even taught themselves (or naturally) enjoy the experience of being tested. Take it as granted that you’ve fulfilled the credentials required by the business school – you’ve clearly demonstrated your strengths at interview and you have been deemed a good fit for a reason.

If you are lagging in one subject (or more), if language is tripping you up, or if the mad juggle of things to do feels overwhelming, remember that these same travails have been experienced by members of many an MBA cohort before you. Grit is needed to get to the glamorous top, and as former first lady, Abigail Adams once put it, “it is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.” Therefore, persevere if the MBA and what the qualification has to offer is truly your objective – the reward of genuine vintage champagne (no hose) is sure to follow.


Karen Turtle
Written by Karen Turtle

A content writer with a background in higher education, Karen holds an MA in modern languages from the University of St Andrews. Her interests include languages and literature, current affairs and film. ​

Click here to Log in or register to share your views on the article.