(Corrects the graduation year of Chris Granger.)
Nearly three years out of school and Brock Rasmussen forgot what it was like to be a student: homework every night, running on four hours of sleep, and prepping for the first major exam only two weeks after starting classes. During his first days as an MBA student at Duke's Fuqua School of Business (Fuqua Full-Time MBA Profile) he was overwhelmed.
"I was blown away and wondered what I had gotten myself into," Rasmussen says. "Maybe I wasn't ready for this program, and maybe an MBA wasn't what I was cut out for."
Or maybe, he later realized, it was all part of the business school experience.
"The program has a goal of breaking you down so that it can build you back up," he says. During the rebuilding, Rasmussen learned to take every problem head on by first asking, "what am I trying to accomplish?"—then stepping back and creating a plan of action. It's a lesson he carries with him today as he finishes up Fuqua's Cross Continent MBA program and works as chief financial officer at the Foot & Ankle Institute in St. George, Utah.
For students starting an MBA program this fall, Rasmussen says it's a good idea to step back and ask what are you trying to accomplish. And when putting together a plan of action for a successful experience, it's helpful to know the lessons learned by students who made it out successfully. So we asked alumni from several top MBA programs to share their advice on making the most of the first days of business school.
MEET EVERYONE IN YOUR PROGRAM
Alumni cannot stress enough how important colleagues are to the MBA experience. Heather Zorn, a 2005 graduate of the Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business (Mendoza Full-Time MBA Profile), created a network of people all over the world whom she can contact for everything from travel advice to job opportunities.
She met a friend who became so close he asked her to be godmother to his son. Another friend she met during orientation traveled with Zorn across India. And one of the women she met during the first week of school she later recruited to work at her current company, Amazon.com (AMZN), where Zorn's a senior manager. Your colleagues at school could easily be, and quite often are, co-workers and business partners after graduation, Zorn says.
Nate Challen, a 2008 MBA graduate of the Kenan-Flagler Business School (Kenan-Flagler Full-Time MBA Profile) at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, suggests asking what your classmates were doing before school, because their past experiences could influence your present experience at school.
Challen, now a brand manager for Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), had a good friend who chose Kenan-Flagler specifically to pursue a job in strategy consulting. But after discussing another student's Wall Street career over buffalo wings one night during orientation, Challen's friend shifted his focus to sales and trading. If he didn't have that conversation, he might not have attended a banking presentation and would have never been exposed to the career path that made him happiest, Challen said.
As Chris Granger, current senior vice-president for team marketing and business operations at the National Basketball Assn. explains, the breadth of career and personal interests of any incoming class is "staggering."
"To learn about their experiences, challenges, and aspirations is inspiring and humbling at the same time," says Granger, who graduated from Yale School of Management (Yale Full-Time MBA Profile) in 1999. "I think starting out with those emotions is helpful when beginning the B-school journey. It reminds you immediately to work hard and dream big."
BUILD A GOOD GROUP
Knowing your fellow classmates is also important when it's time to form groups for projects, which at some schools is done on the very first day.
"We were told by professors to choose wisely," remembers Mimi Cheng, a 2005 graduate of the part-time MBA program at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business (Marshall Part-Time MBA Profile). She advises students to think about personality types and to aim for a well-rounded group.
"Have someone from accounting, one from finance, marketing, IT, operations," she says. "Once I met a group of only engineers. They suffered through many sleepless nights because they only had one area of expertise."
Also think about where your group members live, she says. "There was a team who named themselves the '50-mile radius.' It sounded funny in the beginning, but it was short-lived."
CONTRIBUTE WHAT YOU KNOW
Earning an MBA is a collaborative experience. It's important to recognize that the value of your education rests largely on how much you and your classmates are willing to contribute—know that, and you'll know what USC global executive MBA graduate Tim O'Shea considers a key lesson to surviving the first weeks of the MBA.
"Your contributions to the program are very important," says O'Shea, an executive vice-president at West Coast Paybridge, a national provider of integrated payroll services. "The Marshall curriculum is case-study based, and the most valuable students are those who can discuss a case while integrating personal work or life experiences into what they have to say."
The majority of MBA students have three to five years of work experience going into school. That means three to five years of unique encounters or problem-solving experiences, all of which should be shared to enhance the classroom lessons, O'Shea says.
JOB HUNT FROM DAY ONE
Most MBA programs recognize that B-school students don't give up one to two years of income and shell out a small fortune in tuition without expecting to make some return on their investment. So they offer career services from day one. Alumni suggest that new students take seriously the résumé review, the interview prep, and the one-on-one coaching many schools offer, attend company presentations, and talk to second-years who just completed their summer internships.
"The sooner you get an idea of what you want to do, the sooner you'll know what companies to visit or what alumni to reach out to, which clubs to join, and which classes to ace," explains Challen, the UNC grad. "Even before your first day you should be reaching out through your personal network to find people in the industries you're considering."
KEEP A NOTEBOOK
Finally, Kenan-Flagler alumna Nicole van Tongeren suggests carrying around one notebook solely for jotting down inspiring or insightful comments that you'll hear over the next two years from professors, fellow students, and guest speakers.
"I had a classmate who would collect bits of wisdom this way," says van Tongeren, who is currently an associate marketing manager at corporate headquarters for Wal-Mart (WMT) in Bentonville, Ark. "He shared one from his notebook that he took from Anson Dorance, the head coach of the UNC women's soccer program: 'Things that are fun aren't always the things that make you happy. It's good to have both in our life—just make sure you're spending more of your time on the things that make you happy.'"
Van Tongeren says she still thinks about that nugget of wisdom when deciding whether or not to go to the gym.