MBA Journal: B-School Update

The MBA Balancing Act


Since we last met, I've moved to Los Angeles and am now more than halfway through my first quarter of studies at UCLA's Anderson School of Management (Anderson Full-Time MBA Profile). Before I get to the experience thus far, I'd like to backtrack and offer a bit more perspective on the whole business school process, mainly the GMAT, choosing programs, and the application.

When I ultimately decided I was going to give business school a go in the summer of 2008, my first concern was the GMAT. Since I'm averse to parting ways with thousands of my own hard-earned dollars, I didn't sign up for any GMAT courses; I just bought every book I could get my hands on and studied after work and on weekends. I definitely freaked out along the way, mostly because of the old-school tendencies hardwired in my brain. For starters, it took me a while to get used to the idea of a computerized test. The last time I took an exam this important was when I sat for the SAT more than a decade earlier. Staring at a computer screen and doing math problems was weird; I think I'll always be a "fill in the bubble" kind of guy. Making things worse, I never wanted to give up on a question. As a matter of pride, I endeavored to get everything right, and that wasn't too helpful in preparing for a timed test that doesn't let you skip questions and go back. Once I realized I can't be great at everything, such as statistics, and should moved on if I did not know how to answer, I started making some progress. In terms of books to purchase, the official guides put out by GMAC (the makers of the GMAT) are good, as they provide you with real questions from past exams. The GMAT is an adaptive test, however, so I quickly learned that getting virtually everything in the book right does not translate to a high score on the exam, because you won't be facing so many easy questions. The books I found most helpful were put out by Manhattan GMAT Prep. Once I started using them, I began seeing serious results. Of course, my happiest moment was promptly selling all the books on Craigslist after the exam.

Fortuitous Layoff

While I gave thought to where I was going to apply from the beginning, I didn't make any decisions until after the GMAT. My best advice about how to go about choosing, though, is to determine, at least roughly, what you want to do after business school. Each program has its own strengths and weaknesses. I knew I wanted to remain in the media and entertainment field, and it became clear through researching their sites that the schools with programs geared to that specialty were located in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago (go figure). Hence, I opted to apply to Columbia (Columbia Full-Time MBA Profile), NYU (Stern Full-Time MBA Profile), UCLA, and Northwestern (Kellogg Full-Time MBA Profile). In terms of the application process, I was fortunate to have been laid off two days before my GMAT exam.Accordingly, after a weekend of celebrating the end of the GMAT, I had ample time to sit down and complete the applications. (I don't necessarily recommend getting laid off to facilitate completing your applications, but it doesn't hurt, either.) If I hadn't been let go, I imagine working on my applications would've replaced my GMAT study time. The point is, the essays are time consuming, so plan accordingly. I set New Year's Eve as my deadline because after the stress of the preceding few months, I wanted to start 2009 off with a clean slate. I clicked send on my last application at about 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 31 and proceeded to welcome the New Year.

But that's not what you care about. You want to know about Anderson. Well, I have never been this busy. Crazily enough, business school is busy. Who knew, and why didn't they tell me? You see, while orientation itself, which lasts nearly three weeks at Anderson, was time consuming, it was almost like summer camp. There was a ropes course, improv section olympics, skits, and much more. Why am I so busy now? Well, the moment orientation ended, I looked at my course syllabi and realized I had three chapters of econ reading assigned for the next day. Welcome to the real world of business school. But let me back up a bit. As my profile so aptly points out, I'm not your typical business school student. I'm what many people would call creative, and if I can be helpful to anyone, it's probably going to be my fellow creative types. You know, a person who studied history or English in college and can actually express himself or herself using the written word, but doesn't know much about Excel (for example, you think it simply puts words and numbers in tidy rows and columns) or equity research ("You research how to make things equal? That's really great. We should allocate more resources to that wonderful goal").

Hours Upon Hours

I'm that creative guy. And if you're that guy or gal, too, you're probably a bit apprehensive about using a part of your brain that has remained dormant for years. Well, turns out, you should be. But not too much. You see, Anderson starts you off with five core classes during the first quarter, which include accounting, managerial economics (mentioned earlier), data and decisions (statistics), marketing management, and financial markets. Marketing Management meets every day for five weeks and is then replaced by financial markets. Anyway, you know how you'd have maybe one really hard class each semester in college? Try taking four of them at once. These courses are challenging even if you've been exposed to the material before, and especially if you nearly wrote an undergraduate thesis on the naval campaign in the Pacific during World War II and subsequently interviewed bands and actors for a living before attending business school. And the studying the classes require is also time consuming. Beyond my own personal studying, there are plenty of group projects. (I spent about 10 hours over the course of a weekend with my group recently.) The teams consist of four or five people from your section. The teams are a microcosm of your overall section, which is a group of about 70 people. There are five total sections, and much like the learning teams, they are a microcosm of the entire class.

But back to the busy-ness. In addition to classes, there are clubs. I've joined my fair share, and they are constantly having meetings about something, and I want to be there. That means that after class, I'm sticking around school for several hours for any number of reasons, be it a section meeting—I'm section vice-president of Academics, and the irony of me being the person who probably has the least experience with any of the subjects covered by our classes and holding this position does not escape me—a speaker series, a presentation, or a discussion panel.

Diverse Stories

Still, the people around here are fantastic. During orientation, I was driving through Hollywood. At a red light, I looked to my left and saw someone from my section waiting at a bus stop (perhaps my statistics course can help me calculate the odds of this occurrence). I offered him a ride back to school. Naturally, we got to talking. He is from Italy and already has a PhD in theoretical physics and worked with Stephen Hawking. His story is really not too unusual. I've met so many people with diverse stories, be it a lawyer who served in Iraq or my pregnant section-mate who gave birth during orientation and had to take the quarter off. I'm definitely expanding my horizons.

The main point is it's intense here. But the people in my section and my professors are all here to help as I try to walk the fine line between boning up on the subjects I never learned in college (but not so much that I'm in the library constantly), participating in clubs to help with the networking process, and having a life. It's a tough equilibrium to establish. Not sure I've succeeded yet. And let's not forget about my comprehensive TV watching schedule. Sundays and Thursdays are killer. Those nights alone add 10 hours to my DVR. That's like three classes! Something might have to give. Or the day must be lengthened to 36 hours. I think I'll talk to my theoretical physicist friend about that one.

Jonathan_stern
Jonathan Stern is enrolled in the full-time MBA program at the University of California at Los Angeles' Anderson School of Business with an expected graduation of 2011. Earning his undergraduate degree in U.S. history at Columbia University in 2003, Stern was laid off from his journalism job at MTV Radio in December 2008 while he was already in the process of applying to graduate business school.

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