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Editor’s Note: To help you make the transition from the working world to graduate business school, Bloomberg Businessweek is launching a new series about how to prepare for an MBA program. The series—this is the third installment—will provide tips from experts and business school insiders, including administrators, students, and alumni, about how to do everything from making ends meet without a salary to setting career goals for achieving your dream job after graduation.
Even for Type-A personalities used to back-to-back meetings and overflowing in-boxes, the transition from work to business school can be a jarring one. For everyone else, it can result in culture shock in the extreme. It’s one reason why many new students struggle before getting their B-school legs. Which is unfortunate, because it’s entirely avoidable.
Some people sign up for full-time MBA programs thinking they’re going to get two years of vacation from work, says Kira Dietrich, a second-year student at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management. While MBA programs provide a safer atmosphere than the workplace to test ideas and to network, it brings a new level of demands and stress. After all, a full-time job requires employees to focus on the role they fill at the office and their personal obligations at home, whereas business school has students juggling a class schedule, studying, student clubs, a career search, and their personal lives. Time and stress management are obvious necessities.
Students quickly learn, says Dietrich, that an MBA program is not at all a holiday. In fact, business schools throw an enormous number of opportunities at students from the moment they set foot on campus—from networking and recruiting events to career workshops and volunteer outings. This often brings on FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), a disease said to spread like the plague among first-year students. FOMO symptoms include overscheduling—signing up for everything—and giving in to peer pressure.
"Peer pressure is a strong force at business school, and I’m not talking about drinking," says Or Skolnik, a second-year student at Columbia Business School in New York. “You could hang out with a group of very academic kids or those who are focused on one industry, and you can get dragged along to events of theirs when they’re not productive for you."
The cure for FOMO is determining one’s goals before business school starts. Most students have a general grasp of their career goals long before the first day of classes—they need to in order to complete their applications and pass muster with the admissions committee. But working out the details—honing in on specific roles and employers, for example— is something that shouldn’t wait until the last minute.
During the summer before her first year, Dietrich researched jobs. Knowing she wanted to do something with portfolio management, she conducted research, started networking, and made a list of contacts, she says. This self-assigned homework gave her an edge, Dietrich adds.
"Try to figure out what career path to pursue as soon as possible," she says. "People don’t realize how fast these things happen. Recruiters come to campus in October, and interviews for internships typically happen in January."
Knowing what they want to do after graduation can help students maximize their business school experience and eliminate the need to sign up for every event on campus. Instead, they should zero in on activities that will help them achieve their goals, says Amanda Shaw, director of student services at the Johnson School. "The more you wander off the career front, the more everything will suffer," she says.
Learning to make the best use of time is so important to Columbia Business School that it is planning to launch workshops in the fall, led by psychologists and executive coaches, to give students tools for prioritizing and scheduling better, says Nayla Bahri, assistant dean and dean of students at CBS. Making use of the odd hours in the day—that two-hour break between classes, for example—to get things done is a must, says Shaw. But getting comfortable with a packed schedule, setting priorities, and making efficient use of time is something that should begin long before Day One. If you’re not already adept at multitasking, the time to start is now. And starting to sort through the many activities that will be available to you and deciding which ones will serve you best isn’t a bad idea either.
Once students arrive on campus, not a minute should be wasted, say administrators and students. Even one of life’s milestones did not get in the way of business school for Matt Lieber. In the delivery room while his wife was in labor with their son, the second-year MBA student at MIT Sloan School of Management was studying hard for his accounting exam, which would be the very next day. Lieber performed well on his test, and he says he learned an important lesson about how to divvy up his time.
"Having my son forced me to prioritize and focus harder on a few things," says Lieber. "You don’t have to join eight different clubs and be a superficial member of each. It’s better to choose one and own something in it."
While students have a choice about the clubs they join, classes are one part of any MBA program that no one can avoid. In the first year, students don’t have much say in their schedule, because most business schools require a standard set of core courses. In addition to making the best use of time between classes, students should develop good study habits, says Shaw. For starters, she says, they should make use of the various resources available to them on campus, including teaching assistants, faculty, and career management resources. These experts, she says, can help cut down the amount of time students spend on their own trying to figure out problems or navigate procedures, such as learning how to prepare for an internship interview.
At the Johnson School, the Learning Resource Center provides students with guidelines for studying well. Some of the advice includes avoiding cram sessions, refraining from spending more than two hours at a time on one subject, and thinking beyond what’s due tomorrow. Lieber, the Sloan student, says he reads through assignments as soon as he gets them, so he knows from the start when they’re due and what’s involved. Even just starting to think about what he needs to do to complete the assignment gives him an edge, he adds. To keep track of everything on his plate, Lieber makes a list of tasks for the week ahead and slips it into the front cover of a binder that holds everything he needs to complete those assignments.
"I’m not normally an insane, anal schedule keeper," Lieber says. "But I found that it really helps me."
Using tools, such as Google Mail and Microsoft Outlook, are ways to keep your schedule top of mind and in order. At the Johnson School, students use Outlook, and classmates and faculty have access to each other’s calendars; while they cannot see what is scheduled, they can see the hours of the day that have already been blocked off, explains Dietrich. At Sloan, incoming students begin finding out about upcoming events and asking questions of second-year students through Google groups in the middle of summer. Making use of technology to get things done more efficiently is a great advantage, says Ryan Choi, a second-year student at Sloan, who adds that it becomes an even greater necessity when teammates are scattered across time zones and countries.
Part of the MBA program experience is learning to relax. Such demands on one’s time bring on stress. Keeping on top of their schedule is one way students can reduce some of the pressure. Another is making time for things they enjoyed before business school, suggests Bahri. "Business school runs at a fast pace," she says. "So it’s important to have something that grounds you, and you have to schedule it."
Dietrich sometimes takes a yoga class taught by one of her classmates, and she recommends that students pick a social club, such as the wine club, that piques their interest and has them indulging in hobbies they enjoy. Getting to know the B-school’s surrounding area is also a great diversion, says Dietrich. A little advance research into the region’s attractions would be time well spent. "If you stay in that one building talking about the morning’s finance quiz, you’ll drive yourself crazy," she adds. "Be realistic and get out in the world to explore."