Life during an MBA program

The best MBA programs demand a remarkable amount of work. During the first year of a program (or the first two-thirds of a one-year program), the demands are particularly great. There are several reasons for this. The first is that the schools are trying to teach all of the major functional areas of business, plus an understanding of micro- and macro-economics, and numerous skills such as communications, leadership, teamwork, and so on. This is a large amount to learn in such a short time, so the workload is inevitably high. The second year (or last one-third of a one-year program) is less intense, both because students have learned how to play the business school “game” and because they are taking elective courses suited to their interests.

Another important reason for the time pressure is that the workload of a senior executive or an entrepreneur can be gruelling. The MBA program is structured to simulate that load, so that students are prepared for it later on. The excessive amount of work forces students to learn how to manage their time, one of the key skills a senior manager must acquire. Thus, a student will almost certainly have to learn to prioritize – to determine which bits of work to do, which to glance at, and which to ignore – as well as how to do all of this efficiently. Furthermore, a student’s coverage of material can be greatly enhanced by working with a group of other students, so the excessive demands of the program encourage formation of student study groups. Getting the most out of a study group requires good teamwork skills, something that programs explicitly wish to foster.

So how demanding are these programs? In fact, they are so demanding that it is more appropriate to describe the amount of time a typical student is not working, rather than the other way around. Unmarried students typically take off one or two evenings per week, enough time each day for a physical activity, plus the occasional hour or two to relax. Married students generally spend a bit more time away from their books, but not a lot. Obviously even an understanding spouse and family are likely to be put out by this sort of schedule.

Study Groups

Study groups, whether formed to prepare for exams or to do a specific project, are among the staples of business school life. The ideal study group consists of students with professional competence in a wide range of fields, and with the temperament to work well on teams. Most students find that their own group or groups fall far short of the ideal, so learning how to manage team interaction is of great importance to them.
Groups in some schools are chosen by the students themselves, but it has become more common for the schools to form the groups used in the first half of the program to assure everyone of a place and to make sure students have to confront the usual problems that result from highly diverse membership with a certain representation of all required skills. For example, how should the lazy or quantitatively under-prepared student be treated? Should one person be allowed to dominate discussions? And so on. From the school’s perspective, this mirrors the usual problems in working on teams in the real world. Students tend to find group work a valuable experience, but extremely frustrating, which bears out the school’s view.

Curriculum at a Business School

  • The PreProgram – Many programs start with a pre-program, which may last for as little as three days or as long as a month. Some programs are designed only to review subjects such as statistics, economics, algebra, or calculus. These programs are ordinarily optional, with those who have not had prior coursework in these fields being strongly encouraged to take them. Other programs have various team-building, “bonding,” and socializing courses and events. The second type are generally mandatory for all incoming students.
  • The First Year – The first year (or half-year in a one-year program) is likely to be overwhelming unless you have had a very good preparation for it. By very good preparation, I mean that you have already done a bachelor’s degree in business, or worked in the type of environment that in many respects mimics business school, such as a management consulting firm. There is so much work to do, so many new concepts to learn, that you are likely to feel you are drowning. Not only do you have a great deal to learn, you also have to learn how to learn. As time goes on, however, you will figure out how to cut through the massive amounts of reading and detail to focus on the key aspects, whether of textbooks and articles or of cases. Whereas a full case analysis, for example, might take you eight or ten hours initially, in the second term you might manage a similar case in just three hours. Most students feel that the first term is infinitely more difficult than the second, and the following terms are more or less a breeze.
  • The Second Year – The second-year curriculum generally has few if any required courses, allowing students to choose the electives that fit their interests. The second year is inevitably quite relaxed relative to the pressure of the first year, and most of the emotional focus will be on getting the right job rather than on surviving your courses.

The Student Body

The student body at most schools looks much as it has for years, albeit with a slightly more international and ethnic flavor. The vast majority of students are male-many schools having seen a decline in the enrolment of women since the late 1980s. A large percentage of students come from engineering, financial services and accounting, management consulting, and marketing. These fields, not surprisingly, are also the biggest employers of MBAs. Despite this, the mix of jobs held by the other one-third or so of the class, the group that has not come from the standard pre-MBA positions, is quite stunning. It is not unusual to have such classmates as a former navy commander, a Peace Corps volunteer, a fashion photographer, an inventor of a new machine, a television producer, and someone who sailed the Atlantic in a minuscule sailboat.

Much of the learning experience in a high-quality program comes from your fellow students, who can give real-life insights into problems, based upon their recent experiences in similar situations. The range of different jobs, companies, industries, and countries represented by students in the top programs makes for rich classroom discussions and study group sessions.

Whatever their work backgrounds, the different students have several things in common. They are invariably motivated as well as intelligent, and have been highly successful in whatever they have done so far.

These are not just the people you will work with, and compete with, for your time together in business school. You will also form lifelong friendships with some of them and may well form a company with some, too. Your business school colleagues represent your future network of contacts, the people who will be your clients and partners and sources of job information when you consider switching companies.

Social Life

Some suspect that the only way MBA students manage to have any social life at all is by sleeping very little. There is a lot of truth in this. The time pressure inherent in demanding programs ensures that only the truly energetic can manage a social or family life in addition to their studies. The bulk of MBA students, however, are energetic enough to live at least a moderately social existence.

Social life differs greatly from one program to the next. At all schools, however, student organizations will be the focus of substantial time and effort, Many of these are pre-professional clubs designed to help students get jobs in their chosen fields. A management consulting club, for example, would help members get jobs in consulting by inviting speakers and recruiters from consulting firms to visit and discuss the field, and their respective firms, with interested members. Larger schools tend to have a magnificent range of such clubs, covering everything from consumer marketing to nonprofit management.

Not all student organizations are an extension of the job search. Many sports and activities clubs can be found on the typical campus. These in particular are likely to be open to spouses and even children. Like their preprofessional analogs, these offer the opportunity to demonstrate leadership and other desirable attributes along with simple energy and love of a given activity.

American two-year programs tend to be better at providing student-run clubs than do the European one-year programs. This is due partly to the American undergraduate ethos, which holds that extracurricular involvement in student activities is part and parcel of an educational experience, and partly to the greater amount of time available in a two-year program. (Some American schools seem to have nearly as many clubs as students, perhaps to give every student the chance to be president of some club.)

Not all student social life revolves around clubs. Student parties fortunately are a staple of MBA programs, with the excuse for holding one varying from the need to get away from studying when the pressure is greatest to the need to take advantage of the opportunity when the pressure is lowest. In addition, students find innumerable ways to enjoy informal activities with their fellow students and outsiders, although the more isolated campuses make interaction with non-students rather problematic.

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