Ivan Kerbel is the founder of Practice MBA, a pre-MBA summer program designed to ease the transition into business school with academic and career training. Prior to founding Practice MBA, Ivan led the career development office at the Yale School of Management and was a part of the Wharton School of Management’s MBA career management team. He is a 2005 graduate of the Wharton School of Management.
Expartus: What led you to found Practice MBA and focus your efforts on the summer before students enter business school?
Ivan Kerbel: The student bodies at top schools have an educational and professional diversity that is unequalled in any other graduate school experience. This means that some students – from more traditional business backgrounds – enter school very familiar with the rigor and culture, while others – from non-traditional or international backgrounds – can be a step or two behind, despite being high-performers in their own fields. Working at Yale and Wharton, I saw that these students needed a better way to absorb the rigor of the academic process and the newness of the experience. To me, the best way to address that gap is to extend the front end of the school year into the summer months prior to the start of school.
For students seeking a competitive edge – or simply the chance to start school on an equal footing with MBAs who have undergrad business degrees or a great deal of pre-MBA commercial experience – business school does not begin in the fall; it begins the moment that you commit to a particular institution. The first year of an MBA degree is not an ideal time for exploration, trial runs and false starts. To take full advantage of their B-school experience, students need to do a lot of legwork beforehand.
During those summer months, traditional and non-traditional MBAs alike have an opportunity to take care of preliminary learning and preparation. After all, you don’t go to a top business school to learn financial modeling in Excel or to improve your English as a nonnative speaker. The tenured faculty you encounter in business school are able to offer and teach so much at an advanced level, based on unique cutting-edge research and experience; it’s in every student’s best interest to be able to access that teaching without being bogged down by the fundamentals. Our program is all about taking care of problem areas and developing a strategy before you set foot on campus, so that you can get the most out of the amazing institution that you have chosen to attend.
E: In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge that most students face going into B-school?
I.K.: Top business schools are designed to challenge the most capable of their students, both academically and in terms of recruiting. Everything is pitched to students at the highest level of their field, and this makes for a very rigorous environment. The biggest personal challenge, and one that we constantly hear about from students, is the level of multi-tasking required, especially during the first year. The coursework, the job search process, and the extracurricular involvement that most B-schools demand would be challenging individually, but taken together, they are exponentially more demanding. Even a small weakness can slow you down as you work to cope with this influx of tasks, so the more groundwork you can accomplish beforehand, the better.
E: What are some of the most important things students should accomplish in the summer of before business school?
I.K.: In terms of business school, the summer before your first year is unique in that you are not being evaluated. You are not on stage yet. I encourage students to leave their current employment a couple of months early, if it is at all feasible, and to view this summer as an evaluative-free space that you should design and tailor to your own needs. If you have a particular academic weakness, seek out structured outlets for improvement. If you have no idea what career path you might want to take, or if your ideas are very loose, it is extremely important to clarify that. As I’ve mentioned, B-School can be a very tough place to “discover yourself”. Use the summer before to touch base with key people in your life – family, mentors, and friends – and to do some introspection. Develop a game plan for the coming months. What academic areas do you want to focus on? What professors would you like to develop relationships with? What extracurricular activities best fit with your career goals?
I also encourage students to begin pretty intensive research into career opportunities. Identify companies that you want to target. Use LinkedIn to see where alumni from your school work. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and make connections. The earlier you can create these opportunities, the better.
E: What would you advise them NOT to do?
I.K.: If at all possible, do not work straight up until school begins. The first year of business school is often exhausting, and it can be a lot harder if you do not have some sort of break beforehand, to reset yourself physically and mentally. We have recently added a Wilderness Skills course to our pre-MBA program, and it is something that I am very excited about. Basically, the program gives rising MBAs a chance to join their peers for a week-long venture into the beautiful wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, learn valuable outdoor travel skills, and have a lot of fun. Such experiences – though they are not directly academic or career-related – can broaden your perspective and provide valuable respite before the craziness of business school. In life, we are offered very few sabbaticals from employment, and the summer before B-school can be such a unique and rewarding opportunity – to have an adventure, to learn something new, and to refocus on what is coming. Don’t let that chance pass you by.