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A Top MBA Program is NOT the Place to “Find Yourself”

Picture something for me, if you will. Fall is dawning and you’ve just stepped foot on campus at one of the globe’s top MBA programs, as a first year MBA student.

Activity fairs, new student forums and extracurricular opportunities seem to pop up out of nowhere, with alarming frequency. You start class and are immediately loaded with homework and group meetings, all while feeling the pressure to meet and socialize with all of your new classmates.

And, just as you begin to make sense of all of that- about the first month of school- recruiting begins. Interviewers descend on campus and you have to think about next summer when you’re really not sure if you even have time to do laundry this weekend.

Top MBA program

No Time for “Finding Yourself” at Top MBA Programs

This is the reality of business school, and many prospective students are very unprepared for it. Far too often, and especially in an uncertain job market, I hear from young adults who are thinking about going to graduate school because, “I am not really sure what else to do,” or “I need time to discover what I really want to do”.

This is not a sufficient reason for any graduate program, and will set you up for failure in top MBA programs. Unlike many Ph.D. programs, MBA programs are, at maximum, two years.

Many MBA programs, especially European MBA programs, are only one year. Former clients and MBA graduates that I have talked to all report that those years go by too fast. The ones that get the most out of their short time in business school are the ones that prepare well beforehand.

How to Maximize Your Time Before Business School

You need to leverage your time prior to the start of business school to more clearly define your career ambitions, your interests, and what you hope to accomplish in business school- BEFORE you set foot on campus.

If you fail to do this, you risk floundering as recruiting begins and falling behind students who clearly recognize what they want and go for it quickly. To maximize your exploration, consider the following tools:

  • Career assessment tools. Many great career assessment programs are available online, often at little cost. For example, Career Leader, which is available to both universities and individuals, specifically focuses on business-related careers and can match participants’ interests, motivations and skills with potential career tracks. University career services centers are another great resource, and often offer complimentary service to alumni.
  • Academic or prep programs. Enroll in pre-MBA academic programs to build up skills that you are lacking. One such program is Practice MBA, founded by Ivan Kerbel, a former leader of career programs at Yale School of Management and The Wharton School. Ivan’s program gives non-traditional MBAs (or traditional MBAs looking for a head start) the opportunity to take classes and gain training in an intensive summer residence program where students can tailor classes to their weaknesses. As Ivan told me when I interviewed him last spring, “You don’t go to a top business school to learn financial modeling in Excel or to improve your English as a nonnative speaker.” If you brush up on your skills before business school begins, you can move on to more advanced opportunities.
  • Internships. Seek out short-term internships before beginning your MBA program to test out areas that you are interested in. A client of mine had worked in finance but was interested in strategy consulting. She planned ahead and secured a pro-bono strategy internship before quitting her banking job, and used that internship to transition into her upcoming MBA program. Her internship experience allowed her to confirm her interest in strategy consulting and gave her a great starting point for fall conversations with strategy consulting recruiters.
  • Alumni Networking. Reach out to alumni in fields that you are interested in. Both university alumni and alumni from your prospective MBA program can be a wonderful resource. Depending on your needs and their availability, your interactions could range from a simple email or phone call with a few questions, to informational interviews or days spent shadowing their job. Do not be afraid to get in touch- most professionals remember what it was like to just be starting an MBA program, and are eager to help.

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Conclusion

Each of these pre-MBA strategies can help you develop a game plan for succeeding in your MBA program. You can gain a stronger understanding of the career options you are interested in, pinpoint MBA clubs that support those interests, and begin reaching out to recruiting companies that you might want to work for.

All of this will lay a very strong foundation for your two years as a student at a top MBA program, and will set you up for success during that time and beyond.

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