How to Survive the ‘Marathon’ MBA Course

Returning to the classroom after a lengthy spell in the workforce can be a daunting challenge. Loved ones, students and business schools can be a source of support

Anna Farrus speaks about balancing the demands of an MBA like an athlete speaks about preparing for a marathon. “Diet, exercise, sleep and finding quality time to spend with your loved ones are all important for maintaining peak performance,” says the MBA admissions director at IMD Business School in Switzerland. “You need to have the desire, ability and optimism to deal with both the pace of the program and of the world.” 

It’s no secret that a full-time MBA is intense. Returning to the classroom after a lengthy spell in the workforce can be a daunting challenge. Full-time MBA candidates are often in their late twenties to early thirties, in high flying careers. Putting those on pause, forgoing a salary and paying tuition fees can incur financial insecurity. All the more so for students with families, which may be uprooted to a new culture, city or country. 

“An MBA student’s life can be completely filled with rigorous academics and job searching alone. Where does that leave the partner and family?” asks Sarah Elliott, assistant dean for student affairs at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. 

So how should students plan for an MBA program? IMD’s Farrus says research is important, so that candidates are not blind-sighted by the program, its structure or culture. A full-time MBA usually includes weekday lectures on campus, evening and weekend studying, and social and recruitment events that keep study groups connected.

“Prioritizing and deciding where to make compromises is key,” says Farrus. “There are so many new opportunities, and you want to make the most of this time you have taken out of your career. But no one can do everything.” 

Once you have chosen your program, let your friends and family know, and get their agreement and understanding from the application process through to the course, which usually lasts for between one and two years. 

How to survive an MBA: the importance of planning

Planning how to balance study, travel, work and family commitments, and communicating this to loved ones is paramount to surviving the MBA. Darden’s Elliott says MBA students likely need to prioritize their schooling and career for the first three quarters of the MBA between August and March. Thereafter, most students at US schools are working internships and going into electives, which means they can refocus on their partner and family. 

Swati Dalal, an Indian MBA candidate at IMD, stresses the importance of support from those closest to you during an MBA program. “Outsourcing everything that does not directly help you in achieving your professional and personal targets, can save you time and energy to pursue more meaningful activities,” she says. “Family, friends, as well as society, play an important role in ensuring that we are successful in our journey. We need to nurture these relationships.” 

Students must support each other during challenging times, says Pete Johnson, assistant dean of the full-time MBA and admissions at Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. 

Many of the students there have spouses and families, which are supported by a group for families called Bear Cubs, which aims to integrate parents, partners and their children into the Haas community through activities. 

Look to business schools for support

Business schools are also a source of support. IMD looks for candidates in the admissions process who can hack the demands of the course: typically these include those who have excellent interpersonal skills and who have had significant career progression. 

“We look for high achievers who really want to commit to the full learning experience, unlock their potential and discover their capacity for dealing with complexity,” says Farrus. “This results in a transformative experience that necessitates stepping out of your comfort zone.” 

At Darden, Elliott worked with the University of Virginia’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) department to pilot their mental health services on the Darden campus, making it more convenient for busy MBA students to attend sessions. “This has been an amazing success, with session visits jumping from 71 in 2014 to 857 in 2019,” she says. “Our students rave about our in-house provider – Dr Wilson – and are eager to recommend her services.” 

The business school also has a student-led Resilience Committee that provides workshops aimed at improving the mental wellbeing of the Darden community and puts on programs during Darden’s Resilience Week, a series of sessions to help maximize performance or cope with trauma and adversity. 

At IMD, Farrus says that being able to cope with ambiguity is essential, given all the uncertainty in the world. So making it through the MBA marathon may be skill in itself that is prized by corporate recruiters. 


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