Making the Most of the MBA Experience

The degree can be like drinking water from a firehose, so you need to be intentional about what you want to gain from the experience

An MBA is a big investment of money, time and effort, so it’s critical to ensure a return on investment. Part of that return comes down to whether you can make the most of your experience at business school. What you put in, is what you get out of it.  

Preparation is one key to maximizing the value of the MBA experience. “It’s like drinking water from a firehose, so you have to be intentional — before you know it, the time has flown by, and your program is ending,” says Shari Hubert, associate dean for admissions, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. 

Her advice is to ask yourself what you want to accomplish in classes, in terms of whether you care more about the grades or want to focus on the learning. Two other considerations are whether you want to expand your breadth of knowledge or gain a greater depth of expertise. Additionally, do you want to gain confidence speaking out during class, or become more of an active listener?

“By having some intention, while still being open to new opportunities, you will feel more in control of your day-to-day experiences and can stay focused without being too rigid with your time,” says Hubert.

It’s also a good idea to get a jump on securing housing and connect and meet up with other classmates, as well as completing any pre-work assignments. But she adds that, one of the best things everyone can do to prepare for an MBA is relax.

“Some incoming students need to continue working until close to the start of the program, but I would encourage even these individuals to take at least a week or two before the program starts to recharge and reset their minds for a new journey,” Hubert says.

Broaden your horizons 

Once on the program, MBA heads advise incoming students to broaden their horizons. “The MBA experience is not just about the classes; it’s about the co-curricular and career experiences as well,” says Shelly Heinrich, associate dean of MBA admissions and director of marketing at Georgetown University McDonough School of Business.

Students should get involved in activities outside their comfort zone and think about the skills they want to gain during their MBA program, whether running for an office of a student organization or getting involved in case competitions. “Two years go by fast, and students should take time to identify the ways they wish to leverage the variety of events, organizations, and experiences available to them in order to maximize their time in the program,” says Heinrich.

One of the biggest mistakes that MBA participants make is underestimating the transition back to school in the first semester. “Pace yourself, set up a system of effective time management, and learn who your support resources are,” Heinrich adds.

“It’s important for students to realize that every week they will have to learn how to juggle different priorities -- between school, co-curricular opportunities, and career navigation -- and knowing where to find balance and support is important to building a sustainable plan for navigating the MBA journey.”

The other aspect of getting the most from your MBA is you have to strike a balance between being very open to different possibilities, but also being very disciplined in rejecting things that don’t work out.

“I’ve seen students who have struggled because they feel overwhelmed by the huge range of possible career options that an MBA could open up that they never spend enough time focusing on one or two areas,” says Conrad Chua, executive director of the MBA at Cambridge Judge Business School. “On the other hand, I’ve seen students who come into the MBA with a very narrow focus, and they don't take the opportunity to explore new areas.”

Think about life after an MBA 

Beyond that, students should begin thinking about life after the MBA and making the most of the resources available to support their future career. With that in mind, Chua stresses the importance of building a network while at business school. “The MBA would have given you the academic foundations to understand businesses and move into different industries, and would have given you the personal and professional development skills so that you can develop as a leader,” he says.

“But in your future career you have to bring together that academic knowledge, those leadership skills, as well as the network that the alumni community will give you. So be an active member in your school’s alumni community and participate in any lifelong learning initiatives that the school might organize,” says Chua.

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