The toughest challenge for people who secure places on MBA programs is not the academic rigor but the difficulty in becoming a student again after years of employment. Preparation is key, and the ideal time to start, according to business schools, is the summer before your MBA program begins.
“Going back to school after time in the workforce can be an adjustment. Coursework is demanding, and incoming students need to manage their time to ensure those needs are being met, while also building relationships with their classmates and preparing for their internship search,” says Lindsay Loyd, executive director of MBA admissions at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
That is why Stern has its LAUNCH orientation for incoming MBA students, which helps set the tone for the program and supports them in understanding what to expect during the first year of the program. Many other schools run similar events to help students hit the ground running when they embark on their MBA after a long spell in work.
Prioritize, manage and plan
One major challenge when beginning a full-time MBA program is balancing time, says Loyd. “As the journey begins, class time and studying, recruiting and career preparation as well as networking and co-curricular activities and clubs are all competing for your attention.
“The mistake is over-indexing time and effort in one area, which inevitably comes at the expense of the others. Having clear goals about what you’d like to accomplish through your MBA can help to prioritize, manage and plan a balanced approach.”
An additional challenge is that full-time MBA students are likely to be moving to a new country to attend the program. “They’ve resigned from their job and moved to a place where they may not speak the language nor be familiar with the culture. There is therefore a lot going on when they start the program as the stakes and personal investment is high,” points out Rebecca Loades, director MBA programs at ESMT Berlin, a business school in Germany.
“Depending on how long they’ve been out of university, students may also struggle with the high-paced intensity of MBA studies in an education system that may be different to that they are used to. Together, that’s a lot to manage,” she adds.
Brush up on mathematics
Many of the courses in an MBA program are quantitative in focus. This means that candidates need a good, solid foundation of mathematical principles. Thus, ESMT recommends that candidates review their basic numeracy skills, especially if they have not used mathematics in the past few years.
“Professors will assume that candidates can complete basic algebra and probability problems, for example. We also recommend that candidates review spreadsheet modelling if they are not comfortable with using Excel,” says Loades.
Meanwhile, ESMT has an online community platform where students can find their future classmates as well as current students and alumni, for advice. ESMT also offers guidance for students who need visas to enter Germany, and information and advice about securing appropriate housing in Berlin -- a task that gets trickier every year because of a rental squeeze.
Get involved in the MBA community early
One of the biggest mistakes that students make is the misconception that doing an MBA will be easier, or at least slower paced, than their previous jobs. “This is not the case. We are simulating the lifestyle and workload of a busy executive throughout the program,” says Michelle Zhu, MBA administration director at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai.
CEIBS helps prospects to understand this by inviting them to spend a weekend on campus, to live as an MBA student, at its Beyond Border Camps. During the three-day event, they get a taste of the MBA lifestyle and an opportunity to picture themselves as a full-time candidate.
“Becoming a student again is one of the complexities. Adjusting to group work, case-study discussions and examinations takes time, especially given that everyone is new to the program,” Zhu says.
Crucially, she says that prospective MBA students need to start preparing immediately: “Some inbound students have had their offers for the best part of eight months by the time they join us for the opening ceremony. It’s a long time, so it’s important they become involved in the CEIBS community in the preceding months.”
How can admissions consultants help?
As well as business schools, admissions consultants can prepare incoming MBA students for the transition from the workforce into full-time education. In addition to the consulting process itself, The MBA Exchange, for one, provides access to a network of alumni who can provide insights on specific programs to help students arrive at orientation with a gameplan.
“For those who have any identifiable weaknesses or gaps in their profile, taking summer courses can be a great primer for getting reacquainted with the student mindset and help dust off dormant skills,” says Seth Gilmore, a senior consultant at The MBA Exchange.