Maybe you're already in an MBA program, and you're finding it a little tougher than you thought it would be. Maybe you're due to start a program this fall, and you're starting to think about how you can make the most of it. Or maybe you're just weighing the option of taking the B-school plunge, and you're wondering what issues you should look at before you leap.
No question about it: There's no business like the business-school business. At last count, nearly 300,000 people were pursuing an MBA degree at a U.S. institution. Meanwhile, at most MBA programs, the number of applicants continues to grow each year, in some cases by 20% or more. But a couple of questions are worth asking: What do all of these people get out of going to business school? And how do they get by while they are there?
Perhaps nothing you learn in B-school will matter as much as what you learn about B-school -- because how you approach this two-year experience will largely determine what you take away from it: in the way of knowledge, in the way of connections, in the way of a job.
The best teachers are students. In this edition of Toolbox, seven leaders from the class of '99 -- heads of student government and editors of student-run newspapers at top-ranked programs -- offer some hard-won insights and some surprising pieces of advice on everything from how to study to how to party. Why learn such lessons the hard way -- when you can let these hard-charging students learn them for you? So let the learning begin!
Name: Michelle LeBlanc, 27, one of three executive officers in the student senate; MIT Sloan School of Management.
Job before B-school: International-business analyst at Textron Inc.
Summer internship: Marketing analyst at 3M Corp.
What I've learned
Keep your eye on the ball -- or it will blow right past you. Many people go into business school not knowing exactly what they'll do when they finish. Nothing wrong with that: There's no better place to investigate various career possibilities. But you need to have a clear idea of what's important to you, or you'll end up following every other MBA into consulting or investment banking.
It can be difficult to stake out an independent career path in B-school -- in part because the pressure from recruiters never lets up. Then, in November of your second year, consulting and investment-banking firms start waving fat salaries and signing bonuses at you. When 60% or more of your classmates are accepting offers from those firms, you'll be tempted to go that route too.
I seriously considered going into consulting, but I decided against it once I remembered what I care most about: I want to have some control over my work life. I want to work from a home base instead of constantly living out of a suitcase. And I want to be able to take charge of the projects that I work on.
Coordinates: Michelle LeBlanc, email@example.com
Name: Dan Sullivan, 28, coeditor of the Cold Call Chronicle; Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia.
Job before B-school: Aide to Mark Warner, then a candidate from Virginia for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Summer internship: Investment-banking summer associate at J.P. Morgan & Co.
What I've learned
Your experience counts -- even if it's not in business. When I enrolled at Darden, I considered myself an outsider, but I soon discovered an essential truth about B-school: Outsiders are not all that uncommon. At orientation, I found that my classmates included a Navy SEAL, a NASA engineer, and an entrepreneur from Uzbekhistan. If you're an outsider, be ready to play the game a little differently -- from when you first apply to when you take a job.
I applied to just two schools: Darden and another top-ranked MBA program. With both schools, I played up my political experience. But I knew that as an outsider, I had something to prove. I had contacts inside the Darden community, and I was able to leverage them. But I didn't know anyone at the other school, and partly for that reason, I didn't get accepted there.
Coordinates: Dan Sullivan, firstname.lastname@example.org
Name: Nici Audhlam-Gardiner, 28, editor-in-chief of the Harbus; Harvard Business School.
Job before B-school: Business analyst at McKinsey & Co.
Summer internship: Summer associate with Merrill Lynch's financial-institutions group.
What I've learned
You've got to speak up -- and you've got to speak well. When I arrived at HBS, I thought that I would be evaluated according to my exam scores. But I soon discovered that my performance would be measured by how well I spoke in class -- and that if I were to succeed, I needed to learn how to speak to a large audience.
People make three kinds of mistakes when they speak up in class. First, they launch into their remarks without signaling where they're going. You need to give your comments a preface: "I want to respond to this point." Otherwise, you'll lose your audience before you get your message across.
Second, people speak up just to get their voice heard. Once you've been the butt of a professor's caustic response, you'll learn to speak only when you've got something to say.
Third, people ramble. You don't have to be right, but you do have to present your ideas clearly. So before I raise my hand, I often jot down three or four words to remind myself of the points that I want to make.
Coordinates: Nici Audhlam-Gardiner, email@example.com
Name: Matthew Bailey, 30, president of the MBA Association; Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.
Job before B-school: Manager in Andersen Consulting's process-competency group.
Summer internship: Associate in Coca-Cola USA's brand-marketing department.
What I've learned
Own your work -- don't let it own you. One day during third term last year, I realized that I was getting crushed by all of the work that I'd taken on. I had slept fewer than 5 hours each night for 10 days straight. But despite all of my extra effort, I wasn't prepared for class, I was underperforming in my study teams, and I wasn't delivering on the extracurricular stuff that I had committed to.
That's when I learned a big lesson: No matter how much work you do, there will never come a time when you can say with complete confidence, "I've studied enough. I've covered all of the material."
I have a classmate who takes lots of classes in various subjects. But in each class, he focuses only on what really intrigues him. With the rest of the material, he learns just enough to get by. He'll come away with a broader range of knowledge than anyone else in our graduating class -- and with a deeper understanding of the things that really charge him intellectually.
On that day last year, I finally recognized that I'll never plow through all of my course work. I evaluated what was really important to me, and I cut back on my commitments. Everyone I know here has gone through the same process of overextending, doing a reality check, and then cutting back.
Coordinates: Matthew Bailey, firstname.lastname@example.org
Name: Mary Jo Dunnington, 30, coeditor of The Reporter; Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Job before B-school: Project manager in the geography-education program at the National Geographic Society.
Summer internship: Summer MBA intern at American Express.
What I've learned
If the school fits, wear it. Business schools are not unlike business organizations: Different schools attract different kinds of people; they have different expectations, different competitive landscapes, and different cultures. So it's not enough just to get into a school. You've got to get into the school that's right for you. To get a sense of what spending two years at a school would be like, talk to its students. Asking various students at that school the same set of questions will help you determine whether you'll fit into the school's culture. Here are three simple questions that worked for me.
1. "Tell me about your typical day."
Find out how much time people spend in the classroom and how much time they devote to studying and to extracurricular activities. Get a sense of how much time they spend socializing with one another. See how recruitment and career development fit into their schedules.
2. "What's the academic culture like?"
Get a sense of how much work is done in teams. Ask people whether the academic atmosphere is competitive or cooperative. Find out whether the emphasis in class is more on theory or on practical applications. And listen carefully to how people talk about grades. Their real attitude toward grades might be far more serious than they're willing to admit.
3. "What did you do before business school, and what are you going to do after you graduate?"
Find out how many people plan to return to the industry that they worked in before school and how many plan to change industries. Find out how many are going into consulting or financial services who weren't in those industries before, and why people are making that switch. Most important, talk to second-year students: They're in a better position than first-years to know where they're headed -- and how business school has helped them to get there.
Coordinates: Mary Jo Dunnington, www.gsb.stanford.edu
Name: Christine Parlamis, 26, editor of the Monroe Street Journal; the University of Michigan Business School.
Job before B-school: Worked as a marketing analyst at J. Crew and as a media planner at Bertelsmann Music Group.
Summer internship: Worked in the marketing-strategy group at Dell Computer.
What I've learned
Make the career center your learning center. Your school's office of career development (OCD) is where you do the work of landing a summer internship -- and of getting that dream job after graduation. Last year, there was a three-month period when I visited the OCD at least twice a week, doing everything from reviewing materials to mock-interviewing to interviewing with real companies.
I was pretty content with my résumé when I arrived at Michigan. But the OCD counselor just ripped it apart: The résumé contained a lot of words about what I had done, but it said nothing about how I had contributed in each position that I had held. I subjected my résumé to dozens of critiques and revisions before I got it right.
But improving my résumé was just the beginning. I'd always been told that I had strong "people skills" and that I performed well in interviews, but the OCD showed me that I had a lot to learn: Along with doing regular interviews, I practiced what are called "case interviews," in which you're judged on how well you solve difficult problems under pressure. I went through about six mock interviews with OCD counselors. I watched a videotape of myself being interviewed. That's not a very comfortable experience: I realized that I spoke in a somewhat monotonous voice and that I used too many hand gestures.
After one session, the mock interviewer told me that I should pull my hair back because I had "party hair." I guess I had never thought of my hair as distracting. But she was right: A certain image is expected, especially in interviews for consulting jobs. Consulting is so image-oriented -- which is one reason why I've decided to go back into marketing after I graduate!
Coordinates: Christine Parlamis, email@example.com
Name: John Knecht, 28, president of the Student Association; John E. Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA.
Job before B-school: Program associate at the Los Angeles County Music Center.
Summer internship: Worked on a joint venture between Johnson & Johnson and Head Start, helping Head Start to develop a new business strategy.
What I've learned
Seize the day: Learn to lead. Going to a top business school will help distinguish you from the rest of the MBA pack. But the only way to stand out at such a top school is to learn to take leadership roles. I've been to a lot of company presentations this year, and almost every company representative talked about the need to be fast and nimble in today's global economy. The message is clear: Innovative leaders will be in ever-greater demand.
The good news is that getting an MBA can help you become a better leader -- for the simple reason that business school gives you lots of opportunities to lead. Here at Anderson, more than 100 students lead various groups, clubs, and activities. Because this is a public university, students are expected to step up and help out.
Being a leader is not a comfortable activity for a lot of people. You have to work at it, and sometimes you have to force yourself to do it.
But think about it: You'll never find a more supportive environment for taking risks than you'll find in business school -- nor will you find another place where you can make such a huge impact. B-school gives you so many opportunities to learn to lead. And when you return to the workplace, you'll take your new leadership skills with you.
Coordinates: John Knecht, firstname.lastname@example.org
Action Item: B-School Bible
Don't you wish you could crawl inside the head of an admissions officer to see what your B-school of choice is really looking for? Author Richard Montauk has sampled the relevant craniums, and he's handed down his findings in a veritable bible of the B-school application process. Based on interviews with admissions counselors, Montauk's How to Get Into the Top MBA Programs gives you the skinny on every aspect of the application game.
The book offers detailed descriptions of MBA program types. Equally important, it provides a shortcut for figuring out what admissions officers will consider to be your strengths and weaknesses as they review your work experience. This exercise helps you to anticipate the skills that you should show off and the weak points that you should be ready to defend.
Coordinates: $19.95. How to Get Into the Top MBA Programs, Prentice Hall, www.phdirect.com
Sidebar: Put the It in MIT
Each year, at least a few among the hundreds of new MBA students who flock to MIT Sloan School of Management make foolish technology choices. Glenn Johnston, acting director of information technology at Sloan, offers some choice bits of advice, which he has gleaned while troubleshooting students' mistakes.
DO try to buy the hardware-software setup that your school recommends. "You're basically buying an extra level of service," Johnston explains. "We'll bend over backward for you, because this technology is standardized, and we know it well."
DO learn how to use the more advanced features of your email system. "Most students here receive a couple of hundred emails a day. The ones who manage their inbox by doing occasional mass-deletions always end up losing critical messages."
DON'T assume that you know your software or hardware well enough to use it for class. "Students think they know Excel because they can change a font and total a column," Johnston says. "Then a professor asks them to run a regression, and they're lost."
Coordinates: Glenn Johnston, email@example.com
Sidebar: How to Pay for Your MBA
An MBA can cost a bundle, says Richard Montauk, author of How to Get Into the Top MBA Programs and founder of Education USA Inc. Here's his advice on financing your business education.
Start early. "People who apply for a program that starts in September should start investigating the financial issues by June of the preceding year." That way, you get 14 months to plan.
Get someone else to pay. "Senior managers might be able to get employers to foot the bill for a weekend executive-MBA program. Women and minorities can look for scholarships at Sallie Mae's Online Scholarship Service [http://scholarships.salliemae.com]."
Don't trade prestige for cash. "Don't trade down. Graduates from the top schools command salaries that dwarf the salaries of graduates from lower-ranked schools."
Coordinates: Education USA Inc., 415-273-1078
Sidebar: School Supplies
You can't compete for MBA gold if you don't have the right gear. We spoke with plugged-in students and with heads of university tech departments to compile this guide to the tools of choice at several elite business schools.
Laptop: At MIT Sloan School of Management, one of the standard-issue laptops for the 1998 -- 1999 school year is an IBM ThinkPad 380 loaded with Windows 95 and MS Office Pro 97, along with other software. Students at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business especially like Crystal Ball, an Excel add-on that tells your PC the business constraints of a problem, as well as how many calculation cycles to run.
Coordinates: $1,933. ThinkPad 380, IBM, www.ibm.com; $495. Crystal Ball, Decisioneering Inc., www.decisioneering.com
Laptop Backpack: You can't run on the fast track if you're lugging around an old-style briefcase. Students at Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern sport JanSport's Sole Long with an Eagle Creek Computer Insert.
Coordinates: $57. Sole Long, JanSport, www.jansport.com; $25. Computer Insert, Eagle Creek Travel Gear, www.eaglecreek.com
Business Calculator: The standard-issue number-crunching device at many B-schools is Hewlett-Packard's HP 17BII, which boasts more than 250 business and statistical functions.
Coordinates: $89.99. HP 17BII, Hewlett-Packard, www.hp.com/calculators
Mechanical Pencils: Quant jocks at Stanford Graduate School of Business swear by Pentel of America's Techniclick Mechanical Pencil, which features a lead-advance button on the side for uninterrupted writing.
Coordinates: $2.50. Techniclick Mechanical Pencil, Pentel of America, www.pentel-usa.com
Cell-Phone: You won't find many pagers on B-school campuses, but almost everyone packs a cell-phone in order to stay connected with classmates and corporate recruiters. Motorola's sleek StarTac ST7760 is an easy-to- use device that commands respect.
Coordinates: $524.95. StarTac ST7760, Motorola, http://commerce.motorola.com/wireless
Handheld Computer: The PalmPilot Professional is so ubiquitous, "it's like a fungus," says one Kellogg student. "Woe unto him who carries a Casio or an old-fashioned Rolodex. You'll spend more time defending yourself than using the damn thing."
Coordinates: $249. PalmPilot Professional, Palm Computing (3Com), www.palmpilot.com -- Heath Row
Sidebar: Job-Hunt Myths
Many people arrive at b-school with unrealistic expectations of how a degree will change the job-hunting game, say Timothy Butler and James Waldroop, directors of MBA career-development programs at Harvard Business School. Beware of these three myths:
Myth 1: Your school will find you a job. "We dump a lot of fish in your lap," says Waldroop. "But if you don't take advantage of the career-skill lessons that your school offers, you're in for nothing more than a once-in-a-lifetime feast. Develop career skills for life."
Myth 2: Your best job connections will come through fellow students, faculty members, and on-campus recruiters. The key that really unlocks a B-school's network is its alumni database. "Every school has alumni who can help you win some great offers, but they can't help you if you can't find them," says Butler.
Myth 3: Cash in now. "Pick a job that will maximize your learning, not just your earning," advises Waldroop. "Three years from now, you want to be paid a lot to work on something that engages you."
Coordinates: Waldroop Butler Associates, www.careerdiscovery.com
Sidebar: Your First Day
What should you do on your first day at B-school? We asked Tim Albinson, who graduates this May from Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is now the president of his class and a board member of Students for Responsible Business.
Have a beer with your new classmates. "The most important thing you'll take away from B-school are your relationships with your classmates," says Albinson. "Close the laptop, and have some fun. There will be plenty of time to stress out later."
Make a friend at the career center. "Sure, B-school is about learning and honing new skills, but it's getting a job offer that really matters. Take advantage of the lull that lasts until work really heats up, and start developing your job-search strategy today."
Find yourself a second-year mentor. "Most first-year students don't realize that their best sources of guidance are not their peers or professors, but their second-year classmates. These people were in your shoes 12 short months ago, and they successfully surfed that brutal first-year tidal wave of work. So cap the day by taking a B-school veteran out to dinner."
Coordinates: Tim Albinson, firstname.lastname@example.org
Lisa Chadderdon (email@example.com) is a Fast Company staff writer. Senior Writer Cheryl Dahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) contributed several of the sidebars.