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Colin Johnson

Columbia Business School

Colin Johnson was drawn to Manhattan and Columbia University’s Business School after working as a project and assistance engineer at Delphi Automotive in Lockport, New York for four years. Now concentrating on “learning from good professors,” the Stanford University graduate says he hopes to either launch his own high-tech company or begin a career in finance. In the meantime, here are his words of wisdom for B-school novices…

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Know Why You’re There
If you’re clear about your career goals, you can determine whether earning the highest grade in class is worth the stress. Balance is key. Business school is not only about academics, it is also about the people and education outside the classroom — speakers, projects, etc. Your classmates constitute one of the most dynamic, accomplished groups of people you may ever meet. Getting to know them over the two years will likely contribute as much, if not more, to your long-term success than memorizing random factoids. Everything works out in the wash. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself while learning.

Pack It In
An acquaintance once calculated that he spent about 55 hours a week outside of class on academics. If you think about the break down, a typical schedule might include 55 on studying, 15 on attending classes, 15 on the job search, 10 on club activities, 18 on socializing, and another 55 for all that is left over like sleeping and personal hygiene. In a week of 168 hours, 55 hours for “other” means eating, drinking, and sleeping squeezes into fewer than 8 hours a day.

Forget the Curve
Grading in the core courses is curved around a range of A to C [referred to as H (Honors), HP (High Pass) and P (Pass)]. Because performance is measured relative to one’s cluster mates, one would think that there would be cutthroat competition. Instead, the amount of collaboration, teamwork, and willingness to help classmates succeed is extraordinary.

Only the career changers trying to get into banking or those interested in working at McKinsey worry about grades more than the rest because they fear it will come up in their interviews. The rest realize that when the curve is relative, it is not necessarily a measure of absolute achievement. When you’re in a group of super stars, even the last in the pack is doing pretty well. I think this accounts for the strong esprit de corps.

Protect Your Reputation
Your reputation follows you through school and into the workforce. Unethical behavior or taking advantage of others will ruin your reputation. A person with lousy personal skills or who has no scruples will find him/herself alone when it is time to do team projects. As in business, being alone when the work requires a team can be very unpleasant.

Know Thyself
The pace in business school is too crazy to “find yourself” as some people could do in undergraduate. Instead, take the time to consider, based on your past experience, what you want from your next career. You may not be able to identify a specific job, career, or company that will offer this, but it will allow you to better filter through all the different temptations on campus. There is no way to go to all the presentations of all companies in all industries and still maintain your academic standing. Fight the temptation to join the herd.

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Location, Location, Location
Because we are in Manhattan, we have a chance to regularly visit the firms located here in which we are most interested. To be able to jump on a subway, travel 25 minutes, have an informational interview with a contact or an alumni member, turn around and still make your afternoon class is a huge advantage.

Look Beyond Standard Recruiters
While the list of respected companies coming to campus to recruit grows daily, there are many that do not have formal recruiting programs. The Career Services Office has substantial information resources about non-traditional companies that hire MBAs. Fight the temptation to be spoon-fed only the typical companies who show up to interview. There is great support for those who don’t find a perfect fit with the employers who come to our door step and who wish to conduct an individualized job search. The staff is at your service. Use them.

Escape It
New York City is not just the mecca of business, it is the city of stimulation. If burned out by accounting or finance, Riverside Park and Central Park are common decompression areas. St. John’s Cathedral on 112th and Amsterdam (3 blocks down from the New Business/Law Building) is one of the most awe-inspiring man-made spaces in world. One step inside and worries tend to evaporate. New York City is great that way. A different world is only several blocks or a train-ride away.

Nurture Your Personal Life
The all-consuming lifestyle and intensity of business school can leave significant others feeling neglected. They even joke about breaking up with boyfriends and girlfriends at home over Thanksgiving to beat the Christmas rush. To stave off these developments, a couple precautions have been known to work.

Before the business school experience begins, a heart-to-heart about the intensity of the first year is critical. The partner will not likely understand, or even be able to imagine, the demands that a typical first-year student experiences. The more space a partner can give, the better. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

Incorporate your partner as much as possible. Business school is intense, but it is also fun. All social events are open to significant others, and we encourage bringing them. It is sometimes difficult to include them in inside jokes or business lingo, but the harder we try, the more successful the survival rates.

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Judge for Yourself
7:30 a.m. — Alarm goes off.

7:45 a.m. — Realize that the fire alarm ringing in my dreams is not a fire alarm, but actually the alarm clock.

7:50 a.m. — Stumble out of bed in half stupor, and turn off alarm. “What day is it? Wednesday? No, Thursday. Damn, 9 o’clock group meeting?”

8 – 8:35 a.m. — Shower, shave, dress.

8:35-8:45 a.m. — Walk to school reading the Wall Street Journal.

8:50 a.m. — Buy a cup of coffee at the Uris Deli in spill-proof mug.

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9 a.m. — Arrive at the library to meet my study group and put the final touches on a Finance case before class. I’m the first one there. I log on to the network and check my email. 45 messages received since midnight. I start responding to messages as people trickle in.

9:15 a.m. — All are present and accounted for. We work for 45 minutes in mad rush to finish.

10 a.m. — Swing past the printer to pick up our case write-up and dash to class.

10:05 a.m. — Find a seat in class, plug my laptop into network and power up. Arrange papers and answer a couple emails as the professor opens class discussion.

10:24 a.m. — Break into cold sweat as the professor scans the room for someone on which to cold call. Eyes scan across, and land on neighbor. Breath sigh of relief. Discussion continues. Future cold calls bounce to other parts of the auditorium.

11:20 a.m. — Class breaks. Scramble to catch classmates to arrange meeting later in the day to brainstorm speakers for an upcoming conference to be hosted at the Business School. No one seems to have a common time free. Arrange for 10 p.m. Monday night. Four out of five isn’t bad. Pull out PalmPilot and check to see what presentations are scheduled for today: five corporate brown bag lunches, a speaker sponsored by the Columbia Entrepreneurship Association on starting one’s own vineyard, the Dean’s Forum, a faculty presentation on Social Responsibility in Business. Hmmm. Can’t do it all. Weigh options.

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11:35 a.m. — Check in with one of the brown bags. Grab a boxed lunch. Decide it doesn’t look as appealing as the vineyard presentation. Change rooms and stand at the back behind the last row of chairs. Listen for 15 minutes about grapes and oak barrels. Decide to catch the Dean’s Forum and slip out. On the way over meet a friend who persuades me to join her in the presentation on Social Responsibility. Change course and squeeze into lecture hall. Become enthralled with tales of Fair Trade artisan coops in West Africa.

12:45 p.m. — Make way to accounting class. Congregate in the hall outside the door with colleagues from cluster as we wait for the lunch presentation held in the classroom to let out. Chat about homework assignments and the latest conquests day trading. Confirm that most are planning to attend Happy Hour at 6 p.m.

12:55 p.m. – Find seat in class and boot up computer. Check email. 33 more emails. Answer a couple. Class starts.

2:20 p.m. – Class lets out. Leave Uris Hall and walk down to the New Business/Law Building across Amsterdam Avenue. Pull out cell phone to arrange an informational interview for the following day at 10 a.m. in Midtown. Look for study group in the breakout rooms of the new building. oon everyone convenes. Work on assignments until munchies hit. Send one of the group down to Hamilton Deli next door for snacks and Snapples. Check email. 25 more messages. Progress on the project proceeds slower than expected. Discuss alternative meeting times. Two of the group have Friday internships in the City and can’t meet. Agree upon 8:30 a.m. Saturday morning in the same building. Have got to get in early to capture the room with the best window. As I write the new plan into my PalmPilot, realize that forgot about a presentation from the CFO of a major Media Company that afternoon that I had wanted to see. Curse quietly to self.

6:19 p.m. – Leave to head back to Uris Hall for Happy Hour. Peak into Joe Miller’s office, the Director of Student Activities. Ask if he minds keeping a bag in his office. Persuade him to join the group at Happy Hour. The highly publicized “Video Game Happy Hour” features random mid-Eighties classics. The sponsoring bank was particularly generous. Get a glass of wine from the server. Don’t recognize her. Realize that she’s not a B-School student. The bartending staff has been hired from the outside. Getting kinda snazzy these days? Bump into a couple of professors and numerous friends in other clusters who I don’t see during the week. Laugh. Cry. Let hair down.

9:12 p.m. – The first dancing begins. The energy grows and grows.

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10:30 p.m. – The Happy Hour is finally brought to a close, and most of the crowd moves out to a Post Happy Hour venue on the Upper West Side.

10:45 p.m. — While sorely tempted to follow friends out for the night, I decide that the informational interview the next morning calls for prudence. Go home. Check email. 36 more messages. Buckle down and start answering the day’s messages. Despite best intentions to go to sleep early, spend hours clearing out the email inbox.

2:10 a.m. — Collapse with exhaustion. Sleep ’til morning.

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