Like many first-year students, Shahnaz Shushtari walked onto Cornell's Johnson School campus last fall thinking she had the right game plan for her first semester of business school. Eager to be involved in campus activities, she signed up for 15 clubs during the activity fair the first week of school, including golf, wine, and outdoors. She quickly realized she had gotten in over her head. "When a classmate pulled me aside and asked me how many clubs I signed up for and I couldn't say them in one breath, I knew I was in trouble," says Shushtari, who spoke at an orientation last week for first years about lessons she learned as a wet-behind-the-ears MBA student.
Predicaments like Shushtari's are all too common for a first-year MBA struggling to gain her footing the early weeks of school. The first semester can be overwhelming for students, the majority of whom have been out in the workforce, on average, three to five years. They need to readjust to being a student while simultaneously networking with classmates and strategizing for their careers. Add to that the temptation of joining the dozens of student clubs, and it's easy to see why students feel stressed their first semester, says Peggy Bishop Lane, deputy vice-dean of the graduate division at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "The whole thing, it is one big balancing game," Lane says. "How do you get to do it all?"
Hitting the ground running your first semester is possible, but it takes some careful planning. Here are 10 tips from administrators, professors, and second years on how newbies can navigate the first semester, balance their lives, and stand out among their peers.
Get reacclimated to being a student. Most B-school students likely haven't sat in a classroom for several years, except maybe as a student in a GMAT preparation class. After a long stint as a working professional, switching gears from a high-powered career achiever to student is tougher than one might think.
To ease into the transition, focus solely on being a student for the first week or two of school. Spend the majority of your time on homework and class readings; joining school clubs and signing up for career workshops can come later, says Ray Hernandez, a second year at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business who worked for 10 years before pursuing an MBA. "Business schools stress so much on work experience that you sometimes forget what it was like to be a student," he says. "Get through a solid week of school because it is easy to underestimate the amount of time you need for study and preparation."
Don't overcommit. Shushtari, the Cornell student, eventually had to eliminate most of the 15 clubs she joined, which allowed her to focus her energy on a handful more relevant to her career goals. It was a necessary step that allowed her to rise to leadership positions in groups such as the business school's student council and the women's management club.
Talk to other students or club leaders to gauge the time commitment required by certain organizations. Some require you to put in a certain number of hours every week, whereas others only have an occasional monthly meeting. Put yourself on a club's e-mail list if you think you don't have time to attend meetings, a move that lets you be selective about the events you attend, Shushtari recommends. "You'll serve yourself and the students you're working with better if you can focus your energy on the activities that you are really passionate about," she says. "That will give you the most learning and gratification."
Avoid the herd mentality. Once recruiting events ramp up in October, students start succumbing to the "herd mentality," says Sherilyn Scully, director of student and academic services at Yale's School of Management. For example, students who never thought they'd go into a career in consulting may reconsider if a large number of their classmates decide to go that route. That's when it's time to take a step back and reflect on personal career goals, she says. "I've seen that happen to students. They lose sight of their personal goals and what sent them into higher education to begin with."
Take the first few weeks to narrow down the fields that you're interested in, a step that is especially important if you're planning to change careers. Then be selective about the company recruitment presentations you attend. A student can easily spend all of his free time attending these events and ultimately end up more confused.
Be a team player. With so many of the assignments in B-school focusing on teamwork, making the right impression on your classmates is more important than ever. During team assignments, be as inclusive as possible and try not to dominate the conversation, says Susan Ashford, associate dean for leadership development programming at Michigan's Ross School of Business. It's easy to stand out in a negative way. "In the MBA world, just being able to do it yourself or being able to grab the microphone or helm of something isn't going to do it," she says. "You have to have an ability to get others involved and excited."
If you're insecure about how your classmates perceive you, don't be afraid to ask them for advice on how you're affecting the team dynamic, administrators say. Take them aside after class or a team session and ask for candid feedback. You may have to swallow your pride, but it's a step that will reap benefits in the long run.
Sit in the front row or an aisle seat. The business-school classroom is the setting in which you develop your academic and professional persona. With that in mind, students should assess how they are perceived by their classmates and professors, says Yale's Scully. "I think you create a professional reputation for yourself in class that really tracks you."
One simple way to stand out in class is to choose where you sit. It's easy to blend into a sea of students the first few weeks. Small steps like sitting in the front row or in an aisle seat can help you get noticed, students say. Once you've found the right seat, make a point of coming prepared to class and participating in discussions. But don't talk just for the sake of talking. Professors view this as a waste of important classroom time and, ultimately, it reflects poorly on students, administrators say.
Get to know your professors and teaching assistants. For many students, the only place they will encounter their professor is before a podium in a large lecture hall. While students are not required to make any effort to get to know their instructors outside the confines of the classroom, it can pay to exert a little extra effort on this front, teachers say.
Stop by during professors' office hours. First-year students can be hesitant to approach faculty, but this is a mistake. Students who stand out on campus tend to be the ones who have developed relationships with their professors and administrators and sought out their advice and guidance, professors say.
Take advantage of programs to help you develop relationships with professors outside the classroom. At Wharton, for example, students can sign up for the "take your professor to lunch" program. It allows a student or group of students to sign up to take faculty to lunch at the university club. "It gets them out of the classroom and humanizes everyone, from the students to the faculty members," says Wharton's Lane.
Strategize early for career events. Students who have a leg up at career events in the fall are usually ones who have spent some time preparing early, administrators say. How does one get a head start? Make an appointment in September to talk with a career services counselor about your options. Students who sign up for résumé workshops and mock interviews the first few weeks usually feel more confident when recruiters come to campus to interview for summer internships. "The really savvy student signs up for mock interviews," says Yale's Scully. "Students may have been coming from the business world and don't think they really need that skill, but boning up on those skills is important."
Take some time to breathe. If you're not careful, you can lose yourself in an ever growing pile of schoolwork, club commitments, and campus activities. Students forget to carve out relaxation time. When this happens, they can quickly succumb to stress and pressure and lose focus. "You need to have a life, too," Lane says. "You still need to sleep and go to the gym and go out to dinner with friends." With that in mind, make it a priority to schedule time for the things that matter for you outside the classroom, like being with family and friends. It takes a little extra effort, but the payoff is worth it in the long run.
Don't be afraid to ask for help. B-school students who need extra academic support can be reluctant to ask for tutoring help or assistance from professors. That's a mistake. Midterms start in mid-October, and it can be hard to recover academically if you founder during these exams, says Yale's Scully.
Students should not hesitate to take advantage of any tutoring resources offered by the school. For example, many have programs where students can ask the school's tutoring committee for help via e-mail. If you're struggling with a concept in class, reach out to a professor or teaching assistant as soon as you sense trouble. "Some business-school students are hesitant to do that, and [they] wait until it's too late to ask for help," says Scully. "I think that's where people get into the most trouble because then it might be too late."
Don't be a perfectionist. Students can spend hours trying to make sure they have handed in the best possible version of an assignment. While this is laudable, sometimes there just isn't time to spend three or four hours on one report. This can be a surprise to first-semester students, often type-A personality types used to putting their all into every project. "These students have been perfectionists in the past, but it really is hard to be a perfectionist in an MBA program," says Meghan Gosk, an associate director of University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School MBA program. "You have to fight that urge." Put your all into projects, but realize when it's time to step back, she says. If a student doesn't do that, he ultimately will have trouble getting anything accomplished.
Even if a student carefully follow all this advice, he will still find the first semester to be more overwhelming than anticipated, says Robert Carraway, an associate dean at Darden. "We have a saying here that everybody at some point during their first semester is going to hit the wall. It's just going to happen." The most important thing is to keep one's priorities in check, recognize when you've stretched yourself too thin, and reach out for help when you need it. Keeping everything in proper perspective is the key to staying afloat in the first phase of your MBA career.
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