After having been regaled with tales of B-school, many people often bring up a perfectly logical question: “Half the people I talk to seem to describe a never-ending party, or some sort of grown-up fairy tale version of the 17th and 18th grades. The other half describe a painful grind of spreadsheets, free cash flow valuations, and capital expenditure models. So which is it?”
As with anything in life, the most likely answer someone would get from such a straightforward but open-ended question is: “It depends.” First, there’s an inherent filter that needs to be used when hearing extreme sort of tales – much like the guy who had never heard of the GMAT, walked in hung over, and came out with a 780, the person who partied his way through two years of b-school seven nights a week may exist more in urban myth than in reality. Second, there are legitimate person-to-person differences: if there are 400 people in your b-school class, it stands to reason that there are 400 separate attitudes about study skills, 400 distinct levels of prior preparation, and 400 unique abilities to retain material from class and assigned readings.
All THAT said, in my experience with B-school and MBA admissions, I've found there are three things worth keeping in mind when framing the “school” portion of the b-school experience. They are:
(1) The process of acquiring an MBA is not an inherently academic pursuit.
For a lot of people, this isn’t an easy pill to swallow. If you actually enjoyed the classes you took as an undergraduate, you read on your own for pleasure, and your mind’s eye fantasy of what you might do on vacation involves curling up with a good read, this reality may disappoint you. But whether you get into clubs, conferences, recruiting, or the endless variety of other pursuits that sweep MBA students away, any expectation you had about sitting under a tree reading Plato needs to go away. This will not happen. Ever.
Furthermore, no one will care about your flowery prose. You won’t be writing (many) research papers, and you won’t be evaluated based on your writing, anyway. Your ability to spot non-essential clauses, your love for parallel structure, and your keen eye for proper semi-colon usage will not matter. Ever.
(2) No one really cares about your grades anyway.
Only in some truly rare cases will any employer even ask to see any information about your courseload, let alone your grades. Some schools do not even release grades to the outside world.
A related reality is that the grade distribution at most business schools is quite narrow. In many popular business school classes, it’s often said that there are really only four attainable grades – A, A-, B+, and B. If your school does not include pluses and minuses on its transcripts, that means there are really only two possible grades.
Knowing that, you have to honestly ask yourself whether it’s worth it to max out your effort on individual academic assignments. If you can earn a “check” or a solid B, after 90 minutes’ worth of effort on a project, but the “check-plus” or the A would require another seven hours, the “Gentleman’s B” might be the product of the best use of your time.
(3) The best way to use your 20-month break from the real world is to transition yourself into something you couldn’t have done before.
In some cases, people pursue an MBA solely to take a break. But even for the folks who will return to their old firm – heck, even for the folks who will be reclaiming their old desks and cubicles – the degree may place them on an internal advancement track that wasn’t possible before.
For others still, the degree opens entirely new doors. People transitioning away from industries like government, military, non-profit, or education often shine in the management consulting recruitment process; this entire pipeline would be off-limits to them had they not taken the MBA path.
Entrepreneurs are their own special breed; as I detailed in a previous post, b-school can be an excellent time for people looking to gain a head start before launching a full-time venture.
For ANY of the aforementioned examples, though, the path to success won’t be found entirely in the classroom. The ‘take-a-break’ crowd often benefits most from the peer networking and travel opportunities afforded by the academic calendar. The career transition crowd winds up investing a considerable amount of time and energy in the intensive recruiting process that comes with white-shoe consulting and finance gigs. Entrepreneurs can launch, learn, and hone their products during the 20-month incubator period of b-school.
In some ways, business school really is like college. But in this college, there are only two grades – freshman and senior. First-semester freshman tend to over-emphasize the academic portion of b-school, but wise second-years often figure out how best to strike the academic v. non-academic balance. So, if you’re a first year b-school student, or you’re about become one, seek out someone who has recently been through the process to show you the ropes…and to explain how to prioritize the things worth worrying about from the things that are best left as an afterthought.