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MBA Students Get Intense About Giving Inspirational Advice

For Wharton School graduate Stephen Matthews, business school almost seemed relaxing.

“It’s a two-year holiday. Go traveling, enjoy things,” Matthews says he told younger students before he obtained his MBA in 2014. “Bear in mind that anything you’re stressed about now is not as important as anything you were stressed about in the real world.”

Despite Matthews’s contention that B-school isn’t something to get too worked up about, MBA students, particularly those with a year of management education, often make it their mission to counsel their less-experienced peers. That guidance can take the form of carefully written tomes or thousand-page PowerPoint decks.

Trading advice, something that happens informally at many graduate programs, takes on new intensity in the hands of business school students. Today’s MBAs dutifully pass down a decades-old business school survival guide written by a student, and alumni from 1963 filled an entire book with tips on everything from “following your values” to treating employees with dignity. (For $72.51, the tome contains rare gems like “Be very good at what you do.”)

One verbose startup founder, who spent a year at Harvard Business School, compiled a list of lessons he learned in his 20s that spanned 1,284 slides and a modest range of topics including “Life,” “Entrepreneurship,” and “The World.”

The B-school advice mini-genre offers pointers for coping with schoolwide moments of anxiety, such as internship recruitment on campus, and more personal stressors (like how to respond to haters).

Matthews, the Wharton graduate, took on a formal mentorship role while at school as a so-called leadership fellow, and he says he and others in that position sent e-mails with bullet-point tips to first-year students every two weeks.

Many of those e-mails advised students to resist taking on too many responsibilities.

“Don’t let FOMO (fear of missing out) get the better of you. You can’t attend all the parties, go to every happy hour, and catch every speaker/on-campus event and still live a balanced life,” read one.

“There is going to be a lot of peer pressure to do things that aren’t ‘you’—recruiting, classes, parties, trips, you name it. Remember that these two years are precious and that sticking to your guns—making yourself happy—is the best thing that you can do,” another noted.

Others counseled students to evaluate their choices instead of blindly pursuing the most ambitious options.

“Business school comes at you fast. You will end up on a path you don’t want to be on if you’re not careful. Spend a few hours every month thinking about how you’re spending your time,” a third e-mail read.

Ellen Vanderwilt, who graduated from the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business this year, says getting into the advice game has helped her learn to be a good manager.

“Becoming a true leader is making that transition from focusing on your own ambition and growth to focusing on everyone’s ambition and growth,” she says. “That is the sign of a good leader: that you aren’t threatened by others, you don’t want to hold learnings close to the chest, you want to share them with everyone.”

On the eve of Vanderwilt’s last day of classes at Haas, she met with about 100 other students on a rooftop overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge to share stories from second-year students about what they had learned at business school. Several people cried, she says.

“We were all in this giant cuddle puddle,” she says. “I mean, there was a little bit of beer involved.”

That night, Vanderwilt stayed up until 3 a.m. writing her own account of “10 MBA takeaways” and posted the thousand-word note on Facebook (FB) the next day.

“There is nothing wrong with millennials,” she wrote. “If you work with a millennial and you think their expectations are too lofty, check how low your expectations are and revise.”

She also defended her peers against business school detractors. “You may hate MBAs,” she wrote, “but by golly they are the smartest group you’ll ever have the pleasure of working with.” They will certainly be among the most well-advised.

Kitroeff is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York, covering business education.

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