By the time I start, I'm already behind. As I slip into a seat in the back of a very full classroom on Dartmouth's Hanover (N.H.) campus, professor Peter Regan is lecturing on bond pricing to the group of students about to enter the Tuck School of Business MBA program.
It's the second day of the Tuck pre-orientation math-refresher program, familiarly known as math camp. On Day 1, they had already gone over the basics of financial math and Excel skills. Having skipped the first class meeting, I'm at something of a loss.
I glance around conspiratorially, but everyone else seems to be working intently on the problem set at hand. It looks as if they actually know what they're doing. But my classmates have been business-school students for only a single day: Did they really already absorb this stuff? I quickly take stock of my aisle seat, close to the exit, just in case.
The Pre-Orientation Program (PEP) at Tuck constitutes a crash course in MBA math skills. Think introductions to spreadsheets, finance math, accounting, microeconomics, calculus, statistics, and decision science, all compressed into the week before Labor Day. Students invited to PEP often come from less-analytical backgrounds than their soon-to-be classmates, and the week is intended to get them up to speed. Open to interpretation are the questions: How are those five days defined? And are they a summer camp—or boot camp?
I joined Tuck's preenrollment program for three days, right in the middle of the week, as former marketers and air force pilots began to reinvent themselves as elite B-school students. A few years ago, at my own college graduation, a dean leaned forward over her lectern and gravely declared, "You know that recurring nightmare, the one where you're in a math exam and you've forgotten to study? It never goes away."
Burning the Midnight Oil
I know that nightmare well. Occasionally it involves Spanish class, but mostly it has been math. I imagine many people, even aspiring B-schools students, also haven't been able to shake that nightmare, or at least the numbers-induced creepy feeling that accompanies it. Could math camp be the cure? I figured I would give it a try.
PEP, in its current incarnation, was designed as a low-stress experience. Previously, first-year course professors gave lectures in the morning and then left problem sets for students to work on in the afternoon. In 2000, a faculty committee found that some students were staying up late into the night laboring over their PEP assignments. "It was as if the students were already working in their first-year courses. It had a real boot camp feel," says Regan.
Tuck recruited a group of professors, deans, and even a psychologist to restructure the program. "We decided that we were going to teach high intensity and targeted content with the goal being to help them survive the first two months," says Tuck professor Steven Powell, who helped design PEP. "That, almost by definition, meant math."
Powell should know. He teaches an analytics-intensive decision science course to first-year students. "If you're weaker in analytical things, you would have trouble in my course," says Powell. "First year at Tuck, everything is required. If you're weak in one course, you're weak in a lot of them, and you can't attend every review session. It's the intensity of Tuck that we're trying to help people deal with."
Tuck's review of pre-term led its committee to reorganize the PEP workload to take place entirely during the day. They also handed the teaching reins to Regan.
Of course, math at B-school isn't the math you knew (or didn't know) in high school. It targets specific skills that graduates of MBA programs are expected to have.
Changes at Stanford?
"The beginning years of a lot of jobs have a certain amount of quantitative work," says Regan. "You're handed tasks and you need to have the skills to complete them. But over time, it's more about how you interact with other people, manage, and delegate. Other talents become very important, and it's less quantitative. Schools select students who have great potential in the full scope of their careers. The challenge becomes how to support them for the quantitative demands of the curriculum."
Many other schools, including MIT's Sloan and Penn's Wharton, offer their own interpretation of math camp.
Programs are tailored to the individual school's specific needs, often including different social and academic components. They also vary greatly in terms of duration, timing, and the students targeted for enrollment. Stanford, which has long had a math camp, is currently reevaluating the need for one as it revamps its entire curriculum.
Tutoring One Another
The start of math camp this year marked Regan's 14th first day of school in Hanover. He earned his undergraduate biochemistry degree from Dartmouth in 1985. Regan went on to earn a PhD in decision and risk analysis from Stanford University. After working in consulting, he returned to Dartmouth in 1998 to fill in at Tuck while Powell went on sabbatical. A knockout hit in the classroom, Regan was invited to develop his own course, and later to contribute to the B-school's PEP redesign.
In 2004, Regan launched PEP's companion Web site, MBAmath.com, part of a for-profit venture which he himself owns. The next year, he made it available to students outside of Dartmouth on a subscriber-basis. This year, Georgetown's McDonough School of Business purchased subscriptions for all its incoming students. As of this fall, B-schoolers from a total of 54 additional programs had registered. Annual revenue is in the "tens of thousands," Regan says.
On campus at Tuck, program directors carefully tweaked the pre-term class size until they found a sweet spot. For past enrollments, Tuck had included anywhere from 20% to 80% of the incoming class. This year, about 70 out of 250 students were invited. (And for those of you who aren't quick at calculating percentages, that's 28%.) This size incorporates students who can help their classmates as well as those who are truly insecure about their math skills.
"What I notice is there are some students who need it all, but most students have at least some knowledge about one of the areas," says Regan. "So while they might be on the receiving end of a lot of peer help in one section, when we switch from finance to accounting, for example, the roles reverse, and they're helping the people who were helping them earlier in the week."
Tuck may have designed math camp to be low-stress, but it's nothing if not exhausting. Class begins promptly at 8:30 a.m. three days a week, at 8 a.m. the other two days. And when I say promptly, I mean promptly. One morning, I arrived exactly on time, without a second to spare, and found the entire class already attentively seated and Regan starting announcements. Apparently, top-notch students get to B-schools like Tuck by instinctively knowing to show up 10 minutes early—and not just for entry-level job interviews.
Energy-generating snacks, such as apples, granola bars, and coffee, are placed just outside the classroom, all day long. Regan does an even job of lecturing, sliding around chalkboards, clicking through computer-run presentations, and giving students an opportunity to try out the skills themselves before they lose focus.
Each incoming student must purchase a black laptop (guess who brought a gleaming white iBook to camp?) that comes loaded with all of the applications he or she will need during study at Tuck. The laptops are essential for getting Excel skills up to par.
A student who worked in publishing before starting at Tuck confessed one night at dinner that prior to math camp, she hadn't known to use an asterisk—as opposed to the letter X—to indicate multiplication in Excel formulas. Although most students arrive with more Excel experience, it's exactly those kinds of details that students need to resolve before the real work begins.
Not long after the 8 a.m. start time on Wednesday morning, Regan's class pauses as a pre-lecture quiz is distributed. We're starting a new section on accounting, and the first page shows a balance sheet and asks the value for equity. The next page consists of a block of T-accounts and asks for the final amount in total liabilities and equity.
Just as I'm contemplating an emergency airlift out of Hanover, Regan says to the group, "Don't fake it. If you don't know it, just have a cup of coffee and hang out for 20 minutes." A math quiz you're not required to struggle through is my kind of math quiz. A few of us take him up on the offer and skitter toward the snacks in the hallway.
Removing the Rust
As students face down stumbling blocks, Regan constantly reassures as he teaches. "We've come a long way since yesterday, taking each bite one at a time, to the point where here we're eating a sandwich," Regan says as he wraps up bond pricing.
The next day, he drops the chalk from his fingers and says, "All the calculus you need to know at Tuck could fit on the palm of my hand." The week is as much about instilling a sense of math confidence as it is about learning formulas and economic terms.
"The basic math is mostly algebra. Everyone could do it in high school, and they probably had no phobias or confidence issues whatsoever at that time. But later in life, as they went away from it, they got less comfortable with quant things," says Regan. "What we need to do is take the rust off and introduce it to them in a reasonable way, broken down in simple steps. It's not that hard to do if it's well laid-out and well taught to bright students."
Tuck students themselves are also reassuring. The start of every section begins with a small set of student introductions and announcements for hikes, runs, and soccer games. Students invited to attend PEP have often been away from the classroom for longer than others and come from a broader range of professional fields and academic backgrounds. It's proof that not everyone has been running models on Wall Street for the past four years. One teaching assistant has a sturdy black Labrador retriever, Pax, who wanders around the lecture hall.
Class ends at 5 p.m. with a post-diagnostic quiz on four days, but then we go off to a group dinner under a tent in Tuck's Byrne Courtyard. Those students not heading home to young families or unpacked boxes can enjoy going out for drinks with clusters of new friends. They imbibe at Murphy's on Main Street into the late night hours. Math isn't the focus so much as meeting new people and solidifying a network of support for the upcoming semester.
With math camp tiring but manageable, one has to wonder: Can someone with a completely nonanalytical background attend a top-notch B-school?
"The majority of students have revamped the analytical side of their application," says Sally Jaeger, assistant dean and director of the MBA program. This means building a post-grad transcript that includes microeconomics, statistics, financial accounting, and a class that puts you through the paces of Excel. "Even if students don't have a top percentile score on the GMAT, they've got a really strong analytical background. They're not applying to B-school unless they have it. There's a really big self-selection process that goes on."
On the Wednesday of math camp, Regan invites his class to go kayaking. He insists, "I'm not your guide! I'm just going to be in a boat, too!" During the break that comes after balance sheets and before the start of marginal analysis, Regan's students casually flip-flop down the hill behind Tuck Hall toward the Ledyard Canoe Club.
Regan walks carefully in hiking boots with a noticeable limp. Less than a year ago, four inches of bone in his left leg were pulverized by an aggressive check during a "no-check, old guys" hockey game. The injury no longer hurts him, and Regan manages the descent just fine.
Down at the club, however, Regan is the last man on the river. He has been stuck making sure the students sign waivers and each one buddy-up to split the five dollar cost for one canoe. So much for not being in charge.
Regan has evidence his summertime effort pays off. During their second year at Tuck, students have more flexibility in the courses they choose to take. Regan teaches an elective decision science in the fall.
A Bit Too Much
Although the course is considered fairly heavy on quantitative and analytical work, about one-third of his class consists of students Regan first met during PEP.
"The students who were in math camp at that point are almost indistinguishable," says Regan. "Only a year later, they're taking a course they don't need to take, which is very hard. I look at that and think that from the boost they get in the beginning to where they are in their second year, is very, very impressive."
Student participants agreed that the program works. "The semester was immediately as rigorous and quantitative as everyone told me it was going to be," said Kristyn McLeod, shortly after beginning her first year courses. "Math camp helped me figure out what I know and what I don't know, and acknowledge the areas where I'm going to need to spend a little more time."
As for me, well, I know my limits. Several weeks after the term begins, I check in with Regan. "If you had stayed, you would be almost done with accounting already!" he tells me enthusiastically. Tempting it may be, but something tells me that staying on in Hanover would have meant much less kayaking and at least a few more math exam nightmares.