First-Semester Shock

"If you are heading to business school in the fall, you should expect to hit a low point sometime in November"

"You have got to be kidding me," I thought. I was sitting in an MBA information session the day after my GMAT. A busy schedule had just been laid out before me. It included challenging classes, center activities, networking opportunities—all kinds of things that I wanted in an MBA program. The workload was heavy, no question about it, but a little hard work doesn't scare me. What threw me was the rigid schedule. The lockstep course structure means that you take classes when they are offered; you do not fit your credit load or your class schedule to the other things going on in your life, whether professional or personal. Required evening events, like exams and reviews, are par for the course too. (Can you imagine what would happen in the typical office if a manager regularly scheduled meetings at 7 p.m.?)

At the risk of asking a dumb question, I raised my hand and said, "So what happens if you just can't make it to one of these things?" I was met with a perplexed look. "I mean, what if a student has another obligation at night that can't be rescheduled? Are there any options?" The answer I got threw me even more. The basic gist of it went something like this: If you have that sort of concern, then maybe you should reevaluate your priorities and decide whether an MBA is really something you should be doing. In other words, give yourself over entirely to the MBA experience, or don't bother getting an MBA. That moment was the first hint of things to come. I began to adjust my expectations.

A "Crazy Way to Live"

When I began the semester and started talking to fellow students, I realized that many of us are unable (or disinclined) to give up our other pursuits in life. Some of us have children. Some of us have jobs. Some of us are starting up businesses. Some of us have other academic studies or professional training to complete. Some of us have ties to family or community or causes that we want to maintain. The MBA is designed to consume every moment and then some, but plenty of people who belong in business school do not have every moment to give. Nevertheless, we all decided to forge ahead and make it work.

Now I have finished midterms, and I am closer to the end of the semester than the beginning. I am pretty satisfied with my progress. But before the halfway point, when exams are piling up and every waking minute is devoted to the program, the doubts creep in. You think, why am I punishing myself this way? You think, how did I end up here? You think, being a student is a crazy way to live. You think, I might not make it.

If you are heading to business school in the fall, you should expect to hit a low point sometime in November. Plan for it, because it will happen no matter what you do ahead of time. For my part, I started to see combinations of panic and fatigue on the faces in my cohorts first. I felt like I was doing reasonably well. Then midterms hit, and I fell apart. I realized that I don't know how to take tests anymore, especially tests that have anything to do with math (my last math class was more than 15 years ago). The stress plays out in everyone differently, but everyone learns one common lesson: the value of grace under pressure.

First semester is like a finishing school and a boot camp wrapped up in one package. On the finishing school side, I have decked out my wardrobe with formal business attire, learned lessons in business meal etiquette, and dressed up more often in the first couple weeks than I had in the past couple of years. Then to cover boot camp, add to the mix conditions of sleep loss, identity loss, and mounting pressure to perform well on demand. Like I said before, it is one long lesson in grace under pressure. Is it worth it? Definitely. But I need a reminder once in a while.

To that end, let me tell you, and remind myself, why the first semester is worth the stress, late nights, and self doubts. If you have a first semester in your near future, then you may want to bookmark this spot and come back to it around, say, Nov. 9 next year. Here it is—my personal list of reasons to stick with it:

Reason #1: You have earned a place at the table.

In the Wisconsin full-time MBA program, every student is a member of a center, which corresponds to a specialization. My specialization is Operations & Technology Management. Each center has an industry board comprised of executive-level managers who have expertise within the specialization. My center brought its industry board together for its annual meeting earlier this semester. The board is comprised of VPs, COOs, CIOs, and CTOs for the most part. All of the center's students were invited to sit in on the meeting. As I watched the day's activities, I realized the extent to which I was capable of participating in the discussions. I also happened to be deep in the thick of midterms and facing the cold fact that I am working my tail off just to pull Bs in some of my classes. It was fortunate timing; I needed a confidence booster. I left knowing that I belonged at the table. Grades didn't mean a lick.

Reason #2: You will never look at a business problem the same way again.

The amount of learning packed into a few brief months is amazing. At first it was overwhelming, and then exhilarating, and now (in November) exhausting. But in spite of my mental and physical exhaustion, I cannot question the value of what I have learned, and I find myself eager to begin putting these lessons to work on the job. On a similar note, the business fundamentals in the first semester have also validated my work experience. No book ever told me to ignore sunk costs, for example, but I knew it anyway from experience. It's gratifying to put a framework around intuition.

Reason #3: You meet all the right people.

It's great fun to be surrounded every day by a really smart group of people. It's even better when you get to see how different smarts tackle the same problem in different ways. With students, faculty, and business leaders in one place, and with perspectives that cut across industries and fields of practice, I have deepened my already healthy respect for the power of diverse thinking. First semester is a constant stream of new faces and new ideas; many of them are at the C-level or VP-level of management; some of the most valuable are sitting next to me in class.

Reason #4: It ends in December.

Can I keep up this pace indefinitely? No. Can I last until Dec. 20? Yes. The key is to work hard and get as much as possible out of the experience, knowing that the opportunity will not last. I cannot help but wonder if there isn't a way to prepare driven, intelligent people for roles as business leaders and strategists without pushing us to the breaking point. Perhaps it is too early for me to say. But one thing I know: it's all temporary. At the end of December, I will be enjoying the holidays with my family, and I can spend much of January recovering.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.