Surviving the Start of B-School

Worst part of business school: applying. Best part: everything else. The entire business school admissions process was a necessary evil (and an expensive one, when you factor in travel expenses and application fees). It conflicted with the U.S. Army culture I had grown to appreciate. An officer is a silent professional whose competence is measured in actions, not words. Unfortunately, that's not how the business school application game is played—it's a Darwinian combination of Guess Who? and The Dating Game. After those months of shameless self-promotion, I'd like to offer the following pieces of advice for anyone applying to business school. Visit the schools before you apply. This is non-negotiable and a no-brainer: Every application will ask the Why School X? question. You should have personally compelling reasons that answer the question (and preferably reasons that equal the net present value of $120,000 in student debt from attending School X). Do the application for your top choice last. Applications get easier and better with practice, so make your most important app your best. Apply in the earliest possible round at each school. Spare yourself the agony of a drawn-out process. Remember that human beings are at the other end of the admissions black hole who will read your application and decide its fate. It is a human process, and therefore it is not perfect. Once you click the "submit" button, revel in knowing the final decision is outside your control and thus not worth worrying about. Disclaimer: I'm no expert, so take the above advice at face value. If you get into your top-choice school after following my guidance, I will happily accept your gratitude in the form of $20. Orientation and the First Semester The highlight of the Wake Forest University Fulltime MBA program orientation for me was a speech by Donovan Campbell, a former Marine, MBA student, and author of the book Joker One (Random House Trade Paperbacks, January 2010). Donovan spoke to Wake Forest Schools of Business students in all the graduate programs (MA, MSA, MBA, and Executive MBA) about his experience as an MBA student and how it compared with his three combat deployments. His message was about the importance of perspective in life, and it was something to which I could immediately relate given our shared military backgrounds. Specifically, Donovan asked everyone to imagine what defined a good day compared with a bad day; some people might think of the bad traffic on the way in to work and decide that constituted a bad day. For any deployed soldier or marine, it boils down to a single question: Did anything blow up today? If the answer to that question is no, then you've had a good day. (Note: my soldiers defined a great day as a day when nothing blew up and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were visiting our base in Baghdad as part of the USO Tour. I would agree.) That idea of perspective became vital once classes started. Wake Forest uses an integrated curriculum that weaves core concepts across multiple classes, meaning the linear regression we studied in Quantitative Methods is used in the problem set due for Managerial Economics the next week. That's a fancy way of saying we were taking eight classes at the same time. I was assigned to a learning team of five other students during orientation, and we quickly realized we would need to rely on each other to handle the seemingly impossible workload. Teamwork is one of the core values in the Wake Forest MBA program, and half our deliverables are team assignments. When you spend five hours debating the finer points of interest expense and income on a pro forma income statement, you realize that how your team accomplishes group work can be just as important as what it accomplishes. What surprised me most was the moment I discovered I was not merely learning with my team, but also learning from them. Bullet lists are good. Here's another one that captures some of the key takeaways from my first business school classes. B-school professors are sadists. They enjoy giving you quizzes, and they do so fully knowing there was no possible way you could have finished all the assigned reading last night. You know you're wrong if your professor responds to your comment by asking, "And how did that work out for you?" The probability that you will be cold-called about the one case you didn't have time to read last night is 100%. I may have given you the impression that business school is more demanding than necessary. This is not correct. Business school is as demanding as possible and on purpose. It's far too cruel and scheduled to be otherwise, and all of it is for a very good reason: To succeed in business school and the workplace, you need to be an expert at time management. This skill cannot be taught, only developed. And the best way to develop time management is to be beaten round the head with it. Repeatedly. I recently attended the MBA Veterans Career Conference in Chicago. Organized by two MBA students (and veterans), the conference celebrated its second year by opening with remarks by two veterans from platinum-level sponsor Google. I had the chance to speak with recruiters and representatives from General Electric (GE), Procter & Gamble (PG), Google (GOOG), Credit Suisse (CS), and a dozen other companies. This was a great chance to network and begin the all-important process of securing gainful employment. That relates to the aforementioned concept of perspective—an MBA is not an end unto itself, but rather a means to finding a rewarding career. Still, I've never been happier (except for that one great day—see definition above). I'm in a challenging academic environment, being exposed to new material on a daily basis. I am being tested and stretched, and I am learning. This is exactly the kind of experience I hoped for in a business school, and I'm glad I found it at Wake Forest.

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