Ready, Set, B-School: Hitting the Books

Many MBA applicants mistakenly believe that getting the green light from an admissions committee means they’re qualified to ace their classes from the start. For many, though, the sad truth is that five years in the workforce has left them woefully unprepared for the life of a student.

Sitting still during a lecture, participating in discussions and debates, completing homework, papers, and group projects, and studying for exams are not usually tasks taken on at the office. Getting used to being a student again can be challenging. And full-time MBA programs require incoming students to get up to speed, well, speedily.

"We don’t admit students who can’t do the work," says Edward Conlon, associate dean for graduate programs at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. "The challenge is dealing with the fire hose of material shot at you."

Indeed, some students could stand a refresher course or two and additional preparation before the classroom doors swing open. Those who are particularly vulnerable include anyone who is anxious about the workload or has little experience with quantitative skills, a necessity for most core business school courses. For the unprepared, trading in the briefcase for the book bag can bring on the panic, says Peter Regan, founder of the website MBA Math and an adjunct professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

"There’s a sense that the students who come into the classroom cold are terrified from the very beginning," says Regan. "Anything you can do beforehand to get yourself into the mental space necessary to be prepared for the content and mechanics of the work you’ll face is important."

Business schools are ready and willing to offer a hand to incoming students looking to prepare themselves for the actual work of school. Here are some suggestions from top business schools on how to become student-ready in time for matriculation.


Business school, especially in the first year, has students knee deep in quantitative courses—from finance to economics. Numbers are second nature to some MBA applicants and a completely foreign language to others. In those first days of class, says Regan, students having these diverse skill levels can put both themselves and faculty at a disadvantage.

To remedy this problem, incoming students, especially those who are not confident in their quantitative skills, can take courses or work on assignments either to refresh themselves or learn concepts they have never seen. Some business schools require students to participate in traditional or online courses or boot camps before school begins in the fall. Others simply suggest familiarizing yourself with quant material. Regardless of the school’s recommendation, students can always take a class or pick up a book on their own.

Prep options run the gamut. The University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management encourages incoming students to brush up on basic algebra skills and become familiar with spreadsheets, says Kimberley Neutens, director of MBA Program Services at Rotman. While the school offers tools, such as its new Language of Business class, it recommends the General Management Admission Council’s GMAT Business Ready Collection ($199.95 at, and Harvard Business Publishing’s Mathematics for Management program ($39.50), says Neutens.

Faculty members at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management created online courses for incoming students to review material, such as accounting and statistics. At orientation, students participate in programs, such as Intro to Case Methods. They also take a one-credit course, Leadership and Organizations, which is part of the core, features a final exam, and is basically completed—barring a paper due in the fall—before classes begin. "It’s a nice way to ease back into school," says Fran Langewisch, assistant dean and director of student life for Kellogg’s full-time MBA program.

Some schools have turned to external sources to offer their students help. Mendoza requires its incoming students to complete MBA Math, the course Regan originally created for Tuck students and since 2005 has offered online for a fee to anyone who wants to take it. In addition, he teaches the class in person at Tuck and at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, where he is a visiting adjunct professor. In fact, 27 business schools either require or recommend the course to incoming students. Over the years, says Regan, MBA Math has grown to include finance, statistics, spreadsheets, economics, and accounting.

To decide if one needs such a course, Regan suggests self-reflection. "There’s a self-assessment element," he says. "Ask yourself, ‘How am I going to react in this high-powered environment full of very, very smart people?’" Succeeding in business school is dependent on doing the work well but also having resiliency and confidence, and sometimes, says Regan, students can work on developing those traits before school begins in a quant course like his.

Although experts concede that academics are just one part of the overall MBA experience, which includes student clubs, networking, and job hunting, those interviewed for this article say they believe school work is of the utmost importance. Regan reminds students that grades actually matter, especially for those interested in pursuing jobs requiring quantitative expertise, who will be asked by recruiters for academic transcripts and demonstrations of certain skills.


There is no denying that business schools have put a greater emphasis on soft skills in the past 10 years. Leadership, communication, and teamwork are factors in admissions and a big part of the curriculum. One of the skills students will need to demonstrate in and out of the classroom is an ability to speak in front of a crowd. Communication skills, particularly the art of persuasion, are integral to MBA programs and post-graduate careers. As a result, some schools recommend students improve their speaking skills before entering the classroom.

For example, Rotman encourages incoming students to sign up for professional organizations that emphasize communication, such as Toastmasters International, which runs small-group workshops that allow participants to improve their presentation skills. Especially for those worried about how they’ll handle case study assignments, this kind of practice could be an asset.

Daniel Gulati, who graduated from Harvard Business School in May 2011 and co-launched the startup FashionStake, a global marketplace for independent fashion, says his biggest challenge at B-school was making big decisions without a lot of specific information and getting others to follow his lead.

"The Harvard MBA program is quite distinct in that almost all our classes were conducted via the case method of instruction," writes Gulati in an e-mail. "Instead of having a professor sit there and lecture you for an hour, the case method flips the script and has students doing most of the talking and debating, and the professor is more of a facilitator. This means you have to think quickly and be concise and articulate."

To communicate thoughts and opinions in a persuasive (and knowledgeable) manner, students must first educate themselves on the issues. For starters, once school begins, students should read the texts that professors assign. "Yes, even the dry accounting and finance ones [are important]," writes Eugene Marini in an e-mail. Marini is expected to graduate Fordham’s Graduate School of Business in 2012 with a double major in finance and management.

Students might consider making like Marini, who says he began reading business publications such as the Wall Street Journal, before enrolling. Rotman and other business schools often provide a suggested summer reading list to get students familiar with concepts and ideas that might come up in class and during the recruiting season. (See Summer Reading List: B-School Edition for other recommendations.)


Before classes start, students have to choose the classes they will take. Every school handles the creation of a class schedule differently. At Kellogg, students take a self-assessment test to determine which courses they can handle. An academic adviser guides them in making decisions about the sequence of courses they’ll take and the course load they can handle, given their goals and backgrounds, says Kellogg’s Langewisch.

Consider business school an opportunity to work on one’s weaknesses, says Mendoza’s Conlon. "If you received feedback that your people skills are poor and your math skills are good, then prepare to take classes that will focus on developing your people skills."

While most of the learning that goes on in B-school happens in the classroom, the process of adjusting to B-school itself teaches a valuable lesson about the importance of setting priorities. Like most things in B-school, failure to do so is not an option, say business school faculty and administrators. "The sheer quantity of work surprises students," says Conlon. "It’s a full-time job on top of a full-time job, and you have to make choices because there are limits to how much you can do."

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