7 things everyone should know before starting business school

Thousands of students will begin their first day of business school over the next month, starting the rigorous path to an MBA.

While every business school has its own unique curriculum, there are shared experiences that all students go through.

We asked Alex Dea, who graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School in 2015, about the advice he wishes he had been given before starting b-school. Dea runs the site MBASchooled, a resource for business school students, applicants, and alumni.

We’ve collected insights for incoming students from Dea and the recent graduates of and students at top business schools he interviewed for his site. Here’s what we found out.

Researching your school’s curriculum and professors will give you an advantage.

Picking your classes won’t be as easy as it was in your undergraduate years, says Nick Johnson, New York University Stern School of Business Class of 2015.

Every school has different core requirements, ranging from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business’ single class to Harvard Business School’s extensive core requirements for your first three terms. There are also some advanced classes with prerequisites you may want to take care of your first year.

“There is no need to build out your whole two years this summer, but you should consider classes or professors that your school is known for and make sure you aren’t missing out on anything in early days that would hurt your chances of taking their classes,” Johnson says.

Job recruitment begins shortly after you step onto campus and will consume a significant portion of your time.

In addition to a strenuous workload, you’re likely going to spend hours with recruiters in hopes of landing a solid job after graduation. Prepare yourself before school starts so the experience is not overwhelming, says Sarah Rumbaugh, University of Virginia Darden School of Business Class of 2015.

“Think about which industries and what companies you want to recruit with,” Rumbaugh says. “Know that recruiting with every industry is really hard work and could result in spreading yourself too thin and not forging meaningful connections with the opportunities best for you.”

Reflect on possible career paths, and don’t be afraid of embarking on a new one. Keep a running list of jobs you’re interested in, Rumbaugh says, “and also think about questions you have, things you’d like to learn, or information you need to better understand that particular opportunity.”

And finally, don’t feel pressured to take an opportunity for fear of losing a preferable one in the future.

Your personal life and academic life will be more interconnected than you may think.

Your class will be divided into cohorts of about 35 to 70 people who you will take your core classes with, and you’ll be assigned a study group of about six people. You’ll be spending a lot of time with these people, and it’s to your benefit to become as comfortable as possible with them, says Matt Cairns, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business Class of 2016.

“You will spend countless hours in a tiny (often windowless) team room with these people,” Cairns says. “Make sure you make time to get to know them outside of school — get dinner, drinks, or coffee. Learn about their lives and meet their significant others. You don’t all have to be best friends, but it’s important to know more about them than how well they know accounting.”

Izzy Park, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania Class of 2015, adds that it’s worth taking advantage of extracurricular activities like club sports or student government, since getting to know classmates on a personal level is not only fun but rewarding to your career.

“I don’t mean that in a transactional way,” she says. “Your classmates have also thought deeply about how to approach problems in a new way and getting to see them in action is another way to learn more about what makes you you.”

Travel opportunities can enhance your education if you’re passionate about doing business in a certain country.

Kerry Rigley, UNC Kenan-Flagler Class of 2015, traveled to 10 countries during her two years of business school. She may be an outlier, but she says that all incoming full-time MBA students should explore their school’s international programs. These can range in length from a few days to a full semester.

If you studied abroad during your undergraduate years, there’s a decent chance you spent more time sight-seeing than studying, but that likely won’t be the case in b-school.

Rigley took a week-long Doing Business in (DBi) course in Copenhagen that she considers one of her most valuable business school experiences, since she was deeply interested in business developments in Denmark. “I thoroughly enjoyed my sustainability class in Copenhagen, but may have felt restless if I had foregone my opportunity to explore a new city for a class I was not passionate about,” she says.

There are not enough hours in the day to do everything you want to do.

It’s impossible to arrange a daily schedule where you can give your full energy and focus to all of the things you’d like to get done, Dea says. He found that he split his time among academics, internship-hunting, networking with alumni and other professionals, and clubs and activities. Every day he needed to set his priorities.

“There will be a situation where you’ll have a big company info session on the same day that you need to get an assignment done that’s due the day after,” Dea says. “You’ll have the opportunity to either miss that chance at networking with recruiters and get an excellent grade on your assignment, or you can go to the info session and spend just enough time on the work that it turns out good enough.”

Winnie Tran, UNC Kenan-Flagler Class of 2015, says she learned the same lesson her first year. “At some point during my second or third quarter of the school year, I realized I was involved with so many things but I wasn’t really focused on developing myself.”

Dea says it’s fine if you go into business school without concrete goals, but once you determine your priorities, it’s essential that you adjust your schedule in a way that lets you pursue them with everything you’ve got.

A herd mentality is tempting but dangerous.

Dea says that because he had so many decisions to make in a single day, he struggled with a “fear of missing out.” For example, sometimes he’d feel like all of his friends were going to a certain event, and he would second-guess his priorities.

You can recover from making the mistake of neglecting your work to follow your friends to an ’80s throwback party, but it’s much harder to recover from neglecting your happiness to follow your friends into a profession.

It can be easy to fall into the trap of ignoring your passions to pursue a popular career path, or to latch onto a brand-name company or high salary rather than the job description. “Not everyone is meant to be an investment banker, consultant, marketer, or entrepreneur. You need to do what you want to do, and not what you think you’re supposed to do,” Dea says.

You deserve to be there. Stay confident.

Starting at a top business school is challenging. The first few months of core classes are difficult and exhausting, and your classmates are highly talented and driven people. It can all be very intimidating and discouraging, Dea says, “but obviously you wouldn’t be there if they didn’t think you were capable.”

There will be classes and activities that come easy for you and those that present a big challenge. “Find opportunities to show your strengths and ask for help in areas of weakness,” Dea says. Participate in class, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Business school is difficult and your classmates will be competitive, but you can handle it. Plus, Dea adds that in his experience at UNC Kenan-Flagler, business school at its best is built on teamwork and collaboration. “Everyone wants to succeed, but most won’t put down someone else to get to the top, since it’s better to bring them up with you,” Dea says.

This article is published in collaboration with UK Business Insider. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Richard Feloni covers management strategy and entrepreneurialism for Business Insider. 

Image: Profile of students taking their seats for the diploma ceremony at Harvard University in Cambridge REUTERS/Brian Snyder