6 Things To Consider Before Starting An MBA Program

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I have the next seven days free from classes, case studies and group presentations. Naturally, I chose to begin my week long hiatus by doing some unnecessary work re: this post.

I don’t consider myself an expert in grad school life, but I’ve made enough mistakes and encountered enough setbacks to offer some helpful advice to anyone considering a part-time MBA program. There’s a ton of information out there on what to expect when you return to school, but what the hell; here’s another subjective article for you to read. Treat this as mini prep test: if you can’t finish this entire post without stopping to check Facebook or answer a text, grad school may not be a good fit for you.

Disclaimer: this is by no means a comprehensive or exhaustive list of considerations. There are countless topics I would have liked to include such as who should write your letters of recommendation, how many years of work experience really matter, networking with professors and classmates, if grades actually matter (hint: they really don’t), Wharton and everyone else, the seventh circle of hell that is group projects, to name a few, but this piece is already long enough. I’ll write that post during my next two week reprieve between summer and fall classes. Stay tuned.

1. Five Years.

What will you be doing in 5 years? Want to move to another city, another state, another country? Will you get married or have kids? Think you’ll say screw it, quit your job and become a bartender in Key West? On average, it takes my fellow arts and science majors five years to get a part-time MBA. If you had a business undergraduate degree, it will be much less painful (I’ll get to that in #2). I was waived out of stat and I still need to complete 45 credits to get my MBA. That’s 15 classes. At 3 classes a year, that’s 5 years. Are you willing to commit yourself to grad school for that long? Are you willing to commit yourself to anything for that long? If not, you may want to hold off on grad school for a few years. I waited three years (two and a half if you count time spent studying for the GMAT and applying) to go back to school. I’m glad I gave myself time to adjust to my job and decide which Master’s degree was right for me. Plus, I had time to enjoy an active social life. Ah, memories.

2. Accounting Scares Me.

I had a recurring dream last semester that I was standing in front of a faceless board of directors explaining management’s decision to change our target capital structure by increasing the debt-to-equity ratio so the company can take advantage of a sizeable interest tax shield, lower our WACC and raise the value of our assets. Every time I opened my mouth to speak, nothing came out. I was also naked. Ok, so it was a nightmare, not a dream.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry. If someone said that to me three years, I wouldn’t have a clue what they meant either. I graduated with a B.A. in English and for the better part of my academic career, considered myself mathematically impaired. Believe it or not, I wasn’t the only one. Many of my classmates had non-business degrees and like me, lacked confidence in their left brain capabilities. I was very intimidated when I stepped into my first finance class and I’m going to be honest, you will probably have to work harder and study longer than the business majors. You need to get used to it. Most MBA programs require you to take multiple finance, economics and accounting courses. It’s a blessing in disguise. The level of confidence you’ll have in your financial prowess by the end of b-school will make you wonder why you ever doubted yourself in the first place. Plus, MBA courses focus on real-life applications of the material so you will actually use the stuff you’re learning (at some point).

3.  GMAT, the SAT’s Lazy Older Brother.

There is nothing I hate more than standardized tests. Maybe clowns. Yes, definitely clowns. But standardized tests are a close second. The proctors, the number 2 pencils, the dreaded option that says both a) and c). Thankfully, the GMAT is much different than the SAT I took in high school…which was over a decade ago. Talk about depressing. You complete the exam on a computer (no more hand cramps) and you get your grade immediately…which can be wonderful or heartbreaking. If you haven’t taken a Math course since high school (like me), you should actually study for the test. Preparing for the GMAT also gives you a taste of what grad school life is like (spending your weekends on practice tests instead of day drinking).

Looking back, I spent way too much time worrying about the GMAT. Every MBA program will tell you what their average GMAT score is, but it’s not necessarily a deal breaker for acceptance. I know friends and colleagues who scored below the given range of preferred scores and still got accepted to decent schools.

4. Know Thy Job.

Most part-time grad students are very dedicated to their careers. After all, no one really needs an MBA. More often than not, high level positions prefer an MBA, not require it. MBA candidates know this to be true, but they want to expand their knowledge, prepare themselves for the future and earn their black belt in multi-tasking.

In this case, your dedication is a double-edged sword. Since you are highly motivated and career-oriented, you likely stay at the office well past 5pm, say yes to new projects and already feel pretty damn busy. When you go to grad school while working full time, “busy” takes on a whole new meaning. Depending on your current job situation, your personal responsibilities and how demanding your classes are, your schedule can range from I don’t remember the last Sunday I spent grabbing brunch with friends to I wonder how long I can nap in my car at lunch before my co-workers think I have a sleep disorder. Many students, who I cannot give enough credit to, tackle an MBA with a full-time job and children. Or a sick family member. Or a very needy dog. Personally, I couldn’t imagine having a kid, working 50 hours a week and going to graduate school. Every one of those individuals deserves a freaking medal. Or at least a nice day at the spa (or at a golf course if you’re a guy…I’m pretty sure golf is to men what spas are to women, right?).

5. Company Reimbursement

Free Money! Or Not… Do you know your company’s reimbursement policy for higher education? If you don’t, find out. Many companies will pay for a portion of your yearly tuition pending your final course grades. Before you sign anything, read the fine print. Companies often require you to make a commitment to stay with the organization for a few years after completing your degree. They don’t want to pay for dinner then watch you walk away, hail a cab and hook up with that cute neighbor you’ve been flirting with for months. If you don’t want to tie yourself to your company for that long, you’re better off taking out loans or paying out of pocket. I didn’t want to go into any more debt so I moved in with two super understanding roommates (also known as my parents).

Another point I should make here (although I shouldn’t have to) is that you should actually want to go back to school. You shouldn’t enroll just because your company will pay for it. I have friends who started programs because it was (essentially) free and many of them didn’t graduate. A few barely finished their first class. B-school should have intrinsic value; it should be meaningful to you. It’s difficult to rationalize all the time and energy you spend on your MBA if it isn’t something that’s truly a priority in your life.

6. Take a Test Drive.

I was dead set on going to my Dad’s alma mater for grad school. It was a top-ranked part-time MBA program in my area and I was thrilled when I got accepted. However, after attending an information session, I realized it wasn’t a good fit for me. They didn’t waive any core courses (business undergrad or not) and they rarely offered hybrid or online classes (something I desperately needed since I was on an airplane every week for work).

Before that information session, my only concern was getting into grad school. I was so preoccupied with the GMAT and my applications that I didn’t take the time to think about what I really wanted from a program. Don’t be like me. You should know what you want from b-school. Are you interested in taking Saturday courses? How far away is the campus from your house and from work? Can you take waiver exams to pass core course requirements (If so, do it! I saved myself thousands by studying on my own and passing the exam)? Do they offer accelerated sessions during the semester breaks? Yes, I know you can get this information on their websites, but information sessions are also a great opportunity to see the campus, meet the professors and get feedback from your peers.

If you made it this far, congratulations! I hope this wasn’t a complete waste of your time, but chances are, you are reading this at your desk to avoid doing actual work so thanks for wasting your time with me…?

If I could offer one final piece of advice, it would be this: whatever decision you make regarding grad school (or any aspect of your life for that matter), it should be yours. Not your family. Not your friends. Not your boss. Yours. Nothing can take the place of job experience, but an MBA can help prepare you for future career opportunities. In my opinion, all of the hard work is worth it. If you feel the same way, I wish you luck, perseverance and reasonably priced textbooks. TC mark

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