Earning an MBA can be a transformative and life-changing experience—one which leads to a better career; a broader and more powerful professional network; and enhanced managerial, interpersonal, and leadership skills. It can also be a huge waste of time and money.
In working with hundreds of prospective and current MBA students over the last 6+ years, I’ve consistently found those who do the following set themselves up for a bad business school experience:
1. Make faulty assumptions about the purpose of the degree
Students who pursue an MBA solely for financial reasons (“An MBA is my ticket to a six figure job!”)—or because a friend or loved one told them it advanced their career—often learn the hard way there is no “magic pill” (or degree) that guarantees a high salary or fulfilling professional life.
In fact, an MBA is a broad degree that can help early career professionals, career enhancers and career changers achieve their professional goals. It can also provide entrepreneurs with the skills and experiences required to bring a new product or service to market. However, just getting into b-school (even at a top program) doesn’t guarantee a good job. To be successful, students should understand the purpose of an MBA, choose the right program and format (more on this below), and take advantage of all learning opportunities—not just those that happen in the classroom.
2. Pick the wrong format for your needs
Over the last 20 years, the proliferation of several new MBA formats (online, blended, accelerated, etc) has made it easier for students with different academic and professional backgrounds, career paths, and budgets to earn an MBA. However, with these new options comes greater confusion. Some students are tempted to look for the program with the shortest duration, or least-stringent admissions standards, or lowest cost.
While this strategy may work for those who only need an MBA to check the box, those looking to start their career or transition into a new industry may find that selecting a program which lacks academic rigor, experiential learning opportunities, and a broad and diverse alumni network leave their career aspirations unfulfilled.
3. Use rankings as the sole determinate of program selection
Many students decide to enroll in the highest-ranked program to which they are offered admission. While this strategy works for some, I’ve seen it backfire quite often.
In fact, students tend to quote rankings without really understanding their underlying composition (those who do dig into the components of the rankings are often amazed at how arbitrary they are). This leads to a false sense of security about which program(s) are really the best fit. Additionally, students who employ the “top-ranked program or nothing!” approach often overpay for their education—sometimes dramatically. More savvy students understand they can often receive substantial scholarships by attending (slightly) lower-ranked but still competitive programs in which they are overqualified for admission.
4. Make a bad impression at recruiting events
MBA programs spend a lot of time, money and effort hosting recruiting events for prospective MBA students. These events—which may include campus visit days, information sessions, or social gatherings—are great opportunities for both the student and the program to explore fit. Those who show up unprepared, act unprofessionally, or treat those they perceive as not important to the admissions process disrespectfully (ex: other guests, reception staff, student workers, etc.) may find they just made their path to admission (and scholarships) much more difficult.
5. Submit a poor application
Creating a great MBA application requires a lot of work. It necessitates thorough introspection of why the applicant wants to earn their MBA, and why the specific program they are applying to is a good fit. It requires a compelling narrative—which is supported by various components such as letters of recommendation, resume, and transcripts. And, it takes a lot of time; each submission should be highly personalized (if not completely customized) for each program the applicant is applying to.
Unfortunately, many applicants don’t take this approach. They cut and paste the same essays, changing the name of the school (sometimes they forget to even do this!). They write generically, omitting details about specific programs, centers, and professors they hope to interact with. They sometimes forget business schools are looking to train future leaders, and thus completely omit examples demonstrating leadership capability or aptitude. They submit generic letters of recommendation that offer no helpful information about the applicant. Worst of all, they sometimes hire someone else to write their essays and personal statements for them.
When we see that an applicant hasn’t put much effort into their application, we assume they aren’t genuinely interested in us (and our decision usually reflects this assumption).
6. Don’t negotiate for scholarships (or don’t do it well)
While most programs typically have some specific and objective requirements that must be considered when awarding a scholarship, there is often a lot of subjectivity in the process. Students who ignore the advice in paragraphs 3-5 and demand instead of negotiate for scholarships often find themselves empty handed. Conversely, those who understand their value to a specific program—and negotiate the right way, with reasonable expectations—are often surprised with their financial aid package.
7. Spend all your time studying
Yes, like all graduate programs, it’s important to go to class and earn good grades. However, an MBA is a highly experiential degree; most people pursue it because they want to start, manage, or lead an organization. You can’t learn those skills solely by sitting in class.
Students who forgo opportunities to lead student organizations, study abroad, participate in project-based work, or compete in case competitions often have a hard time articulating to future employers how they have the experiences required to be successful at their organization. Those who fail to genuinely connect with classmates, faculty, career service staff, and alumni also create self-inflicted barriers to finding their dream job.
The old adage “cheaters never win” couldn’t be more true in business school. In over six years, I’ve seen it all—from the lazy students who think they can get away with copying content directly from the internet, to the slightly more creative ones who continuously come up with more and more innovative ways to cheat on tests (some of which require more thought than simply studying).
While those who are caught are usually dismissed from the program (sometimes with a police escort—a story for another time) even those who get away with it eventually lose the respect of faculty and fellow classmates. This negates one of the biggest advantages of earning an MBA: the opportunity to develop a deep professional network.
9. Expect career services to find you a job
Students who don’t understand the distinction between using the career services office as a resource vs. expecting career services to find them a job are in for a rude awakening. Most programs dedicate vast resources to helping students develop and execute a solid job search strategy. These resources may include resume reviews, mock interviews, professional development workshops, and/or personalized coaching. However, students need to own their job search and may need to go beyond the services offered within their program to land their dream job.
10. Ignore your alumni network
Those who don’t stay connected with their program after graduation do themselves (and their program) a disservice. Alumni can be a great resource for job leads, new customers, and for hiring top talent. Furthermore, successful alumni who stay connected can be of great assistance in recruiting prospective students, mentoring current students, and connecting them with job and internship opportunities—all of which contribute building a great culture which benefits everyone.
Brian Precious is the author of “Get In, Get Connected, Get Hired – Lessons from an MBA Insider” – a book geared towards helping prospective and current MBA students get the most out of their graduate school experience. He has managed the admissions, recruiting, and marketing teams at three major MBA programs—Oregon State University, Purdue University, and, his alma mater, the University of Illinois. Throughout his career in higher education, he’s helped thousands of prospective MBA students navigate the challenges of business school.