Embarking on an MBA: Give yourself a head start

Russ Thorne discovers how to manage the demands of a new course

The rigours of the MBA are well documented: students speak of 100-hour weeks, pitiless schedules and finding it tough to adjust to the academic environment. However, there are tactics they can employ from the outset to help them hit the ground running and get the most from their programme.

The first hurdle to clear might simply be the culture shock of returning to the classroom, in some cases after more than 10 years away (or with no experience of degree-level study). "Most students do find it strange, particularly in the first couple of terms," says Adam Smart, recruiter relationships manager at Warwick Business School. "The sheer volume of work, required reading and constant deadlines is hard going."

With that in mind, an understanding of what lies ahead is vital, whether students are on full or part-time courses. Bruce Cooper studied for an International MBA at Emlyon and knows the demands of the qualification. "The workload is not to be underestimated," he says. "I would recommend students appreciate the bludgeoning schedule and be very organised with their time."

To give themselves a head start in unfamiliar areas, George Murgatroyd, research manager for the Association of MBAs, suggests contacting your chosen school in advance. "Business schools often provide students with pre-course preparation," he explains, "which can be anything from online refresher courses on macro-economics to required reading."

Smart, himself a Warwick MBA graduate, agrees that getting acquainted with the reading list can be helpful. "During term time, there will be little opportunity to read all recommended articles and even getting through the core reading is a challenge," he says. "Because of this, any pre-reading prior to the course starting will be invaluable."

Wider reading of the business pages and journals can also help according to Graham Clark, director of the full time MBA at Cranfield School of Management, as it provides a context for the course content right from the beginning. "It's useful to keep up with what's happening in the world," he says. Not that you need to go overboard. "Spend Sunday reading the business section as well as the sports pages," he suggests. "Just be aware of different concepts."

As well as looking to the wider business world, it helps to be aware of what the academic world you've entered can offer – in particular, the chance to get support and advice from those around you. "MBA cohorts are excellent networks," says Murgatroyd. "Getting to know colleagues on the MBA course will help make it a very collaborative, supportive experience."

That process can begin early on, with universities and business schools often happy to put students in touch, or offering virtual learning environments (VLEs) and forums to promote interaction. There's also the valuable resource that is the alumni network, which students should take advantage of long before they take their seats on the first day, Clark advises. "Talking to previous students is always a good thing. Find out what they found interesting and what they struggled with; that might give you some clues about areas to look at."

Again, schools will usually be happy to put you in touch with people, and you can also look beyond students and alumni to the school itself – academic staff are there to help. "Any contact is fine as far as we're concerned," says Clark. "My ambition is that the MBA is a conversation between school and students, and the earlier it starts the better."

Getting to know alumni and classmates is vital, but it's also helpful to make friends with the tech tools at your disposal. That might mean loading your tablet or smartphone with useful apps like Evernote, The Economist and TED; or perhaps sharpening your software skills. "I think the only area where I really struggled was where Microsoft Excel was involved as I wasn't a proficient user beforehand," admits Cooper. "It slowed me down and in hindsight I wish I had been more familiar with it."

While prospective MBA students can prepare themselves in many practical ways, there's also a personal element that shouldn't be overlooked. "An MBA can be very strenuous on a relationship so constant communication is a must," cautions Cooper, and Clark agrees. "It's a big issue, your planning and choices need to involve your partner."

Many schools try to keep partners in the loop through social events or by providing information. Clark advises students to be aware of the demands that the programme can place on loved ones, but points out some positives. "One of my students said recently that the personal development aspects of the MBA have been more effective at home than elsewhere; they've become a lot more sensitive."

From personal preparation to practical activities, MBA students can do a great deal to lay the groundwork for a rewarding experience. It's worth the extra effort once the course begins, says Clark. "Without a doubt, if you spend time preparing before the course you'll get more out of it. It's all about confidence: if you can get that confidence factor earlier, so much the better."

Case study: 'It's worth all the sweat!'

Adam Lawrence is currently on the full time MBA programme at Warwick Business School.

"I prepared for my course by reading around business subjects, and looking back at text books and academic work. There was a considerable amount of mental preparation, understanding that the next 12 months would be extremely demanding and explaining as much to friends and family.

I also made the most of the opportunities offered by Warwick for pre-course interview practice and career coaching –I'd certainly recommend that other prospective students do the same. The other thing I would have tried to do more of is networking with alumni – it can reap huge rewards.

The biggest challenge has been maintaining a work-life balance with my wife and young son. I've dealt with this by being a brutally efficient time manager, making sure that when I have the opportunity, I'm home. I didn't appreciate how tough it could be sometimes for the people around me – my wife has been fantastic, but I wish I had anticipated that part and taken more time to explain it to her!

But it's been fantastic so far – at least as hard as I anticipated, but worth every drop of sweat!"

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