New graduates hoping to pursue careers in fields such as law and medicine often head straight to professional school. But business students typically have the opposite trajectory: work first, graduate school later.
Work experience is expected of business school applicants. Years as a consultant or in marketing are common for MBA candidates. The experience helps students bring a real-world perspective to class lessons, but the transition can be jarring.
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Students must adjust to a drastic change in income, experts say. "They're not bringing in money like they were," says Deborah Knox, an MBA admissions consultant and graduate of the business school at Stanford University.
Besides being cash-strapped, students must also adapt to an academic grind - in the form of tests, group projects and class presentations - they may have forgotten. "Getting back into study mode can be quite a challenge," she says.
These two factors are not the only ones that can affect the transition from employee to student. Business school experts and students encourage aspiring MBAs to be aware of four others.
1. Time management: Fritswa Baffour had a more eclectic trajectory to business school than most. She worked as an analyst at a bank, started a clothing line and worked for Atlantic Records. Her jobs more or less had a set schedule, but when she pursued her MBA at New York University's Stern School of Business, how she spent her day was less rigid.
"The time management part was a huge adjustment," says Baffour, now a marketing associate for Nike. As an employee, she says, you sit in the same place every day and you have a routine. But in business school there are group meetings, tests, recruiting events and, though they are usually encouraged and not required, student trips.
"There's just a lot going," she says. "For two years you're just constantly going."
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2. Self-direction: Employees have a boss who manages their work and directs them to the next assignment or project. In business school, students must readjust to forging their own path, says Tyler Cormney. He is the co-founder of MBA Prep School and a Harvard Business School graduate.
He says being able to direct yourself is critical in business school. "You have to have your own action plan," he says.
Cormney encourages students to enter school with an idea of what classes they want to take and which clubs they want to join. "The two years will be over in the blink of an eye."
3. Social interests: Having a strong social life is emphasized at business school, and administrators are heavily invested in fostering community, says admissions expert Knox. There's the constant networking between classmates, recruitment events, student clubs and other activities to help students find employment and stay connected.
A student's former job may not have encouraged employees to bond as much as business school, she says. "You can feel a bit more of a demand and a desire to be involved," says Knox.
Because of the thriving social life and grueling academic demands that come with an MBA program, Knox encourages soon-to-be students to scale back life outside of business school.
"The less you have distracting you, the better," she says.
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4. Skills: Some students come into b-school already strong in quantitative subjects that will help them in most MBA programs. If your employment or undergrad experience didn't give you this advantage, experts suggest you brush up on certain skills.
"Finance and accounting are the two big ones," says Jeremy Grace, who works with the full-time MBA program at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.
Students can study these subjects at a community college or by taking an online class, experts say.
Baffour, who took an accounting class before going to Stern, says that students don't have to wait for an acceptance letter. "Even if you take it before you get in, it'll make you a stronger applicant," she says.
Blake Parrish worked in marketing before heading to Rice for business school and didn't feel the need to take any classes in preparation. But he did have some of the other challenges students face when transitioning, such as adjusting to a jam-packed day.
His previous job was no cakewalk, he says, but business school came with longer hours. He typically starts studying at 7 a.m., has classes and extracurricular activities throughout the day and starts studying again around 8 p.m.
"Business school is definitely more challenging," says the first-year student. He encourages prospective students to embrace the new opportunities they'll face and dive into the busy setting.
"Give it your all," he says. "And enjoy it."
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