Helena Pozniak
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Plan ahead to hit the ground running

The Telegraph
Define your priorities early on to achieve success in your MBA

Students at Surrey Business School in Guildford might be forgiven for feeling ruffled. They’ve sung in a rock choir, practised yoga, competed in events modelled on The Apprentice and attended business lessons from a mountaineer. This is the work of Bill Payne, the school’s new MBA president, who has shaken up the practical content of the MBA to help students to extract maximum value. “We want them to leave with the most up-to-date, relevant experience,” he says.

All business schools want students to get the most out of their year, and Payne’s advice, despite his innovations, echoes that of most other schools — manage your time and put in the hours. Work out, for instance, how many weekends might be sacrificed, or when to start thinking about a dissertation. “Whether you succeed or fail at an MBA will be dictated by the amount of time you dedicate to it. An MBA is a marathon rather than a sprint. It’s intense,” says Payne.

Before an MBA kicks off in earnest, there are a number of ways students can prepare for it, including contacting future classmates via social media and brushing up on areas they are unsure of, such as finance or accounting. “Many students underestimate the value of networks — not just for making contacts but also for helping them use and maintain their network over the years,” adds Payne, who works with students on their digital profiles, CVs and blogs before the academic work ramps up.

A common mistake, according to Katherine O’Flynn, accreditation manager at the Association of MBAs (Amba), is not putting aside enough time to build networks (experts suggest six months is a reasonable lead-in) and a lack of subtlety. “MBA students need to avoid appearing as though their only motivation is to land a job quickly,” she says. “Instead, they have to think about what they can provide to the people they meet.” Also respect your immediate networks, urges Tony Somers, director of careers at HEC Paris. Classmates, with their varied skills and sectors of interest, form the basis of a future network, while alumni can be key to securing career goals after graduation.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to an MBA — some join with an open mind, others with a precise plan. But every student will need to choose how to divide their effort — between academic studies, for instance, and extra-curricular events, such as interschool competitions, and personal development and targeted job hunting. “If you take on a leadership role of any kind, be prepared to commit to it completely,” says Somers. “Nothing is more damaging to your standing with your peers than failing to do so.”

“I learned just how hard I could push myself,” says Adam Lawrence, 35, a property entrepreneur and risk consultant, who completed a full-time MBA at Warwick Business School in 2013. He took part in the prestigious international Hult Prize, the start-up accelerator for social entrepreneurs, and was flown out with his teammates to the finals in San Francisco. While he didn’t win, the presentation experience and networking was “beyond worthwhile”; his team was given a tour of the headquarters of Gap and met senior recruitment executives from leading US companies.

“Pick your competitions carefully,” Lawrence advises, to ensure they’re in line with your interests. Interschool competitions, for example, allow students from different business schools to make contact, and the constructive feedback provided by the schools is also valuable. Although he won academic awards, Lawrence admits he pushed himself to the limit and may have dropped a mark or two in his exams as a result — but the experience was worth it.

By contrast, Katy Minson, 29, a former marketing manager at Philips, decided to concentrate on academic achievement at Imperial College Business School, London, from which she graduated last month, and is now focusing on job hunting. “If you can get a distinction, employers take notice. I could have spent more time applying for jobs, networking or socialising with classmates — which I slightly regret not having done — but I had the chance to do well and I went for it.” She set aside weekends for study, focusing on her weaker subjects — “I had no accounting background whatsoever,” she admits — and her efforts paid off.

While she didn’t enter any competitions, she devoted time to the group projects and her team project won a school prize. “That was one of the reasons I gave my all over the summer while other members of the cohort were away on holiday.”

In Cambridge, MBA graduate Tessema Tesfachew, 33, selected Judge Business School for a degree in entrepreneurship, with the aim of starting a company upon graduation. “I came with a clear mission and chose not to take on too much; you have to tailor an MBA to your priorities,” he says. He didn’t join clubs or enter competitions but paced himself and conducted a research project in California, which helped him learn from top Silicon Valley start-ups.

He has gone on to found his own business — Assembly, a professional networking application — with colleagues from the course. “I’d have liked to enter competitions and I knew people who got a lot out of extra-curricular activities, but I knew my limits,” he adds. To enter an MBA with too tight a plan, however, might restrict the wider experience, according to Sotirios Paroutis, assistant dean for MBAs at Warwick Business School, and business schools see many students who end up on an entirely different path. “Participants are eager to see improvements in their personal skillset,” he says. “Yet when they graduate, they appreciate this has been a journey of exploration that involves their group. It’s a profound experience that shapes their thinking and acting as future leaders.”

Change of direction Helen Barnard, a former head teacher, completed an MBA in September at Ashridge Business School, Hertfordshire.

“The idea of entering school business competitions didn’t appeal to me, which is why I chose Ashridge Business School — its ethos is underpinned by collaborative, rather than competitive, principles. As I love learning, it felt like an indulgent year despite all the effort and expense,” says Barnard. “I didn’t over-prepare — although I did read up for each module as I wanted to fully benefit from my investment in the course — and I feel I managed my time well. I approached the course as if it was a normal job. In between all the studying I found time to relax with friends, build networks, read novels and take regular exercise. “The main thing is to make the experience work for you — identify the reasons why you’re taking an MBA and what success means to you. Be the best you can be, don’t compare yourself to others, and use your mentors within the business school and elsewhere — both proved crucial to my learning.”

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