Being an MBA student is an incredible time. There are industry leaders and field experts giving lectures on every topic under the sun. There are more student group events than days in a week. There are weekend trips to faraway places. And there’s so much more.
One of the most important parts of the MBA experience is the classes. I found that there’s plenty of information about what courses are available, what they cover, and what students need to take to graduate. But, what isn’t clear from the start is the best way to pick those classes to make the most of the business school experience.
To put things in perspective, my school offers around 180 distinct MBA courses per year even though a standard course load is only 10 courses. It’s a two-year program, which means that the typical student only has the option to take just over 10% of the courses offered! On top of that, in more typical programs than mine the first year’s courses are the same for everyone, so there is even less flexibility. But regardless of how a curriculum works, course selection is always a stressful process.
When I arrived at orientation, I heard varying advice from different academic advisors, myriad opinions from second-year students, and smart but inexperienced musings from people as inexperienced as I was. Of course, every professor enthusiastically recommended that I sign up for his or her class. Just about every reasonable set of courses for my first quarter was what I “should” do according to at least one person, so it was really on me to narrow it down (but I guess I really couldn’t go wrong!).
My background before school was as a quantitative analyst in the investment management industry, so as a numbers person, I came to business school wanting to fill my huge training gaps in areas like marketing, organizational behavior, and entrepreneurship. However, as I progressed through my first year, my views on what I should be trying to get out of this once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity matured, and I started to think more deeply about which courses I should be taking.
I came up with a set of questions that I hope will help you to make better class choices. It’s not meant to be an exhaustive guide to course selection, and is mostly a reflection of what I wish people had told me before I started my MBA. But don’t forget that the decision to get an MBA is highly personal and so should the choices of courses be. I hope these questions leave you feeling eMPOWERed (yes, I just did that)!
So, here we go:
1. What are the skill/knowledge/experience gaps I have that I would like to fill?
- Can I fill these gaps through campus groups or some other means that don’t take up an MBA class?
- If I can get the training elsewhere, will I pursue it if I don’t do it now? Be careful with this one, as people aren’t particularly good at judging probabilities like these, even about themselves. It may be worthwhile to look at your track record (e.g.: undergraduate grades, professional certifications, technical skills you have taught yourself and used at work, etc.) for guidance as well as to investigate whether future employers will be providing similar training.
- Are these gaps that others perceive in me or just ones I perceive in myself? You may be surprised at how knowledgeable you might already be!
- Which of these gaps do I absolutely need to fill in business school?
2. Is the business school version of this class the best way to achieve a learning goal?
- Business schools take people with every background under the sun, and though courses do have stated pre-requisites, they also have to be one size fits all to some extent. The good news is that you can probably take courses outside the school if you find they are more suited to your needs.
3. When is the best time to take this class?
- Recruiting, traveling, social life, and campus involvement take up a lot of time. The MBA program is designed to stretch your capacity so you learn some time management skills for when you are a highly successful manager and everyone in your life wants a piece of your time.
- The amount of time you dedicate to each class is up to you, so take what others say about the time needed with a grain of salt (particularly if it’s a class you plan to focus on).
4. Who should I take this class with?
- I’ve found that this concern is largely overblown. We have a bidding system at my school, which means each quarter every student gets a bunch of points, and there is an online “auction” for all the courses offered. We are also on the quarter system, so we bid three times per year. Some professors get bid over two quarters’ worth of points while others go for free for the same course. This means those students are passing up lots of other amazing classes to save up for a single class. It’s a personal choice, but it seems excessive and risky to me.
- The relative value of one professor over another for a given course is highly personal. There’s a lot of FOMO in all aspects of MBA life, and course selection is no exception. Focus on what teaching styles work for you in relation to the information you’ll learn, and don’t worry about anyone else’s value system.
- Regardless of what others may say, there’s no professor without whose class your MBA education/life will be incomplete.
5. Which business skills can I learn or practice in school that are very hard to come by afterwards?
- Which business skills do I excel at acquiring by myself, and which would I learn better with guidance? These are highly personal questions, and I would again recommend looking at your track record.
6. Which courses will give me a large, abbreviated, short-term payoff versus a large, repeated, long-term payoff?
- This question is also personal to some extent. However, this question gets at the balancing act of taking technical courses to get a job while staying aware that the nature of work will likely become more managerial over the course of a career.
- Keep in mind that some coursework may only carry high value in certain industries/functions or may not stay relevant long-term, but training in areas like organizational behavior and strategy is valuable across industries/functions and will likely never be outdated (I was lucky enough to have a professor tell me this early on).
7. Am I taking enough courses that push me out of my comfort zone?
- It’s natural to gravitate to what we’re good at and what we are interested in, but this comes at the expense of trying new things. Business school is a perfect opportunity to explore, so don’t waste it.
- Getting comfortable being uncomfortable is a skill that will pay dividends far longer than that real estate class.
Do you have some other considerations that you think should have been incorporated above? Have a personal story to share that you think others would benefit from knowing? We’d love to hear your thoughts, so be in touch!
Amit Patel, CFA, was a summer 2017 intern at MPOWER Financing from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Before school, he spent over five years as an investment analyst in the investment management industry.