I’m starting graduate business school this fall. What should I do to prepare academically?

Jul 18, 2011
Tags: Academics

Written by Frank Fletcher, Executive Director of Graduate Programs, Baruch College Zicklin School of Business

One of the aspects of graduate management education that makes it truly unique is the diversity of academic and professional backgrounds its students bring to the program. It is the aim of nearly all business schools to enhance this diversity by continuing to blend students with strong foundations in the fundamentals of business education with students whose backgrounds are more steeped in the liberal arts, humanities, sciences, engineering, etc. Of course, this diversity also creates one of the great challenges of graduate management education: No program can expect its students to enter day one on an even playing field. Creating an academic experience that keeps those who are more technically advanced interested while responding to the needs of those with less exposure to the language of business is no easy task. 

Many programs respond to this challenge by creating pre-program activities. Whether they’re called Boot Camps, Pre-Term, Quick Start, or any other variation thereof, the goal is the same: prepare students for the academic rigors that lie ahead. You’ll find that content across these programs are also very similar. Typically, these pre-programs prepare students in the areas of basic accounting, statistical analysis, and quantitative methods. Others may offer economics and finance courses that serve as introductions and refreshers. 

If your program doesn’t offer or require this pre-program content, there are other ways to obtain it. If you would like a quick and fun assessment of your knowledge base, the Financial Times (FT.com) offers the MBA Gym, which provides 15-minute “exercises” in economics, financial accounting, finance, and many other areas. If you recognize that you need more training in specific areas, mba.com offers its Business Ready Collection in Accounting, Statistics, Finance, and Quantitative Methods. And there isn’t a bookstore around that doesn’t have a reference section filled with MBA preparatory titles. 

What else can you do to prepare for the MBA experience?

Business Productivity Software: A certain level of fluency in Excel is expected at most programs. Don’t be too stressed if you can’t build the beautifully intricate models that are second nature to some of your classmates. But, if you have trouble building a spreadsheet, don’t understand the formulas available to you, or have no idea what a Pivot Table is, then you should invest some time this summer in becoming familiar with the Excel product. In fact, proficiency in the entire Microsoft Office Suite will make life easier. You may find that your program teaches its Statistics and/or Market Research courses in a statistical software package like SAS or SPSS. If so, it wouldn’t hurt to familiarize yourself with that software as well.

Financial Calculator: Most finance courses will require the use of a financial calculator. If your program requires a specific product, then buy it, learn it, and…well, love it. The more intimate you are with the functionality of the calculator from day one, the easier your life will be. 

Read: If you’re not accustomed to reading hundreds of pages a day, then you should training yourself to be able to do so now. I have found that the students who struggle the most are not those who come in with no traditional business education, but the students who have difficulty managing the depth and breadth of the readings. This summer will be your last opportunity to read what you want to read. Take advantage of it by reading a lot. Replicate the academic experience by reading multiple titles at once and finding a book or two that doesn’t necessarily fit your area of interest. 

The most important piece of advice I can offer is never be afraid to ask for help. Regardless of your preparation, you may find yourself falling behind in areas. If this happens, do not fear. But, more importantly, don’t try to get through it alone. In addition to faculty support, your classmates are an incredible resource that should be tapped into. Programs are made to be diverse so that the learning process leads students to become teachers. You’ll walk away having gained a great deal from your classmates if you’re willing to reach out. 

And, remember, they will have learned a good deal from you as well.