Sweat Equity: How to Get the Biggest Return from Business School

May 21, 2013
Tags: B-School, Choosing the Right School, MBA

Submitted by Nicole Lindsay, a career development expert who is working on her first book about women and business school. She is a former MBA admissions officer, MBA recruiter and non-profit executive. Connect with Nicole at @MBAMinority.

Business school is a big investment of both money and resources. If you’ve decided to invest in an MBA degree, do everything possible to maximize your return on investment to ensure that you get the most out of your MBA experience and degree.

A lot has been written recently about the concept of Return on Your MBA Investment. It’s a play on the financial concept, Return on Investment, with which you will become very familiar during business school. The idea is that if you invest in getting your MBA degree, then you should expect to get a strong return in the form of increased financial gains and greater access to leadership and management opportunities.

When candidates consider investing in an MBA, they mainly focus on the financial costs of business school. The most significant investment you will make in business school, however, is not tuition, but rather “sweat equity” or the effort you put in, beyond money, to generate a return. The sweat equity you invest now will position you to foster a robust professional network and access dynamic job opportunities once in business school. Consider a class of 100 MBA students. Regardless of their individual backgrounds, each student had the academic, career, and leadership potential to be admitted to the MBA program. Fast forward to graduation, these 100 alumni now have different career options available to them based on how well they leveraged their MBA experience. Of course, that’s in part due to personal choices, but much of it is tied to the sweat equity that each student invested before and during business school.

Here are three actions to substantially increase the return you generate from attending business school:

1. Build your career knowledge. If I walked into your home today and looked through your books and magazines or through the web browser history on your computer, would I get a strong indication of what your career goals are? If not, then you are likely not investing enough sweat equity into building your industry and career knowledge.

You will be in business school for as little as 21 months; so from the moment you step on campus you will be looking for a job, either an internship or a full-time position. To leverage business school, you must build your industry and functional knowledge now. Build your expertise by voraciously reading about current events and relevant topics. If you are interested in media, for example, stay on top of trends by reading industry publications and following the media thought leaders on social media. Take advantage of every opportunity to have conversations with industry insiders. These professionals can give you real-world perspective on the industry and also help you get even clearer about professional opportunities and how to access them.

2. Strengthen your skills. When you re-enter the workforce after business school, what will your employer expect that you will be able to do? What skills can you develop now? Business school is well-regarded as a channel for changing career fields or industries. Someone can come from an education or military background and in two years be working in a marketing or finance role. The MBA facilitates otherwise difficult career transitions. Companies will hire you in part because of your MBA education, but more importantly because of the skills that you developed before and during business school. Developing these transferable skills will enable you to excel in your interviews and in the actual job.

For the industries that you are considering, research the skills that companies expect and that positions require. Strengthen the skills that you already possess and build new ones. For example, if you are interested in financial services, take a class on financial modeling or teach yourself advanced Microsoft Excel functions. If you want to be a senior executive or entrepreneur, find opportunities to build your management and leadership skills with a local non-profit or a project at work.

3. Build relationships. To whom have you spoken about your professional interests? How many people do you know and know you in the industry you plan to pursue post-MBA? Would any of them invest in you by endorsing you or giving you a job?

Becoming part of a business school community will present incredible networking opportunities, but effective relationship management has nothing to do with actually being in business school. In fact, if you aren’t fully maximizing your professional network now, how likely are you to leverage your MBA network, which will be three to four times bigger?

Build and engage your professional network now. As you are exploring different industries and career paths, request informational interviews with people working in those areas. Right now, you only need information, which professionals are very willing to give. Maintain these contacts so that down the road, you can leverage them for your job search. If you don’t currently have a robust network in your field of interest, utilize industry networking and MBA admissions events to meet new people and follow-up with them for more in-depth conversations.