Wouldn’t it be great if someone would share with you typical MBA student mistakes and give you practical advice for how to avoid them?
This article is a collection of responses from experienced business school deans, professors, and program directors who answered the following question:
What is the #1 mistake you see new MBA students making? What advice would you give them to address this problem?
More than 20 business school deans, professors, and program directors contributed to this article with their best advice for avoiding major mistakes in your MBA program.
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1. MBA Students Neglect Developing Interpersonal Skills and Networking
One of my favorite business adages is that “we hire for skills but then the whole person shows up.”
In that spirit, over my 30 years as an MBA instructor, I have observed that MBA students run the risk of valuing the technical over the personal. Even today, in the midst of extraordinary technological and analytic advances, business success still resides largely in relationships and people.
No one seeking MBA talent from reputable schools doubts that graduating students can run a pivot table on Excel, or conduct a market analysis, or scrape some social media data. But I submit to you that they do remain suspect regarding whether those same technically-sophisticated MBAs can also chart a compelling vision, energize a project team or effectively coach a fellow employee. Moreover, my own research in this domain has found the existence of a phenomenon we label “unskilled and unaware” whereby students often think they are far more competent on those interpersonal skills than they truly are.
So my advice to students is to find every opportunity to practice their interpersonal and people-leadership skills and to actively seek critical feedback.
I suppose it is predictable coming from the Chair of a Department of Management but, in every context and every era, you win with people!
Dr. Timothy Baldwin
Chair, Department of Management & Entrepreneurship and Randall L. Tobias Chair in Leadership, Indiana University
The number one mistake I see new MBA students make is waiting to develop their networks.
Top B-schools offer an amazing (and sometime overwhelming) set of opportunities to network. Students should never miss a chance to share coffee or a lunch with a visiting executive.
Even after a long day, stopping by for a reception can be career changing.
Dr. M. Eric Johnson
Ralph Owen Dean and Bruce D. Henderson Professor of Strategy and Dean, Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt University
One of the keys to a successful business school experience is balance.
Attending business school is a mix of academics, job search, and socializing including networking. The students most attuned to attaining a good balance across these activities are the ones who derive the most from the experience.
Dr. Michael Waldman
Charles H. Dyson Professor of Management and Professor of Economics, Cornell University
Tips for Networking
Do you want to get better at building you network? Check out this video from Steve Johnson with How to Adult, who shares 10 simple networking tips.
2. MBA Students Don’t Understand Their Industries
Very few MBA graduates are seen as deficient in the basic disciplines or in their technical preparation. The core classes usually address the needed fundamentals and electives should give you the depth you need to start.
The most easily fixable deficiency I see in new MBA graduates is in their domain knowledge, i.e., what factors and players are most important in the organization and industry in which they will start their careers.
- Who are the pioneers in the industry?
- Who are the leaders in the organization?
- What are their backgrounds and expertise?
- Who among the leaders was mentored by whom?
- What are the drivers of competitive success in the industry?
- What is the supplier network?
- Who does the imaging and marketing?
- What is the financial structure?
The answers to these are not difficult, not theoretical. It all sounds like nuts and bolts, but very few rookies know them. Having superior domain knowledge is just a matter of time on task.
Doing well in school might get you the job but having excellent domain knowledge will let you hit the ground running and shine from the outset.
Dr. Paul Danos
Laurence F. Whittemore Professor of Business Administration and Dean Emeritus, Dartmouth College
The number one mistake I see MBA students making is a lack of openness.
Students often feel, based on their 4 years of work experience, that they “know” about a particular topic…. when what they have is a fairly narrow perspective based on one relatively small slice of organizational life. This sense of “knowing” makes them tune out both what faculty know from studies of hundreds of slices of organizational life and what other students “know” from their own/different slice of organizational life.
Beyond this, I would highlight excessive FOMO that leads MBA students to run around doing everything they can without thought about their real priorities.
Dr. Susan J. Ashford
Michael & Susan Jandernoa Professor of Management and Organizations and Chair of Management & Organizations, University of Michigan
One area for students to work on before interviewing for a position is to undertake a self examination of their academic preparation, relevant work experience and an honest assessment of their need for more or less “support structure” when trying to decide where their “entry point” to the industry should be.
In order to maximize their opportunity for success, students should realize that the “industry” may include firms ranging in size from smaller, less structured, entities (more horizontal in nature) to very large, more structured, entities(more vertical in nature).
Firms in the former group generally need individuals who are familiar with a “project like” environment with many moving parts. These people generally are more intuitive as to business processes and have knowledge as to who the relevant players are and how they can help manage/add value from project inception to completion. These positions are usually more transactional in nature (eg. brokerage, development, marketing, start ups). The client base may be less predictable, and positions can be more risky as to compensation (lower initially, potentially greater later).
Firms in the latter group tend to recruit individuals who realize that they need a more structured (vertical) environment where the work flow is more systematic and process oriented (eg. consulting, lending or investment underwriting). Individuals in this second group tend to flourish in an environment where individual growth is based on learning from others, where process and procedures are fairly well established and the relevant client base is generally well understood. Promotions and compensation in these positions tend to be more predictable (higher initially and gradually increasing) than in the former group.
The self assessment that MBAs make should be an objective and honest one. It should not be based on what peer group students are doing, perceived status, initial compensation, etc. The decision should be more heavily weighted as to “fit” and compatibility/chemistry with others in the work environment.
While all of this is sometimes “easier said than done”, it is an exercise that all MBA students should try to undertake.
Dr. William Brueggeman
Clara R. and Leo F. Corrigan Senior Chair in Real Estate and Professor of Real Estate, Southern Methodist University
My advice to students, particularly MBA students who might have a non-business undergraduate degree, is to read the Wall Street Journal six days a week. Not only is it a wonderful source of business news and perspectives, but the Journal has broadened over time to become an all-around treasure trove of helpful and entertaining insights (business and personal).
Students who don’t subscribe ($1 a week) and read are making a really big unforced error!
Dr. James M. Carson
Daniel P. Amos Distinguished Professor of Insurance, The University of Georgia
3. MBA Students Don’t Prioritize and Focus
Here is my best advice for an MBA student: Be Decisive and Begin with the End in Mind
The biggest mistake made by MBA students is failing to be decisive and not beginning with the end in mind.
While MBA programs provide students with the flexibility to get both a broad general management education along with the opportunity to focus or concentrate in a particular function area, they also provide students with an opportunity to transition or change direction.
Students are often paralyzed by the innumerable career options that are afforded by an MBA degree recipient and want to sample everything before being decisive about the career direction they will take. MBA students need to do their research before entering a program knowing what industry and what functional area that they plan to tackle.
Top companies interview brand new students for internships in the first few weeks of a program that begins in the fall. Because of the speed and pressure that employers have to seek top talent, wise applicants will have already scoured job descriptions knowing exactly what technical skills they need, what professional polish they require and how to tackle the job market.
Dr. Monica Powell
Senior Associate Dean of Graduate Programs, Organizations, Strategy and International Management, Naveen Jindal School of Management, University of Texas
We always encourage new and prospective students to take charge of their education from the very start, to create a viable and personalized plan, and to believe in themselves to follow through with their plan.
There are many options available for earning an MBA degree: a traditional full-time on-campus program, a part-time evening or weekend program, or an online program—like our University of Illinois iMBA program. Students should explore these options to discover which program best suits their own circumstances.
They should speak directly with admissions counselors who can provide insight into the options available and who can provide the information needed to enable students to make highly informed decisions that align with their career goals—and their budget. In addition, current students can be a great source of insight, so be sure to ask counselors to help you connect with students who can give their perspective on a program.
Dr. Jeffrey Brown
Josef and Margot Lakonishok Professor of Business, Dean, and Professor of Finance, Gies College of Business, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
My only observation is that only a small percentage of “finance track” MBAs take enough accounting classes. Most should take Advance topics in Financial Accounting (ACC 380D) in addition to Financial Statement Analysis (ACC 380K.7).
Dr. Robert Freeman
Arthur Andersen & Co. Alumni Centennial Professor in Accounting and Chair of Accounting, University of Texas
A big mistake that I see MBAs making is treating the program like an all-you-can-eat buffet.
The good news? Anything on which you want to spend time is likely available or possible in your MBA Program.
The bad news? If you try to do it all, you will do none of it thoroughly or well.
Choose one activity that reflects a longstanding, true passion of yours; one activity that is something you’ve always wanted to learn more about; and one “wild card” – something that is out of the ordinary for you, that you’ve not considered before, and that is likely to expose you to people who are very different from you.
This approach will enable you to demonstrate higher impact leadership and service on the few activities to which you genuinely commit yourself, while also broadening your perspective in a way that is harder to do once you’ve left your MBA program.
Prof. Risa M. Mish
Professor of the Practice of Management, Cornell University
How to Become More Effective
Dr. Powell’s contribution included an idea from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The second habit explained in the book is to “Begin with the End in Mind”. The complete list of habits is:
- Be Proactive: Take responsibility and know you’re in charge
- Begin with the end in mind: Have an end goal
- Put first things first: Do important and non-urgent things first
- Think Win-Win: Find situations where everyone wins
- Seek first to understand, then to be understood: Listen before you start talking
- Synergize: 1 + 1 = 3
- Sharpen the saw: Invest in yourself for the best ROI
This video from Practical Psychology clearly explains the main points of the book with some fun graphics.
4. MBA Students Focus on Being Valued Instead of Becoming Valuable
The #1 mistake that new MBA students are making is ignoring the fact that long term success depends on leveraging their unique skills to maximize their impact on whatever they do.
In other words, most successful managers get rewarded for the value they bring to the enterprise and the goal for students should be to maximize that value. This may mean that students should figure out their weaknesses and use their time at the university to improve, they should identify their strengths and build on them, they should seek out new networks of individuals who can enable continued learning and seek out faculty who can assist with career advice or connections.
In short, the university is a place to learn new things, try new ideas and experience opportunities to lead. Given my operations perspective, I would urge students to focus on “being a batch size of one”.
This means find a way to create your unique brand that both you are comfortable with and the world appreciates.
Dr. Ananth Iyer
Senior Associate Dean and Susan Bulkeley Butler Chair in Operations Management, Purdue University
I would say that the #1 mistake MBA students make during their program of study is putting so much emphasis on securing their first job after graduation that they fail to prepare as well as they could to progress beyond that first job. This cascades into a series of other mistakes, including:
- Relying too much on second year students and too little on faculty and industry mentors for advice on courses and co-curricular activities
- Failing to take courses on “soft” subjects like communications and people management, and regretting it five years later in their alumni survey comments, and
- Networking too narrowly within their sections, classes or programs, rather than making connections to students in other programs, faculty members, and alums.
Obviously, getting that first job is enormously important. But if that’s all you get from an MBA program, you’re shortchanging yourself.
You will get much more from your investment if you spend a bit of time on self-reflection to envision where you want to go in the long run, and take advantage of the enormous resources of a business school to acquire the skills and connections you will need to get there.
Dr. Wallace Hopp
C.K. Prahalad Distinguished University Professor of Business and Engineering, Associate Dean for Part-Time MBA, Professor of Technology and Operations, Professor of Industrial and Operations Engineering, University of Michigan
The #1 mistake I see is some students see the MBA as a ticket to punch rather than an opportunity to learn.
In recent years, students in some MBA classes have objected to doing the work to learn. Rather, they concern themselves with trying to dictate how a class should be run and what should be covered.
The MBA is a chance to delve into new subjects and learn new things. It should be approached as an opportunity to learn, not just a way to get a credential.
Dr. Philip Bromiley
Dean’s Professor in Strategic Management, University of California, Irvine
I think the #1 mistake that many MBA students (and many other students; and many people in general) make is focusing only on getting jobs and getting paid/making money. But they miss the bigger picture:
- Why do they think they even deserve to get jobs and to be paid any money?
- What is the specific value they can produce that warrants them being hired and paid?
Too many MBA students are focused on promoting themselves instead of making themselves of real value. If you have true value, it will shine and you will need to spend a lot less time and effort on the promotion.
Dr. Robert Savickas
Chair, Department of Finance and Associate Professor of Finance, The George Washington University
I think the number one mistake is being too practical.
I know that there is a temptation to focus on your resume and next job interview, but you should also be sure to focus on understanding how the world works and what the important principles are. Ten years from now the world will surely be different, and leaders will be the ones who see through it first, and they will be the ones who know the theory best.
Dr. Robert A. Van Order
Oliver Carr Chair in Real Estate Professor of Finance & Economics, The George Washington University
5. MBA Students Need to Stay Ahead and Stay Organized
The number one mistake I see students make is getting behind.
It usually happens when they prioritize academics over career or career over academics. The first semester in the MBA program is a critical time to invest in your career development and the internship search.
It is also critical to do well in your coursework. Students who sacrifice one for the other have a harder time achieving their goals.
I advise students to stay ahead. Start getting ahead before you ever step foot on campus. Complete all of the pre-work your program assigns, related to career preparations and academics, TWICE.
Identify areas where you need more pre-work before arriving to campus. If you know you are weak in statistics, and the pre-work assigned is not sinking in, take an online course or get a tutor to work with you.
If you are not sure what career path you want to pursue, complete informational interviews with professionals in a variety of fields.
Once you start your MBA program stay ahead, so you can have better balance between career preparation, academics, and as much as possible life outside of the MBA as well.
Dr. Shannon Deer
Full-Time MBA Director and Senior Lecturer, Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School
The best time to start your job search was yesterday, but the second best time is today.
The two years of an MBA Program pass quickly. Take advantage of career services from the very beginning of your MBA program (resume writing help, interview preparation and practice, etc.). to prepare for and be placed in internships and permanent employment opportunities.
Dr. Kay Palan
Dean, Culverhouse College of Commerce, The University of Alabama
Time management is critical, even more so than when you were a Bachelor’s student. A minute of time becomes a valuable and difficult-to-replace commodity, just like a dollar.
Different students will benefit from different time management solutions (Microsoft Outlook, Google Calendar, a Franklin planner, etc.) But find a tool and a process that works for you, and use it religiously to track critical deliverables.
Remember to block time for fun and relaxation as well. That being said, don’t schedule every minute of every day; you’ll go nuts!
Senior Lecturer and Director of the Master of Business Logistics Engineering Program, Ohio State University
- Keep in mind that the MBA program is very demanding in terms of your time. Time management is essential.
- No matter how much you know about business in your line of work, the MBA provides a full spectrum framework for understanding business, and dealing with a wide variety of business problems. Keep an open mind.
- Because so many different topics are covered in the MBA program, there is usually not enough time to go in full depth on many topics. Make a note of those that really interest you and ask the professor for more in-depth analysis on those.
Dr. Nicholas S. Economides
Professor of Economics, New York University
Does the Advice “Stay Ahead and Stay Organized” Stress You Out?
Easier said than done, right?
The TEDx Talk video below was presented by David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. It includes practical tips on how to change your mindset on productivity and work, which could help you reduce your stress related to “getting things done.”
6. MBA Students Don’t Engage in Their Programs
The best advice I might give new MBAs who really want to develop their values-driven leadership skills is to avoid the twin class participation missteps.
Some students, worried about saying the wrong thing or the “dumb” thing, avoid speaking up in class discussions. In this way, they limit their own learning as well as that of their colleagues who could learn from them.
Other students make the opposite misstep. Wanting to be sure to make an impact, they speak first, loudly and always — often without really thinking about it deeply — and then they feel they have to remain wedded to that idea even after it may become clear that it has real limitations.
For the first group, I would encourage them to rehearse, to practice sharing their ideas with friends, colleagues, study groups, even out loud in their rooms…so that they get used to hearing their own voice — and then to try to speak out early on in class. The earlier you speak, the easier it gets…and vice versa.
For the second group, I would encourage you to count to 5, to force yourself to ask a question of one of your classmates rather than always and only offering an opinion.
In these ways, both groups can learn more and also contribute to the learning of their peers…and both groups will begin to develop critical leadership skills of listening, speaking, and engaging in genuine dialogue rather than simply offering warring opinions.
Dr. Mary Gentile
Professor of Practice, University of Virginia
Creator/Director, Giving Voice To Values
Actually, our MBAs are so selected for success that I don’t see much in the way of widespread systematic mistakes. Just small issues, and not widespread. For example, a subset of students shy away from engagement in classroom discussion. Two causes, I think.
One is shyness. Can’t do much about that except to try one’s best.
The other is aversion to creating dissonance. The latter can be addressed by careful and respectful language.
Dr. Darrell Duffie
Dean Witter Distinguished Professor of Finance and Professor of Economics (by courtesy), Stanford University
More than 20 business school deans, professors, and program directions contributed to this article with their best advice for avoiding major mistakes in your MBA program. The top mistakes made by MBA students are:
- MBA Students Neglect Developing Interpersonal Skills and Networking
- MBA Students Don’t Understand Their Industries
- MBA Students Focus on Being Valued Instead of Becoming Valuable
- MBA Students Don’t Prioritize and Focus
- MBA Students Need to Stay Ahead and Stay Organized
- MBA Students Don’t Engage in Their Programs
When you look over this list of potential mistakes do you see one that scares you more than the others? Do you feel weak in that area?
My recommendation for you is to sit down with someone you respect and trust for guidance, such as your MBA program adviser, a professor you respect, a former boss, or a friend. Someone who can help you create a plan for getting better at addressing this problem.
Let us know how it goes.