Making the most of your first year in an MBA program | MBA Learnings

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Second-year student Rohan Rajiv is blogging once a week about important lessons he is learning at Kellogg. Read more of his posts here.

A few months ago, I wrote a letter to an incoming MBA student in an attempt to help incoming students prepare for their two years at school. I tried staying away from specific advice in that post, as the assumption was that the framework ought to work for everyone.

Today, however, I’m going to dig into my first year process and provide specifics on how I spent my first year.

Given the MBA is a $200,000 investment (not counting opportunity costs in lost income), at this time last year I was very curious about any specific “process” advice. And I was generally left disappointed as most of the advice I found online was the in the “feels-good-but-useless” category – e.g. find your passion, build great relationships, travel, dream, take risks, etc.

This post has a lot of inherent personal bias as it is what worked for me, so please take these notes with healthy doses of salt. And, yes, this will be long and dense, but I hope you find it worthwhile.

As I outlined in the previous post, there are six priorities at business school: academics, career, extracurriculars, social, framily (close friends and family) and you. I’ll go through what I’ve learned as I’ve approached these at school.

1. Academics

a) Finding classes

  • Make a plan
    I spent four hours during winter break going through every course that I’d be interested in. After making the list, I tallied all feedback I’d received about professors whose classes I should take. I went about creating a rough two-year plan. I haven’t stuck to it. But as always, the act of making a roadmap helped a lot.
  • Understand historical bidding statistics
    We have a bidding system, so I spent time understanding the points spent on the course-in-question in the past and also looked at the average rating of the professor. With this data, I could easily spot the over-valued and under-valued courses. My takeaway – use data where possible and invest in understanding the system.
  • Ask for recommendations
    Early on, I asked most second-years I met for top course recommendations. This helped a lot.

b) Attending classes

  • Show up
    I think I missed just two classes through the year. That helped a lot.
  • Be 100% present
    My natural ADD makes it difficult to keep focus throughout a class. So I worked out a simple forcing mechanism – sit in front. This helped ensure I didn’t spend my time mucking around on my phone or laptop and also ensured I fed off the professor’s energy. This worked most of the time, and that’s what I was shooting for.
  • Come prepared and participate
    This is part of the “be 100% present” idea. Participation is an extension of that. Now, I think I was far better prepared in my Fall quarter than later quarters. After the first couple of weeks, I began getting a sense of the level of depth required and that helped me calibrate.

c) Group meetings

  • Align on expectations if possible
    It is always helpful to have a conversation upfront if you feel there might be misalignment on goals and priorities. I can think of a couple of experiences when having this conversation would have helped.
  • Don’t count group meetings as study time
    This is the same concept as work meetings – use this for discussion, agreement and decisions. Don’t count it as solo study time. Bring value to a group meeting (very hard to do sometimes).
  • No need to be the lead in every group
    Continuing of the previous thread, if you find others taking the lead in some groups, let them. Just make sure you do the same in another group.

d) Preparing for exams

  • Think about whether you need the textbook
    I didn’t use textbooks, but I know of people who did. So this might be true just be me. I found the course pack and readings to be more than sufficient.
  • Attend review sessions only if absolutely necessary
    I went to very few. When I did, I often chose a video as you can skip through most parts.
  • 30 hours
    I found that roughly 30 hours of study per course was sufficient to grasp the concepts and do well. This is roughly three hours per week. But for most people, you see spikes toward the end of the quarter.
  • Summarize lectures – single best learning
    My strategy professor suggested we spend time after every class summarizing what we learnt. I’d read about this technique earlier and never tried it. While I didn’t strictly do it every class/week, I made sure I did it every time I studied. This typically happened when an assignment was due – the assignment naturally required knowledge of what had been taught in the prior couple of weeks. So, instead of diving into the answers of the assignment, I’d go back and make sure I summarized lectures first. This was an amazing move as it made it easier to make my notes to review before the exam. And in exams where we were only allowed a cheat sheet, it made the process of creating the cheat sheet really simple.

2. Career

I’ve covered my process in detail in lessons learned from internship recruiting. I just have two adds:

  • Don’t view classmates as competition
    Be of help to each other. We grow up conditioned to compete. Think of your classmates as temporary “path sharers.” Be nice to each other.
  • Start a prep group
    We had a four-person tech group that met nearly every week for 10 weeks. It was one of the best things we did.

3. Extracurriculars

  • Understand why you’re doing extracurriculars
    Different people do these for different reasons. Some career switchers like adding a note to their resume about a relevant professional club. Some want to test leadership. Some others want to meet people. There are many reasons to do them. My reasons were straightforward – I am driven by people, learning and impact. Extracurriculars have helped work on ideas that combine all three. They’re a fantastic opportunity to learn more about yourself, how you lead, how you work in teams, etc. I spend a significant amount of time on extracurriculars and it has been a highlight of my school experience.
  • Don’t be a flake
    Once you commit to a leadership role, keep up that commitment. It is not just because everyone remembers flakes or because all those people you work with might have a strong say in a future career opportunity. It simply is the right thing to do.
  • If you’re unable to do work, communicate and apologize
    It’s the worst case scenario, but it happens.
  • Run good team meetings
    Most team members hate team meetings. That’s because they’re generally run badly. I’ve tried hard to run good team meetings – this means preparing hard, using the time meaningfully and following up. I’ve tried to set the norm of 100% participation early on and have tried to earn my team members’ time. It is a really useful skill to learn and hone.
  • Learn how to build great teams with peers
    The best part about school is you work on projects with peers. If you can learn how to build high functioning teams with peers who’re only doing this out of personal motivation, I believe you can build great teams everywhere. Working on teams to lead the incoming student orientation week, our technology club and two other initiatives has been an education in itself.

4. Social

This is heavily biased as it comes from the point of view of an introvert.

  • Look to build long-term relationships, not network
    Building long term relationships take time. So take the time and be patient.
  • Invest in really getting to know as many people as you can
    One of my wiser friends once said business school is where you’ll meet the highest proportion of people who are both interesting and interested in you. It is very true. In my case, I’ve tried setting up three or four coffee conversations every week. They aren’t ever over coffee. Every time I meet someone who I’d like to get to know better, I just put some time on their calendar (typically between classes), walk with them and swap stories. Many of these just turn out to be one-time meetings but some become really nice relationships. As with these things, it takes two hands to clap.
  • Maximize high quality social events
    Hanging out with 100 people in a bar is what I term a “low quality” social event. Any time you meet people and talk about the weather is low quality as well. One-on-one or small group conversations that involve talking about things that matter to you are high quality. I maximize those.
  • For low quality social events, “HELL YEAH!” or no
    If it isn’t a “HELL YEAH!”, I don’t show up.  (I did warn you this is very introvert biased).
  • Find ways to meet random people
    It is easy to shut off and find your own clique. I created an open event for my entire class last quarter on a Friday evening. Twelve people showed up, a few of whom I’d never spoken to. That was a win. This is a good reminder to do more of those.

5. Framily (close friends and family)

My past life was outside the US. So most of these notes are directed to staying in touch with family and friends who live far away.

  • Hang out with family when working/doing chores
    I do a lot of conversations with family over breakfast, dish washing and other such chores. Thanks to FaceTime, it is really easy to prop Mom up on the desk while I’m doing other work. We’ve spoken a lot more during school days (as I often have flexible schedules) as a result.
  • Set aside time on Saturday morning to catch up with friends
    While I wasn’t the most proactive friend in the fall quarter, I always made sure I had time set aside on Saturday mornings for catch up calls. That helped a lot.
  • Work on projects with people who matter and/or set up recurring calls
    My friends and I work on a charity together. That means we catch up every two weeks, and that helps a lot. Every few months, we set up a big Google Hangout as an extension to our bi-weekly call. In a couple of special cases, I set up recurring calls.

6. You

This is the single most important priority. Nothing matters more. If you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re likely doing it wrong.

  • I count my wife in this priority
    It helps me prioritize time with her. I don’t do nearly as good a job as I’d like to. But I work hard on it as it is the single hardest challenge I’ve faced in school.
  • A 5:15 a.m. – 9:15 p.m. routine on weekdays really helps
    As my wife leaves for work in the morning, I generally sync with her. So, this means I’m up by 5:15 a.m., do my morning routine and get ready until 7 a.m. I count 7 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. as my work day and plan study, activities and meetings between these slots. I’m generally back by 6 p.m., and we either head to the gym or go for a run around 6:15 p.m. Then we have dinner together. I try not to touch work or email after 7 p.m. I don’t do nearly as well I’d like to. But we do go to sleep by 9:30 p.m. or so. This means social nights are rare. But you’ve got to make trade-offs, and I’ve generally prioritized time with my wife.
  • Own your calendar
    I generally schedule all my group meeting and catch up invites. This helps me allow for blocks of time to do work and also ensures I don’t take any meetings after 6 p.m. I’ve only had to make exceptions about four times in the year. That’s not bad at all.
  • Chill on Saturday afternoons and evenings and plan social stuff on Fridays
    I try hard to switch off on Saturdays as Sunday is typically a full work day since assignments tend to be due on Monday. It doesn’t always happen, but I try very hard to keep Saturdays free to just hang out at home with my wife. So that means I try and plan social stuff on Fridays so we both can participate.
  • Sleep eight hours, meditate, eat healthy and exercise
    Being disciplined about the rest of my life has meant I haven’t really had to compromise on this. There have been times when I’ve slept less than I’d like. But all in all, I’ve tried to keep a normal routine, including blogging every morning of course 🙂
  • Optimize for energy
    There were, of course, many lousy days when I felt really low on energy. On these days, I generally aimed to go to sleep as early as possible and do less during the day. My productivity is generally twice the normal amount on good energy days. And I generally optimized for this.

So what does this all mean in terms of time spent?

I thought I’d show what all of these notes looked like in action. I’ve written about this a few times, but aside from just recording meetings, I generally record productive time on my calendar. If I’ve spent 90 minutes studying but felt like I did 60 minutes of  productive work, I generally store that on my calendar. At the end of the week, I add up the time spent on each priority and look at how I spent my week. It is always very illuminating. Over time, I added more nuance – e.g. tracking group time vs. solo study time, etc. As I could go on about this topic for hours, I thought I’d share two graphs and what they mean.

Rohan_TimeSpent_FirstYear

These two graphs show how I spent time in the year. I don’t track time spent with framily or with wife/myself. This is strictly for the “work” part of my life. It is an approach that’s added incredible value considering the time investment (roughly 30 minutes per week). I’ve continued to do this in my internship and it is among the better things I do. A few notes:

  • Both graphs have the same data – the top graph is a 100% graph while the bottom is in absolute hours.
  • F1 = 1st week in the Fall quarter. W = Winter, S = Spring
  • As you can see, my internship search ended Week 6 of the winter quarter and nearly all of that time got replaced by extracurriculars (and a little bit more social – but not much more)
  • I generally get about 35 “productive” hours in a week. This number assumes meetings are productive. I try to make sure they are. But, of course, this is chainsaw art and not fine – it is granular enough to work for my purposes.
  • My academic numbers don’t include 12 hours spent in classes. I take that as a base-case.
  • As you can see, my academic hours spike around Weeks 9 and 10. I spent a lot more time studying in the fall. I took three courses (one less than the usual four-course load) in the winter – even so, I didn’t study all that much in the winter.
  • I have some more nuanced stats but won’t spend any more time on this. I geek out on this stuff, and I recognize that it isn’t for everyone.
  • I have written a lot about prioritization in school. And, hopefully, this brings those ideas to life.

Finally, since this post is all about my personal advice, I’d like to finish with three ideas I’ve found useful:

1. Spend energy and time on things you value or consider important.

The first step here is to determine which of these priorities matter to you. Academics, for example, clearly matters to me. It doesn’t for everyone. But understanding what matters to you is the first step to allocating your energy and time – your most valuable resources. Everyone who goes to a decent program will tell you that it often gets overwhelming. I think of it as preparation for life as a business leader. If you walk out of school having learned to prioritize things that matter, that’s a great lesson to learn.

2. You can’t win them all.

Business school can often feel like high school. You can easily spend hours worrying about your popularity, social standing and/or what you are missing out on (a.k.a FOMO or fear of missing out). The first step here is to acknowledge that school is the same as life – you aren’t going to get along with everyone and not everyone’s going to like you. That’s OK. Just be yourself. Everyone else is taken.

3. No one owes you anything.

It is tempting to walk in thinking that the school owes you a great experience for the fees you paid, that your group mates owe you for your selfless dedication, and so on. I think a better way to approach this is to just remind yourself that nobody owes you anything. You’re in a great environment that you can mold to suit your needs and style. That, in itself, is a great opportunity.

Like all good things, your experience is what you make of it.

Make it meaningful.

Make it count.

Rohan Rajiv is a second-year student in Kellogg’s Full-Time Two-Year Program. Prior to Kellogg he worked as a consultant serving clients across 14 countries in Europe, Asia, Australia and South America. He interned at LinkedIn in Business Operations and will be heading back to LinkedIn full-time after he graduates in June 2016. He blogs a learning every day, including his MBA Learnings series, on www.ALearningaDay.com.

21 comments

  1. It was a wonderful piece, Rohan. I suddenly feel less lost about what to expect in business school. Thanks for writing this.

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