What Most Surprised MBA Students In Business School
ApplicantLab |
September 29, 2023

In this episode of Business Casual, our hosts discuss the 15 biggest surprises MBA students may encounter during their programs. One surprise mentioned is the overwhelming nature of the MBA experience due to numerous activities and opportunities. MBA programs also heavily emphasize soft skills like collaboration and leadership. The hosts stress prioritization and reflect on the transformative potential of an MBA for personal growth.

They also share a story of a colleague discovering that a recommendation letter appeared to be written using Chat GPT, discussing the challenges and awkwardness of addressing this with recommenders. They emphasize the importance of candid conversations with recommenders about expectations and recommendation quality.

Overall, the episode highlights surprising MBA experiences and challenges, including unexpected AI use in recommendation letters.

Episode Transcript

[00:00:07.450] – John

Hello, everyone. It’s John Byrne with Poets of Quants. Welcome to Business Casual, our weekly podcast with my co host Maria Wich Vila and Caroline Diarte Edwards. We recently ran a story that I really kind of like. We asked the latest graduating class of MBAs all over the world what was the single biggest surprise they found from their MBA experience? And we collected 15 of these. We call it the 15 biggest surprises awaiting MBA students. And it’s kind of really intriguing. Each of these are, in the words of MBA graduates from all the top schools, one that I really loved, and I think this would resonate with both Caroline and Maria as well, is this one business school de ages you. It’s kind of a pause in your life that allows you to think more thoughtfully about what you’ve done and where you want to go. I’m going to quote from this one graduate of an MBA program because I think this is just beautiful stuff. The MBA afforded me two years to reflect on how I’ve lived my life up until now and strategize around the life I want to build for myself moving forward. Where do I want to live? Who do I want to surround myself with? How can I be a better son, brother, friend and citizen? What aspects of my desired lifestyle are non negotiable? How should I prioritize my mental health and other non professional priorities like travel, fitness and family? My two years in business school served as a critical reset period for me. I thought that was really brilliant. Caroline, what do you think?

[00:01:51.380] – Caroline

Yeah, I definitely sign up for the aging. I think it’s kind of a shame that I went through that in my twenty s. I would be very happy. To go through it now.

[00:02:01.210] – John

I bet you a lot of people who go through think, oh my God, it aged me really fast.

[00:02:07.190] – Caroline

Yeah, you don’t necessarily get a lot of sleep, so I’m not sure that that’s good for staying young. But joking aside, I totally agree that it’s an incredibly transformative experience. And I think that’s something that resonates with a lot of MBA students, that you expect it to be something that will broaden your perspectives, that will open your eyes to new possibilities that you might not otherwise have considered. But I think that until you’re actually in that experience, you don’t fully appreciate what a deep transformation it can be. Right? And so many people go to the MBA, go into the MBA with a sort of set idea of what they’re going to do when they graduate. And so many of them end up doing something wildly different that they would have never imagined, have imagined before. And that’s because they have had that chance, as you say, to take a step back, to take stock, to reflect on who they are, what they’ve done, the skills they’ve built, what they like to do. And at the same time, they’ve been exposed to so much and so many different opportunities and so many different organizations and had a chance to learn about so many different avenues.

[00:03:28.040] – Caroline

And so that combination of being able to take a step back and that exposure means that a lot of people come out of the program doing something very different than they would otherwise have anticipated. And I think that’s wonderful. Right. It just gives you that chance to take a step in your life that you might otherwise never have taken.

[00:03:47.690] – John

Really true. Now, there are 15 things on our list. Maria, does anyone resonate with you?

[00:03:54.970] – Maria

Well, I think all of them resonated on some level. I think the one of it is totally nonstop. Right. You think about school as mostly being school and, oh, maybe I’ll do an extracurricular or two, but that’s really not the experience at all. It’s that plus plus super, mega extra, because you’re not only going to classes and participating in clubs the way you might have in college, but you’re also trying to find a job and you’re networking like crazy and you’re participating in case competitions. And I think the biggest value, Caroline, a few seconds ago was mentioning how one of the biggest benefits of the experience is that you meet people from all these different backgrounds and you start learning about different industries and different positions, and you ask yourself, well, what is the pharmaceutical industry like? Maybe I should work in that. And you start setting up these conversations with your classmates and the next thing you know, it’s two in the morning and it’s up time to get ready to go to sleep and do it all over again. So I think because the MBA is such a transformative and pivotal moment in someone’s life, I think that does differentiate it from a typical academic experience.

[00:05:02.750] – Maria

And that pivotal moment of your life means that you are putting so much energy into getting to know other people. That is just an element of time that just makes it feel like it’s twice as much time as any other schooling you’ve ever done.

[00:05:15.350] – John

Yeah, definitely. I’m going to just go through the 15 surprises. You mentioned one already. Number one, it is really hard to say no. And this is something that Caroline touched upon before. I mean, there’s so many things that you can do in and out of the classroom that it really can be bewildering and overwhelming. And saying no to some of them is important, but boy, is it hard to the professors really care. A lot of people come from undergraduate backgrounds where they were lectured at and didn’t really have a relationship with professors at business school. The classes tend to be smaller, particularly in the elective curriculum, and the professors are pretty devoted in many cases to the students, even though obviously their research interests are incredibly important to them. Some professors actually help students find jobs and mentor them and work on their startups with them. So that was one big surprise for a couple of students. There’s a heavy focus on soft skills. For all that we talk about this, there’s still a surprise about how much emphasis is placed on collaboration and leadership and business goals and teamwork. It is overloaded and overwhelming.

[00:06:35.400] – John

Four, it is totally nonstop, as Maria noted. Five, your classmates will love to travel. That is so true. And that is so expensive. You get to practice. What you learn immediately is surprise number six. Number seven, you get a lot of freedom in business school. That’s true. Number eight, it is a time to reflect and to grow. And graduates from Tuck, from UC Irvine, and from other schools mentioned that one because it’s such a big deal. Caroline, did you find something that made you remember back to your days at INSEAD in this group?

[00:07:18.330] – Caroline

Yes, definitely. I mean, the fact that it’s difficult to say no and there’s just so much to do, I think resonates, especially with a one year program like INSEAD, which is really like drinking from a fire hose. And I remember when I finished the program, I felt like I’d sort of jumped off a speeding train. Right. It was really strange to adjust to normal life again, because you had been through this incredibly intense experience where the pace is so fast, and as Maria said, it gives you a different sense of the passage of time. Your impression of time even changes. And so I found it quite strange then adjusting to real life again. And I think also what you said about the relationship with professors, I think that’s extremely true. And I think that’s partly because there’s a different level of maturity in the students versus when you’re an undergrad. And so the professors really are treating the students like peers rather than talking down to the students like they’re these young people who don’t know anything. Right. Because also the professors are very reliant on the knowledge of the students who come to the classroom.

[00:08:37.690] – Caroline

And it’s not a case where it’s just the professor dispensing his or her knowledge to their students. It’s more a case of facilitating a learning experience that draws on that collective knowledge and that incredible collective knowledge that you get in the classroom. And so the professors are very reliant on the students, and that changes the dynamic, I think, and the relationship that you have. That’s great. It’s wonderful to be able to build those personal relationships with faculty.

[00:09:10.750] – John

That’s so true. And we are in the phase now where we’re reporting on all the class profiles that are coming out at the schools, and you really get a sense of the richness of diversity of backgrounds and experiences that are brought to an MBA classroom through those class profiles. Number nine was, networking requires a lot of time and energy. No kidding. Ten, don’t underestimate the value of prioritization. There’s this phrase called ruthless prioritization. And that’s exactly what you have to do in business school, because there’s so many things to do, so many case studies to read. Number eleven, you’ll make a lot of friends. And number twelve, business school builds confidence. And we all know that self confidence, not cockiness, is an important ingredient in success. Were there any surprises, Maria, that weren’t on here that should be?

[00:10:02.770] – Maria

No, I think folks covered it. I’m glad to see that the graduates are focusing a lot on the interpersonal relationships they developed in business school, because I do think that that is the thing that going into the future, aside from the basic education. But really taking that network and those friends and those peers with you, that’s the most valuable thing. And so I will sometimes tell folks if you’ve got a networking event to go to or a good party to go to or something like that, and there’s a test tomorrow, like, yeah, study for the test, but you probably won’t use what that test is covering five years from now. But you will probably be reaching out to and hanging out with friends from business school 20 years from now. In fact, just this past weekend, we celebrated Rosh Hashanah at my house and we had some business school friends over. These people really do become a part of your life for a long time. So I’m glad to see that the kids today are smart enough to know, to develop and nurture those relationships, because that is really such a gem and high value thing you take away totally.

[00:11:10.880] – John

So check it out. The 15 biggest surprises that waiting MBA students. If you are a prospective student, an applicant, if you are a current student that just started your program, I think you really want to read this because you get a sense of what you’re going to be experiencing and maybe how to take best advantage of it. Now, one other story that kind of came out actually came from one of your colleagues, Caroline at Fortuna Admissions, and we have a story on it from one of your colleagues, Judith Silverman Hodara, and it’s called Help My Recommender Use Chat GPT. Now, we’ve talked about Chat GPT every now and then, but this is a whole new twist on it. How did it come about, Caroline?

[00:11:55.870] – Caroline

Well, the discussion came up because one of my colleagues, Heidi Hillis, received a recommendation letter for review and was very suspicious that GPT had been used. So it had very effusive praise, but it was very generic and lacking in examples. And then one dead giveaway was that it switched between he and she. So it’s a little bit confused about who it was talking, um, and then when we started talking about it.

[00:12:31.310] – John

Who sends the recommendation, not the recommend. The essay to Harvard Business School and Columbia Business School is in the essay.

[00:12:40.450] – Caroline

I mean that that happens. I mean, that has always happened, but I’m just afraid that errors like that are going to start to pop up more frequently when people have this tempting shortcut at their fingertips. And then when we started talking about it, then other coaches mentioned that they had faced similar situation with their clients. And so I think it is coming up more and more. Unfortunately, what we’re advising our clients is to preempt that and if possible, have a discussion with your recommenders before they draft anything, which you should do anyway, right? You shouldn’t just send them an email asking them to write your recommendation and then forget about it. Right? You should ideally sit down with them, go through some bullet points with them of the key talking points that you would like them to get across, because you want what they say to back up what you say in your application. And there should be some coherence in the whole story. And so what we’re advising clients is at that point when you have that discussion, you should also try to diplomatically weave into the conversation that it’s better if they don’t use generative AI as a tool.

[00:13:59.390] – Caroline

And in this specific case that I mentioned, my colleague actually contacted the recommender and the recommender was very receptive to the feedback and rewrote things.

[00:14:10.670] – John

Mender was embarrassed at being caught at it.

[00:14:12.870] – Maria

As they should have been. Right?

[00:14:16.480] – Caroline

Well, so I don’t think that she actually know we’ve caught you out using AI, but I think she tried to point out that he or she needed to add in more concrete examples and pointed out some of the issues in the style. So I think that’s the way that she addressed it. So it is another issue that, unfortunately, candidates now have to manage as part of the application process and just anticipate. I think it’s best to anticipate it and address it with recommenders up front, if possible, before they go off and draft something that is just churned out in 20 seconds flat.

[00:14:59.790] – John

You know what’s kind of remarkable about this? We had always thought that the bigger issue were candidates using Chat GPT to write their essays. And lo and behold, you would never have imagined that a recommender would actually turn the Chat GPT to write a rec letter. Maria, what do you make of this?

[00:15:22.070] – Maria

Yeah, I have to say, I did not anticipate that being an know. It did not even occur to me until I saw this article from Caroline and her colleagues. It was like, oh my gosh. But I guess everyone’s catching on to Chat GPT and if they’re trying to save some time, maybe they figure everyone else is doing it, so I’ll do it too. But the swapping of the genders. That shows that the person didn’t even proofread. I mean, yikes. I’m glad that Heidi was able to deal with that in a diplomatic and effective fashion. I would expect no less.

[00:16:06.070] – John

Now, here’s another interesting question. If I got this right now, Caroline, did you mention that Heidi was the one who actually called the recommender to get the recommender to write a more.

[00:16:16.100] – Caroline

Specific yes, yes, that’s right. Yeah, she did.

[00:16:19.840] – John

Because I would have thought that the consultant would just sit back and make the candidate do that. I can see the advantage of the consultant actually doing that instead of the candidate, because, after all, on one level, you’re offering somewhat critical commentary to the recommender about what they’ve just handed in to you. Right, yeah.

[00:16:42.200] – Caroline

I think sometimes there’s a difficult power relationship between the candidate and the recommender and it could be their boss. Right. And a candidate may struggle to give feedback that could be taken as critical to the recommender. So in that case, it seemed to work better that Heidi gave the feedback directly. I do think that it’s an interesting question, but maybe there is more of a risk that recommenders use Chat GPT than candidates, because candidates are obviously much more invested in the process than the recommenders. Right. Because it’s their admission to business school that is on the line and they know that it’s an intensive process and they have to dedicate a lot of time to it. But recommenders normally, by their very nature, are incredibly busy people with a lot of demands and they probably writing that recommendation in their spare time, and so it may be more tempting for them than even for the candidate to take a shortcut, if that seems like an option. So I wouldn’t be surprised if schools start to spot some dotty recommendation letters.

[00:17:51.090] – John

Coming in is really solid, because recommenders, let’s face it, they often leave things at the last minute. They think a rec letter is an easy thing to do and it can for many people, even though they may say yes, be something of a nuisance. So I could very well see people turning to generative AI to dash one out and just get it over and done with. So you might be right there where a candidate is invested in the process. And a candidate might even be afraid that admissions Office might be using some sort of software to detect Chat GPT or other AI products. And if they’re caught with it, they’re immediately going to have an application that gets spiked. So they may be actually less inclined to use Chat GPT than the recommender. How about that? Wow. All right, well, there you go. Two lessons here. One, know that you will be surprised when you go to business school and get into a great MBA program. And know that your recommenders should never use Chat GPT, especially when the product refers to you as a he and a she in the same. And Caroline. Thank you.

[00:19:07.150] – John

This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. You’ve been listening to Business Casual. Our weekly podcast.

What Most Surprised MBA Students In Business School
ApplicantLab |
September 29, 2023


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