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What I Wish I Knew Before Earning an MBA

illustration of a miniature woman on a man's shoulder whispering advice in a man's ear

The benefits of earning an MBA are hard to argue with. Whether you’re looking to advance your career in business, pivot your professional direction, or even start your own company, an MBA is one of the best ways to gain all the skills necessary to succeed. An MBA program will build upon your current foundation of knowledge to refine the crucial marketing, financial management, entrepreneurship, operations management, communications, and leadership skills needed for navigating management-level business careers.

Like anything, however, there’s more to the story. Even if you’ve decided that an MBA is right for you, you can benefit from learning how to make the most of your experience. To help you get a better understanding of this degree, we talked to professionals with MBAs to find out more about what you can expect. Covering everything from enrollment to graduation, here is what these experts wished they had known before earning an MBA.

6 Tips for earning an MBA

Earning an MBA is a big investment, so it’s important to ensure the experience pays off. Take it from those who’ve done it before. Consider this first-hand advice on earning your MBA.

1. Previous business experience is a plus

If you’re worried that it’s been too long since you were a student, you may be better off than you think. According to data collected by U.S. News and World Report, most MBA applicants have around 4 years of previous work experience.1 In fact, many schools may require students to have a substantial amount of relevant work experience before applying. Having a professional background—even if it is only a few years—typically shows that you have the maturity to thrive in an MBA program and can apply lessons from your education more easily to the business world.

While jumping straight into earning an MBA after completing a Bachelor’s degree is always an option, it’s worth thinking twice about. Jonathan Alonso, CEO of Yellow Jack Media, says he would have rather spent more time in the workforce before earning his MBA.

“Most of my classmates were older professionals with established careers,” Alonso says. Without work experience, Alonso says it’s possible for employers to think you’re overqualified or not interested in typical early-career roles. This can be overcome, but it can be a tricky conversation to navigate.

Christine Cooper, head of marketing for KNB Communications, agrees that having applicable work experience can make all the difference both in and after your MBA program.

“If at all possible, try to go into your Master's program with some work experience. Otherwise, try working part-time or acquiring an internship while taking your MBA courses,” she says. “I found that being able to apply the theories to real-world situations really helped me to ask the right questions and retain the information that was most important.”

2. Rank isn’t everything

One way to choose an MBA program is by referring to MBA rankings. A handful of publications release their picks for the top MBA business schools every year. While this can be a great place to start, it is certainly not the only thing to consider—and after a certain point, there are diminishing returns for pursuing prestige.

To find the right MBA program for you, think about what you want most from your educational experience. While some rankings may rely most on the salaries of graduates, you may be more concerned with networking opportunities. To get the full picture, consider everything that goes into a successful experience for you. What are the faculty like? How is the curriculum structured? What will tuition cost? Can I fit this program into my work life? Taking a comprehensive inventory of your needs and goals is a smart way to start setting your priorities for your search. 

3. Knowing your goals beforehand is a must

Knowing what you want after an MBA program will help you focus your time and energy better while you’re in it. If you want an MBA because you think it’s an immediate ticket to becoming a top earner, you may want to reconsider. While an MBA can certainly increase your salary potential, it’s more important to understand what skills you want to gain and how you intend to apply them in the real world. 

“You have to know exactly what you want out of the MBA program before you get enrolled,” says Chris Brenchley, co-founder and CEO of Surehand.

“In fact,” he says, “this will be one of the main questions that your admission officers will ask. Unlike an undergraduate degree, an MBA is where you have to be certain about your future or at least have a rough roadmap.”

4. Networking is worth your time

While you may want to simply dive into your textbooks and assignments, earning an MBA isn’t all about homework. With well-connected business professors and a class full of ambitious business students, this is the perfect opportunity to network. Cyrus Vanover, founder of the Frugal Budgeter, even argues it’s an opportunity you can’t afford to pass up on.

“The connections you make can help you later in life when it comes to landing work. Because of this, you definitely want to take the time to get to know your classmates and make sure they know and remember you,” he says.

5. There are no guarantees

While recruiters may be impressed with an MBA from a top tier school, it’s the skills you gain from your program that will help you earn the dream job. Many of the MBAs we talked to agreed that it's not the diploma you get, but the hard work and experience you earn that will truly set you apart in the job market.

“Having an MBA isn't a silver bullet for getting your dream job. Employers want to know what you can practically do for them, not that you have a piece of paper with a grade on it,” says Gareth Richards, CEO of Help With My Visa!.

6. You get out what you put in

It’s no secret that earning your MBA will be hard work. But, if you are willing to put in the time, late-night study sessions, and maybe a few too many double-shot espressos, it's bound to pay off. Vinay Amin, CEO of Eu Natural, recalls learning just how dedicated she had to be when earning her MBA.

“I discovered that multi-tasking gets you nowhere. As an undergraduate, I multi-tasked all the time. Jumping between assignments and projects won't cut it as an MBA student. The assignments demand your full and undivided attention,” she says.

However, as any MBA student can attest, it’s also important to anticipate taking time for yourself. It may seem like the best thing to just power through all of your responsibilities, but if you don’t learn to take care of yourself, you won’t be as successful in or after your MBA program. Terry McDougall, founder of her own executive coaching services, offers what she learned from her own experience.

“The advice that I have for incoming MBA students is to take care of themselves physically and mentally. Get enough sleep, eat well, hydrate and exercise. It's a good habit to get into at school because the stress doesn't stop when you get into the workplace. It only accelerates and you won't be able to sustain success unless you can care for yourself,” she says.

Move forward with an MBA

Earning an MBA may be tough at times, but if you know what you want and are willing to work hard, it’s an investment that can pay off for the rest of your career. As you evaluate your options and take inventory of your goals, keep in mind what these professionals learned in their experiences. Soon enough you’ll be looking back and offering your own advice.

Now that you’re equipped with some expert insight about earning an MBA, you’re ready to start researching MBA programs. Learn more about what to look for in our article, “6 Things You Should Know About the Rasmussen College MBA Program.”

1US News and World Report, US News Data: A Portrait of the Typical MBA Student, [accessed August 2020]

Hannah Meinke

Hannah Meinke is a writer at Collegis Education. She enjoys helping people discover their purpose and passion by crafting education and career-related content on behalf of Rasmussen College.

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