You've gotten into the perfect MBA program... Now what?
This brief guide distills the best available wisdom about maximizing your time as an Admit and First Year. Its lessons are drawn from hundreds of interviews with successful grads, plus the personal experiences of its authors, who attended Stanford and Kellogg.
If you intend to get the most from your MBA investment (and you do, right?), then begin today by buying and reading this book.
If you need anything going into an MBA program it's intentionality. Between classes, recruiting, and a heavy social life your time WILL be limited. MBA Coffee Chats helps you be deliberate in your short time at business school. If you're fortunate enough to get into a top MBA program, then making the most out of that time can pay dividends for the rest of your life and MBA Coffee Chats shows you how you can make that happen.
— Mark, theveteranpro.com
I bought the book and can't recommend it highly enough. I read it at the start of my first quarter and have been revisiting portions periodically. A great investment to make the most out of your time in school.
— M7 student
This is awesome... and so helpful for us on the other side about to start our MBA. Most things are really about getting into the MBA and not once you are in it. I’m a big fan.
— Admit starting 2021
I absolutely loved the book! I’ll read it several times...to make sure I really internalize and implement the learnings.
— Admit starting 2021
If you're a recent MBA admit, this is a must-read. It reads like advice from an older sibling: it's honest, practical, and personal. Coffee chats to learn what the MBA "is actually like" are a universal experience among prospective MBAs, and this will help you make the most of your chats by blazing through the basics. I particularly enjoyed the lessons that come from self-reflection by the authors. For instance, they note that choosing the activities you participate in will also determine the folks you interact with most (e.g., playing basketball will introduce you to lots of American dudes). ... My only regret is this book didn't exist before I started my own MBA program!
— 2019 grad
Smooth read, useful advice.
— Admit starting 2021
PART 1: THE CORE EXPERIENCE
Chapter 1: What are the classes and academics like?
Chapter 2: How can I remember everything important?
Chapter 3: What’s the best thing you did in school?
Chapter 4: What does a week look like?
PART 3: THE TACTICAL STUFF
Chapter 8: Should I get a club leadership role?
Chapter 9: When should I quit my pre-MBA job?
Chapter 10: How do I find a pre-MBA internship (if I want one)?
Chapter 11: How can I figure out what I want to do?
Chapter 12: Should I start a business?
PART 2: THE TOP 3 CONCERNS
Chapter 5: How can I maintain a strong relationship with my partner?
Chapter 6: How should I prioritize my time?
Chapter 7: How can I grow and get better?
PART 4: THE META LAYER
CHAPTER 13. Miscellaneous tips
CHAPTER 14. What to ask and how to ask it
CHAPTER 15. How to find people to chat with
Who we are and why we wrote this book
We're Bob Manfreda and Adam Putterman, two MBA grads from Kellogg and Stanford. After talking with a bunch of prospective and current students, we started writing about our experiences on Reddit. Some of our posts generated a lot of comments, questions, and thoughts. We wrote this book to preserve and share the very best insights from both ourselves and others.
And why the name of MBA Coffee Chats? Well, once we got into school, we realized how little we actually knew about grad school (yea, kind of backwards). We set up phone calls and coffee chats to learn more. These informal sessions were amazing and full of information. Eventually, we started giving the advice ourselves, also over coffee :)
Our advice is not about getting into school. There's loads of already stuff out there about the admissions process. But we think there is too little advice about what to do once you get in, and about maximizing the experience itself.
Answers to common questions are painfully sparse. How can I prepare for my MBA? What can I do to make the most of it? Is there anything you regret? People spend countless hours trying to answer these questions. It’s a mess.
It’s hard because no answer is always right. Everyone is different, with different goals. Because of this, we focus on MBA advice and tips that suggest ‘how to’ do things. We try to avoid telling anyone ‘what to do’. This provides everybody the tools and perspectives needed to make the right call for themselves.
We want you to love your MBA experience. Why? For starters, we loved ours in large part because we received a lot of help. It feels good to pay it forward. Second, we like working together and learning new skills. Running this site will be an awesome learning experience for us. Third, we were writing this content to friends anyway. Hopefully it can help more people now.
Articles and resources
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HOW TO CHOOSE AN MBA PROGRAM WITH 3 COUNTER-INTUITIVE QUESTIONS
One of the most frequent questions we get from friends is: Should I go to school X or school Y?
This is often followed by questions like: Who is a great fit at school X? What do you love the most about school X? Why did you pick school X?
All of these questions are implicitly asking: What school will I love the most?
This approach isn’t bad and will generate good soundbites, but we focused on a different approach. Instead of finding the perfect fit, we found and eliminated the places that fit us the least.
Ask: Who is not a great fit at school X? What do you not like about school X? Which of your friends are not happy at school X?
This does 2 things.
First, it (tries to) avoid cognitive biases. Students are investing a lot of time and money into their program. They want to believe they made the right decision and that’s what you’ll most often hear. You start hearing the same one-liners over and over unless you explicitly ask otherwise.
Second, we find it better identifies real differences. MBA programs are more similar than not. Almost all have great clubs, high achievers, social scenes, case studies, recruiting resources, experiential learning, etc. If schools share 85% of their positive traits, then asking students about what is awesome frequently results in overlapping answers. Top MBA programs share many of the great reasons to attend. It’s like that famous quote: Every happy family is happy in the same way; every unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way. We want to find out what each school’s “unhappy way” might be.
Most schools will provide a lot that you love. Some have a few things you might not. Pick the school that you think has the lowest chance of you hating it :)
Here’s our take on the schools we went to:
Kellogg -> Don’t go here if working in teams makes you crazy. You will be on a team project for 90% of your assignments.
Stanford -> Don’t go here if an engaged classroom is important to you. It’s not uncommon for people to come to class late, unprepared and uninterested.
UPDATE: We've also crowd sourced a list of reasons not to go to 16 other schools here.
MBA FIT: REASONS TO SAY NO TO SCHOOLS
Last week we posted about the idea of figuring out who is not a good fit for a school. There was a lot of interest in a list of reasons for other schools.
So we did that! We texted 25 of our friends from different schools and built a crowd-sourced list of reasons not to go to their school. Reasons why you might not be a good fit. We then posted to Reddit and got a few more schools from the community. Hopefully this is particularly helpful for those of you deciding between schools or figuring out where to apply.
First, let us be clear. These are all GREAT schools with lots of tremendous reasons to attend. In fact, most of them share the same reasons, including great clubs, recruiting opportunities, leadership development, learning resources, and more. But that overlap is why asking "who should go to this school" isn't as effective. If you haven't yet, check out our last post explaining our approach.
In short, we believe that asking students why not to go to a school is a better tool for measuring fit relative to other business schools.
We have a pretty good list, but we’re missing a lot of great schools. If yours is missing, we would love to hear from you through this anonymous survey.
Obviously this is completely subjective and reflective of individual experiences. However, they are direct quotes from recent students. We'll let you decide what to believe, and what to challenge.
Don’t go to ANDERSON if…
...you want to go out multiple times per week. Los Angeles is a fun place, but drinks are not cheap and getting around the city can be quite a pain with traffic (Uber’s will add up). Many students do go out in Santa Monica or West Hollywood frequently, but bar options on campus or in the neighborhoods where most MBA students live are not great.
...you don’t plan on staying in California. The Anderson network is great, but the vast majority live on the west coast… many swear they won’t stay and then the sunshine, ocean, and beautiful days keeps you here forever.
...you want a large class. Anderson has only 360 students and it’s fairly close knit. We have many group projects, a core curriculum in sections, learning teams, and a capstone research project that forces you to get to know almost the whole class. We do segment by interest areas in clubs, but the Anderson world is small.
Don’t go to BOOTH if…
...you like structure and consistent cohort activities in your business school experience. Chicago Booth throws structure out the door after Q1.
...you don’t have some idea of the types of classes you want to take. Booth’s flexible curriculum can be overwhelming if you’re not sure where you want to focus
...if you can’t deal with cold, winter months off the beautiful coast of Lake Michigan.
...if you want one set group of friends in your MBA experience. Since cohorts don’t have the same weight at Booth as they do at other business schools, you will need to make your friends through recruiting, class, RandomWalk, etc.
Don’t go to COLUMBIA if…
...you’re looking to know all of your classmates. With such a large class and infinite social options throughout NYC, cliques/groups form and diverge. Not to mention that a decent portion of the student body lived in New York prior to school and devotes their social lives to existing friends.
...Don’t go here (yet) if state-of-the-art facilities are your make-or-break (though it shouldn’t be). Uris Hall was built in the 60s and while it’s functional, there is a reason a new campus is being built. Class sizes have swelled so study space can be tough to come by (especially in spring term when ~250 January term students show up) and classrooms tend to have a small window or two at best. It doesn’t harm your learning, but sometimes you wonder why you’re paying so much to sit at a desk that still has an Ethernet jack (yes, we have wifi).
Don’t go to CORNELL if...
...you want a two-year vacation from the working world. Johnson students have a bit of a chip on their shoulder mentality. Students have and choose to work hard (academically, recruiting, socially).
…you want to travel a ton or eat amazing food. Ithaca is a small town that punches above its weight culturally, but there are limited options for travel and food.
...Don’t go here if you want a program organized/managed by administration. Recruiting, professional development, feedback processes, and clubs are all run by second years with minimal guidance and structure from the broader school administration. However, this also means that you can build, create, or change anything that you might want.
...Don’t go here if you don’t have an outdoorsy or hippy streak. You can totally get by, but the best/weirdest parts of Ithaca are definitely hippy and outdoorsy things.
Don't go to DARDEN if...
...unfortunately, Darden students couldn’t respond due to the crazy amount of homework.
...joking. If you went to Darden and have real thoughts, we’d love to hear them!
Don’t go to FUQUA if…
...you want to be an entrepreneur. It’s possible, but I don't think our curriculum or club structure is designed for that as well as other schools. For example, faculty are more academic than practitioners.
Don’t go to HARVARD if...
...ok, so most people would go here if they can but…
...Don’t go here if you don’t want to do lots of reading or engage in the classroom - it’s embarrassing and very obvious if you haven’t prepared, and ultimately this is the main value prop of HBS anyway. If you want to start a company, there are resources, but you’ll still have to put some effort into class (less if you come from a finance background and can breeze through those classes) and attendance is required - so expect to have to make more trade offs socially.
...Don’t go here if you want to walk away feeling like you gained specific quantitative skill sets - this is very reading heavy and there are discussion questions with every case, but fewer problem sets or models to turn in (may have to build some as prep work but is more what you make of it as opposed to part of core learning objectives).
...Don’t go here if you want to have control over your schedule the first year (8am - 2:30pm generally) your calendar is basically populated each week and because of the way sections are set up, they can do this without worrying about conflicts.
Don’t go to HAAS if...
…you want a structured program with lots of school resources. Haas is a very student led/driven school. If you want steady programming or hand holding, you won't get it there. We seem to have less funding for clubs because we’re public. We have to pay to join just about every club.
Don't go to KELLEY if...
...you don’t care about the personal growth side of business school. There is heavy emphasis on understanding yourself, your skill set, and how your work with others. The program isn’t huge (<180 students per year) so it can be hard to hide from peers or faculty.
...you’re too uppity for a dive bar. It’s a typical Midwest college town, meaning great $2 specials, but nothing in the way of clubbing or high end nightlife.
Don’t go to KELLOGG if...
…working in teams makes you crazy. You will be on a team project for 90% of your assignments, even for things that would probably be easier done alone.
...if you’re seeking an academically rigorous experience. There are certainly interesting and difficult classes and content, but assignments and teamwork are often students’ last priority after recruiting, social events, and club activities.
...you want to have a big city experience - Evanston is a suburb 30 minute north of Chicago
...you don’t care about the soft stuff like personal growth. Probing about your personal goals and how you’re tracking toward them is a very regular convo topic, even with acquaintances
...you prioritize constructive debate. Commonly students avoid conflict or “let things go” rather than engage in more challenging and potentially uncomfortable discussions.
Don’t go to ROSS if...
...you hate football (and sports in general) and have no interest in tailgating. Every Saturday fall semester is a full day of football/drinking and then there’s basketball, hockey... You can definitely find folks who aren’t into this scene (I was able to!) but the majority definitely participates (esp. In football).
...you can’t handle the cold / snow. Most people walk 7-15 minutes to class and winter is a real thing in MI. The mentality you need is that with a puffy coat and boots and some beers, you will be fine.
...you only want case learning. Ross pioneered “action-based learning” and take that very seriously. This also means your last quarter of your first year is a 7-week consulting project with 5ish peers, so if you don’t LOVE group work you may want to go elsewhere.
...you want a big city life all the time. Detroit is 45 minutes away, and people do explore it, but the majority of the social scene is in Ann Arbor, which is much more of a college town. That being said, there are lots of fun things to do in and around Michigan. Lots of students take trips to the Upper Peninsula and head to Detroit for dinners, concerts, etc.
...you don’t want to take a core curriculum. You can wave out of some requirements (technically all, but no one does), but most of your first year is with your section of ~80 students taking the core classes. Great for bonding, not great if you want a lot of electives right from the very start.
....you want to have a ton of weekend trips, because of football in the fall (see above) and because Rossers generally seem to be more $$ conscious than other business schools, weekend travel is limited. Also there are only a couple “treks” planned by clubs
Don’t go to SLOAN if…
...the “touchy feely” soft skills are critical for you to build. Many classes have problem sets instead of cases that are more data driven, which tends to be different / new for a lot of people. Emphasis tends to be placed on those skills above softer skills or leadership development.
...you want a 100% social / party hard experience. Sloan is very diverse in the outcomes students seek out of their time. If you want the heavy party scene, it’s there, just not as big as other schools. If you want to spend time tinkering with your startup, plenty of people are doing that as well.
...you have a hard time working with diverse working styles. Sloan’s student population has many engineers / technologists, which tend to work differently in teams from consultant-style backgrounds
...you want a program organized/managed by administration. Recruiting, professional development, feedback processes, and clubs are all run by second years with minimal guidance and structure from the broader school administration. However, this also means that you can build, create, or change anything that you might want.
....you can’t deal with the weather. Boston isn’t as cold as Chicago, but the winter lasts a long time (October - end of April) with lots of grey sky and rain, which can be tough
Don’t go to STANFORD if…
...an engaged classroom is one of the most important factors to you. It’s not uncommon for people to come to class late, unprepared and uninterested.
...you roll your eyes, or worse, actively argue against the use of the word “privilege.” It’s going to come up a lot in and out of class, so you will get more out of the experience if you are willing and able to engage with the topic in a constructive way.
...you are looking to “major” or specialize - we all take the general management classes so you don’t have as many electives
...you are trying to “live in the city” and experience night life; we spend most of our time in Palo Alto and going into the city takes a lot of effort.
...you’re trying to save money or avoid a soul crushingly high debt balance post-school. Tuition is expensive like any other school, but so is everything else. Flights, housing, ubers (or parking tickets), food… Palo Alto is priced for Tim Cook, not students
...you don’t value a network with a high concentration in Silicon Valley’s unique brand(s) of entrepreneurship. I was surprised how much Stanford’s curriculum, faculty and even student population revolved around the Bay Area. Even avoiding classes about VC, I had to prepare at least one case a week about a tech start-up founded somewhere along the Cal Train, and something like 65% of my classmates stayed in SF after graduation
...you just made a massive investment in suits or other business clothing to impress people. You’ll be giving presentations in a t shirt within a week.
Don't go to TEPPER if...
...you compare every aspect of every US city you're in to New York, LA, etc. Pittsburgh isn't a Tier 1 city, but there are plenty of really great bars, restaurants and museums and they're all within 15-20 minutes of wherever you live. Don't complain that the pizza isn't up to NYC standards, the Asian food isn't as good as SF or the Mexican food isn't as good as most Texas cities...because of course it isn't but it's more than good enough.
...you don't want to learn any analytical software. Tepper cares a lot about quantitative skill and at bare minimum you'll have to learn some R for your required coursework. Other classes might use SPSS and similar tools.
Don’t go to TUCK if…
...you work super independently. Everything at Tuck requires collaboration - from class projects to extracurriculars.
...you want to do an internship DURING the semester (possible to do remote but much more difficult).
...you want to spend significant time with people outside of the MBA class / community. No one is really from Hanover - all of your friends will be other Tuckies (with the occasional med / grad student thrown in).
Don’t go to WHARTON if…
...you’re not ready for an academically rigorous experience (or if you don’t like or have a relatively strong background in quant fields - science, business, math, etc.). While there is grade non disclosure, the first semester is grueling particularly for those who don’t have a quantitative academic background.
...you hope your admissions application is the last application you ever fill out. As a very large school, there’s always competition for limited spots in social, extracurriculars, and academics.
...You’re not willing to ‘pay to play’. Wharton’s club and extracurricular fees are not part of our tuition or fees, so every time you want to join a class trip or take part in a cocktail tasting, expect that to come out of pocket - it adds up!
...You want a strong learning team experience. Because Wharton gives a lot of flexibility with core classes, the learning team experience can be rather hit or miss.
...You want a strong weekend campus culture. Wharton doesn’t have Friday classes, so many students end up travelling for the weekends - frequently this is with other Wharton students, so you still get that bonding, it just means that sometimes all your friends seem to be somewhere besides Center City.
...You want to roll out of bed to get to your first class. (Virtually all MBA students live in Center City Philly, which is a 1-2 mi walk from campus in West Philly. Get ready to get your steps in if you come to Wharton.
Don’t go to YALE if...
...you don’t care about “society.” The school’s “business & society” mission is real and permeates the culture and pedagogy, so if it’s not a focus for you, you might not be very happy here.
...you want only case-based classes. Although Yale does use some HBS-style cases, they also employ “raw” cases which are longer, more in-depth, and can be less discussion-focused.
BEST WAY TO PREPARE FOR MBA: 8 THINGS I WISH I DID
I was just talking with a friend who is heading off to business school this year. They had a bunch of questions and it was fun to share my experiences. We both got really excited about their next couple years.
It also got me a bit nostalgic. It’s an awesome couple of years. I’m pumped for all of you who have yet to go. One comment my friend made kind of stuck with me. Now that they’re in, they feel like they should be preparing, but aren’t really sure what to do. I know I felt the same way.
I spoke with a few old classmates and they agreed. One in particular got really excited about it. We started ripping off the things we wished we had known or done before school and ended up with a pretty solid list.
Here our thoughts about what to do once you’re into school and want to start preparing:
First things first. Do you have enough money?
No need to over-model this. Roughly sum assets and expected income. Be careful though - school-released “total cost of attendance” is very conservative. For example, many international trips cost > $3k. A lot of MBAs take 2-3 per year plus many weekend trips. Depending on where you fall, consider a healthy buffer of 10-20%.
Also, consider using loans instead of savings. Currently, post-school refinancing rates are as low as 2-3%. Many schools provide need-based aid based on assets not income. If you've saved, you might not get aid. All schools are different, but generally they include a % of your retirement funds (including 401k), home value, spousal income, and liquid savings. Speaking of spousal income, being married will likely lower your aid package. While single, you'll have fewer assets and less income during school. --> More aid.
Once you know if you have enough money, come up with a pre-school plan.
There are 3 broad options: quit and travel / relax, work until school, or get a pre-school internship.
Quit and travel / relax -> Most people encourage this. It’s nice, but can be boring if you don’t plan it right. Work until school -> Some people end up regretting this one. They felt rushed, unprepared, and exhausted. That said, it’s most likely the best financial option. Pre-school internship -> Our favorite. Find a cool company or role and ‘intern’ for them. It often provides some compensation, the chance to test your fit in a new space, and is great for your resume.
Research a few career paths you don't think you like or don't know much about.
A ton of MBAs are seeking a career "pivot". A lot of those "pivots" are somewhat fake. For example, big tech, consulting, and finance - gross oversimplifications aside - really aren't that different. Distinctions exist, certainly, but we focus on them too much.
Take this time to look at your school's employment report and find the paths where n < 10. For example, search funds and sales roles. Do some research, maybe have a coffee chat with someone. No need to over-do it, but challenge yourself to think outside the box. If you like the box, you can intentionally return to it confident it's the right choice for you, not just group think. And you might find an exciting new opportunity half your class isn't gunning for.
Read! Run! Climb!
Whatever your passion is, pick it back up. The next few years will be unique. As an adult (maybe?) with defined passions, it’s easy to find a group of like-minded individuals. Plus the school environment provides nearly unlimited resources. It's a special time.
For example, do you like sports? You'll once again have access to a gym and be able to regularly get 10 people to run up and down playing basketball. Like reading? Make a book club. Something else? You may have let these passions fade while pursuing work, but now it's time to lean back in.
Set up a super-simple note-taking or journaling system.
Be real with yourself. If you haven't kept notes in school before, don't aim for an encyclopedia. But you're about to drop some serious dough. You might as well solidify the knowledge.
For example: Write one thing down after every class session? Write a couple things after every quarter? Spend 30 minutes every month sharing key learnings with a friend? Write a blog? We don't care what, but do something. If you don't figure it out beforehand, it'll probably be at least four months before you do. No time for that once school starts.
Pick 3 things you definitely DON'T want to do.
All of our friends that loved and valued the MBA the most had 1 thing in common - they were very clear about what they were not interested in. We’re not saying that you should be closed off, but there are too many resources to be open to everything.
In our opinion, the best "no"s are to ongoing, long-term activities. Success in business school is often obtained by saying no. It frees up time, keeps you healthy, and forces focus. The list can and will change, so don't stress this. It's just a good exercise.
Pick 3 things you definitely DO want to do.
At least at first, we recommend focusing on short-term commitments. Unless you're really all-in on something, know that you'll start school wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. If you commit to something long-term, you'll probably be more Voldemort than Bambi by the time you're delivering that work.
Start a business? Explore a new career? Start a charity? Lead a club? Your wish list will inevitably change during the first few weeks. Once it reaches stasis, then commit. I know what you're thinking. No. Don't worry. There's plenty of leadership roles. You won't miss out. Some clubs even have five co-presidents. It’s a bit silly.
Do not spend time on math or accounting or other business-prep.
We’ll keep this one short because it’s opinionated and maybe not true for everyone. I distinctly remember freaking out about my math skills and basic accounting knowledge. That was dumb and I recommend avoiding that. If this is a weak spot for you, feel free to lean in a bit. But you definitely don't need to.
That’s what school is for. You’ll be shocked how quickly you will pick up these core skills. Even if you don’t, your peers will be incredibly helpful. Overall, it’s an opportunity cost thing - any of the other things on this list will serve you better than “practicing your excel skills.”
We were both really happy with our experience, but also had a few regrets or things we wish we had done. This list is a combination of things we are happy we did and wish we had done more of.