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B-School Prep: Get Ahead of the Class

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Okay, so now you're in. If you think you can kick back and relax until the first day of class, you'll find yourself behind the curve. Here's what to know before you go.

Last April, after months of indecision, Jon Daves finally decided to head back to school for an MBA. Plotting out his summer was easy by comparison-he quit his job and hit the road. Daves, who was then living in Los Angeles, visited family in Georgia then headed back west for some volunteer work at a charter school before entering Stanford's Graduate School of Business this fall.

"A lot of people [spent] the summer traveling," he says. "People realize this is probably the last time they will have a chance to take time off without it looking poorly on their records." He knows next summer will probably mean long internship hours, and in two years the work world will beckon again. "This," Daves says, "[was] basically the last hurrah."

But the summer wasn't all fun: Daves also took the time to read over his undergraduate economics textbooks and considered taking a math or statistics course for a quick refresher. "I don't want to be starting too far behind people," he says.

He's not alone. Thousands of rising business school students-many at the bidding of the schools they will be attending-now use the weeks leading up to the first day of class to prepare for academic life. Most incoming business school students haven't attended a lecture or sharpened a pencil in about five years, so a return to a life divided into class periods can mean more than culture shock.

Camp MBA

Jenn Johnston graduated from Georgetown's McDonough School of Business in May, and she remembers her alma mater's statistics "boot camp" fondly. It's a common practice now: The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, for example, offers a month-long preterm of courses ranging from statistics to accounting to history. Though they are only the appetizers before the main course, preterms are there for a reason: to prepare students for the busy pace of graduate-school life quickly and efficiently. The more you can do to help yourself before the first day of class, the better.

Some students, particularly those who come from nonbusiness backgrounds, use preterms to catch up. Others hope to place out of core courses. Johnston was in the former camp. "It ended up helping a lot," she said, both because the New York advertising agency vet wanted a stronger background in finance classes and because the shift to classroom life was a dramatic change from her recent past. "When you start going to business school," she says, "it's a lot like learning five different languages at once."

Many B-schools require you to take calculus and statistics before you arrive. But even if your school doesn't demand it, familiarity with these subjects can give you a head start. If you're not quite ready for calculus, college-level algebra is the bare minimum, suggests Carrie Radmall, admissions and scholarships specialist at the University of Utah's David Eccles School of Business.

On top of that, your computer literacy should go beyond the latest version of Microsoft Word. Microsoft Excel is the de facto standard for financial modeling, and PowerPoint is essential for developing dynamic electronic presentations. E-mail and Internet skills are absolute musts. Without them, "You'll struggle right away," says Radmall.

The Write Stuff

Rice University adds an interesting wrinkle to its MBA program, emphasizing communications skills in its required first-year classes. When Gil Whitaker came on as dean in 1997, he surveyed Houston-area corporations to get their impressions of the MBAs they were hiring. Their response: Though graduates are generally well-prepared with regard to finance and management, their communications skills are too often below par.

"I'm not really sure why it is," admits Deborah Barrett, instructor and director of MBA communications at Jones. Barrett spent more than five years working with executives at a top management consulting firm before returning to academic life: "I spent most of my time working on communication. They all needed help with speech preparation and how to present. They also needed some help with writing."

So Rice added a communications class to its preterm course listings, during which new students are graded on their speaking, writing, and presentation skills-even having their presentations recorded on video. They then work on improving their scores during a year of required coursework and projects that focus on individual and group-oriented skills that their former jobs might not have encouraged.

Business-school students "have experience," Barrett says, "but many of them have been working in a technical field. They don't do much writing, and if they do, it's not the kind of writing they need to do as a manager."

Radmall agrees. "If someone comes to me who has a year to get ready," says the Utah administrator, "I may suggest they have time to take a business writing class. There's some terminology [they should] be familiar with." On top of getting the jargon down, Barrett says, managers must be able to present information to coworkers who might not have similar technical or academic backgrounds.

"The basic skills people need in communications remain the same," says Barrett-writing, public speaking, and presenting. "That hasn't changed since Aristotle." But unlike more quantitative skills that can be gleaned right from books, communications skills are best learned with help. "It can be practiced," she says, "but it needs to be coached. You really need feedback." Many organizations, schools, and even some employers offer short seminars in writing and speaking that students might want to consider, Barrett says.

All Work and No Play

Just remember that there's more to business school than studying. Test scores, group projects, and job interviews are just part of the package. For many, starting school again means finding entirely new friends, haunts, and means of getting around town. And then there's the looming-and often overwhelming-question of what to do with the rest of your life.

Some schools want students to use their business school years as a time of exploration. "I remember sitting there the first week of school," Johnston says, "and they're talking to us about summer internships and employment after graduation." She waited until graduation to test the job market before deciding to work instead on a business plan developed with classmates. At Utah, which prefers students to have a pretty clear idea of their future upon arrival, that approach might not have gone over so well.

"That's part of the application process," says Eccles' Radmall. "We ask them to respond to several essay questions, and that's one of them. [Clarifying those goals] helps them to be focused and motivated; it makes them, really, a better student." To get the most out of school, that's something each student will need to gauge not only in terms of themselves but also in assessing their programs.

Too much to handle? "The first semester can be a little daunting," says Daves, who got the dirt from friends and another Stanford student-his older brother. "You're trying to acclimate yourself to a new environment with new people. That's something I'll need to be aware of. [But] once you get into an upper-level school, all of the people have the intelligence to pass a course. It's not a matter of intelligence. It's more about time management."

That's why Johnston doesn't put much of a premium on extensive prearrival networking. Instead, she made sure to show up refreshed, academically prepared, and with her living arrangements squared away. In big cities, the latter task might be the hardest. "You've got two years," she says. "You're going to have plenty of time to network. Take some time for yourself and just concentrate on what you need to prepare yourself for school. That's what's really important."
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