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Peter Regan teaching MBA Math at Tuck

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After You Get In, Get Ready

"Let's have a show of hands to give everyone a sense of how much you have done over the summer to prepare for the quantitative demands of your MBA program."

"Minimal...." More than half the hands go up.

"Moderate...." A third of the hands.

"Extensive...." Just a few hands.

The scene is the first morning of math camp in late August each of the past six years at a top-notch MBA program. Time is short, with orientation in one week and classes in two. Standing at the bottom of the amphitheater classroom, I look out at 70 students invited to attend "math camp" based on some aspect of their background. Undergraduate major or GPA, maybe their GMAT, perhaps their recent non-analytical professional responsibilities. Or simply because they have been out of school a long time.

I use the show of hands as an ice-breaker so that the students in the minimal and moderate groups do not feel alone. The room is full of people in the same situation. ďPredicamentĒ is more accurate, knowing as I do the limits on what can be accomplished in one week and the rigors of the first-year core curriculum. My focus is to move forward from where we are and use the coming week to improve each studentís math and spreadsheet skills as much as possible.

This is not the generic math I saw recently when I browsed for the first time through a GMAT preparation book. Thatís about getting in; this is about getting ready. We work on financial math topics like time value of money, annuities, bonds, and net present value. Microeconomics topics like marginal analysis, cost curves, supply and demand. Statistics topics like basic summary statistics, correlation, stock portfolios, and normal distributions. And spreadsheets, spreadsheets, spreadsheets, all week long.

The students are bright and hardworking. They spend more than half the time working specific problems on their own, with second-year student teaching assistants nearby to help them along. And each year I feel great that they are able to absorb so much information in so short a time. Inevitably, however, students become saturated. Each afternoon it begins, earlier for some students than others. That glazed look. The deep breaths. The visceral sense, which was only abstract knowledge earlier in the summer, that this is going to be tough. And relentlessly so.

I am always pleased to guide students through an intense week, to see the beginning of friendships among the students that last throughout and beyond their MBA experience. Yet each year I wonder why students don't protect their immense MBA investment of time and money by arriving on campus better prepared. Why expose yourself to the risks of struggling through the mechanics of financial math when your professor is challenging you to wrestle with business issues that presume a solid basic financial math foundation? And why let your relatively weak grasp of analytical basics or spreadsheet mechanics force you to allocate extra study time to quantitative courses so that you blow off the fascinating (but qualitative) case preparation in your strategy course, praying that you wonít get cold called?

Students devote an enormous amount of time and energy preparing for the GMAT and applying to schools. And you are right to be proud of your hard-earned acceptance letters. But I urge you, especially those of you who have reason to believe that your math and spreadsheet foundation is relatively weak, to use the time between when your get in and when you arrive on campus to build a stronger math foundation. Twenty to forty hours should make a huge difference. Many students do exactly that. But too many others do not. Math and spreadsheets are not particularly fun. And summer offers many enjoyable alternatives. But, if you start early and pace yourselves, you should be able to spread out your preparation.

With the online version of my MBA math course, I have taken the initial steps on what I hope will be a long journey, coordinating a broad community effort to develop a first-rate pre-enrollment MBA math skills resource. Feedback from this past summerís introductory release was enthusiastic. Students around the world worked through the lessons before converging on MBA campuses in the US and Europe. Some reinforced their summer work with their schoolís math camps; others went straight into first year classes.

My goal is to present relevant material in an effective, time-efficient manner. To focus on the basics and the material you are likely to encounter first in each quantitative area of your MBA curriculum, knowing that once you get a starting boost for the early material, your confidence and skills will grow and allow you to handle what comes later. And a firm analytical foundation will allow you to conserve study time for the more qualitative courses that are such a crucial aspect of the MBA experience.

I recognize that MBA programs are different, and I welcome input from current students and graduates on what they would like to see in a pre-enrollment MBA math skills resource.

Peter Regan teaches decision science courses at Dartmouthís Tuck School and Dukeís Fuqua School. He also teaches pre-term quantitative skills courses at Tuck and Cornellís Johnson School. He created the MBA Math self-paced, online pre-MBA quantitative skills course covering finance, accounting, economics, statistics, and spreadsheets.

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