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Peter Regan teaching MBA Math at Tuck

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Pre-MBA Quant Dilemma: To Prepare Or Not To Prepare

“To prepare or not to prepare, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous quant courses or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by preparing surmount them.”

Thus I (tongue in cheek) imagine a pacing Hamlet, top MBA acceptance letter in hand. Despite their various unique brand positions and program structures, top MBA programs all must teach the quantitative basics of finance, accounting, economics, and statistics.
Drawn from years of MBA quantitative skills teaching, the following themes will help incoming MBA students determine their preparation needs.

1. Getting in is the First Foothill, Not the Mountain

Students are understandably proud of their acceptance letters, coming at the end of a long and grueling application process. But don't let that pride blind you to your preparation needs. Your acceptance does not mean that you won't struggle with the quantitative demands of the first-year curriculum. Everyone struggles with the first-year curriculum; that's the whole point of getting an MBA. The three-part question for each student is: How much of that struggle will be in the quantitative area? How will you respond to struggling? What are you willing and able to do to prepare yourself before arriving on campus?

2. Aptitude is not Achievement

People who do well on the GMAT have the ability to learn the MBA material. But it does not necessarily mean that they know much or even anything about finance, accounting, economics, statistics, or spreadsheets.

3. Protect Your Investment by Arriving Prepared

"What were they thinking?" is what crosses my mind when I talk with faculty colleagues about students in the midst of fall-term meltdowns who did little or no advance preparation before arriving on campus. It's one thing to pay $100K+ for the privilege of being put through the wringer at b-school, building skills, experiences, and a network to accelerate and sustain your career. But to experience the first-year of your MBA in a state of intellectual and emotional freefall from the outset due to a lack of adequate preparation seems so unnecessary.

4. Know Thyself: Confidence is King

The students who have the roughest time with the first-year MBA curriculum are not necessarily those with the least proficiency. The ones who struggle most are those who lose their self-confidence. Self-confidence, once shattered, is extremely difficult to regain. I often talk with students who are being raked over the coals, working to all hours of the night, over and over, but they have a smile on their face and a jump to their step. "That's what I'm here for," they'll say. They've still got their self-confidence. They're working hard, bumping up against their limitations, but moving forward, learning and growing. Other students, with similar proficiency (or lack thereof), are in a tangibly different space, sick with fear, uncertainty, and doubt. People respond in different ways to the experience of being in the middle or the bottom of the pack for certain subjects. Maintaining your self-confidence is a key success factor in business school. Know your own temperament and prepare accordingly.

5. Summer Before B-School is Chaotic

The best-laid plans of summer preparation can be swept away by the chaos of transitioning from work, taking that well-deserved vacation, and moving to a new place. Coupled with the afterglow of invincibility from winning the admissions lottery, the summer frenzy is a frequent reason for arriving on campus less prepared than planned.

6. "Knowing About" is not "Knowing How"

First-year MBA quant courses require students to learn how to crank out answers correctly. Knowing about finance, accounting, economics, statistics, or spreadsheets in a conversational sense is not the same as knowing how to solve problems. Knowing about business will help with some aspects of business school--understanding cases, considering strategies, making connections in class discussions--but much of the first-year curriculum consists of computing correct numerical answers rather than answering essay questions.

7. Bankers, Engineers, and CPAs, Oh My!

Not everyone needs to do quantitative preparation before their first year. Many students, perhaps even most, have sufficient quantitative experience in their academic and professional background to start business school and learn on the way. But those who don't should keep in mind that they'll be sitting down in finance classes with bankers and in accounting classes with CPAs. Professors have to manage a serious tension between supporting those students with limited experience and pushing those with significant expertise. Make sure that you clarify expectations with your MBA program office as the start of your program approaches so that you can plan and prepare accordingly.

8. (Limited) Time is of the Essence

The first-year MBA experience is one big time-management challenge. Appropriate quantitative preparation is important not because your quant courses are the most important. They are not; they are parts of an integrated whole. But quant courses often are the most time-consuming. Because your quant courses have such tangible deliverables, lack of preparation will suck time away from your other classes. Even if you are most interested in business strategy, marketing, or other relatively less quantitative areas, appropriate quantitative preparation is warranted to ensure that you are not constantly stealing time from your non-quant courses to produce results in your quant courses. Top schools have excellent remedial help options such as office hours, teaching assistant sessions, and second-year tutors. But who has the time? As busy as you feel in your pre-MBA work life or transitioning to school over the summer, it is almost certain that you will be blown away by the lack of discretionary time (and sleep) in the MBA first year.

9. Quant Struggles are Emotional

Quantitative courses are highly rational, right? So difficulties in quant courses must just be a matter of figuring out how to solve problems correctly and moving through the material. But that is often not my experience working with students. Because of the self-confidence, high-stakes, and time-pressure issues mentioned above, MBA student academic breakdowns can be highly emotional. Regaining one's bearings in the midst of an academic meltdown can be very tricky. Fortunately, schools have lots of resources to help. But an ounce of prevention would be better than that pound of cure.

I’ll close with a metaphor from one of my students: “Your first semester of business school is like living abroad in a foreign country. You should study the language as much as you can before you leave, but you can’t become fluent until you get there and have to live it.” Bon voyage!

Peter Regan teaches decision science courses at Dartmouth’s Tuck School and Duke’s Fuqua School. He also teaches pre-term quantitative skills courses at Tuck and Cornell’s 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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