Peter Regan teaching
MBA Math at Tuck
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
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.