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Gearing Up for B-School: Tips for New MBA Students

MBA studentsIncoming MBA students are likely experiencing a case of back to school-itis right about now. The symptoms are undeniable -- sweaty palms, that twinge in your stomach, and a brain in overdrive. Will I pass my classes? Will my group members do their share? Will I find a job? To get past the butterflies, you just have to do a little prep work. Here's what you can do to make sure you get the most out of business school from the very start:

Get a head start on your studies

1. Face reality

Many people believe that getting into a top business school is the hard part. But the programs are rigorous, and they can be a shock to those who haven't been in school for nearly a decade. Ken Johnson, an author in Milton, Fla., who graduated from Saint Leo University's MBA program in 2010, says he still remembers having to calculate how many bags of mixed fertilizer a farmer had to use while accounting for maximizing plant needs and affording minimal cost. He spent about 12 hours studying for each class and took eight to 12 pages of notes per class per week. "You will have no life and minimal sleep," says Johnson. "Imagine your toughest semester in college and multiply it by a factor of six for the next two years." In other words, the hard part is only just beginning.

2. Rest up

In light of the fact that the next two years are going to be filled with endless hours of work, sweat, and maybe even some tears, you should find time to take it easy. "Think about the bigger picture and what you want to do," says Arar Han, co-CEO of Alert1 in Williamsport, Penn. and a 2009 graduate of Stanford Graduate School of Business. "Recommit yourself to those goals." You can give thought to this while lounging at the beach on a Sunday afternoon or over dinner with friends. Let yourself relax, at least a little.

3. Take a refresher course

Okay, you wouldn't be an MBA student if you were all play and no work. In between those respites, you should reacquaint yourself with the material you'll be confronting at business school. The academic rigor is fierce, and most MBA programs are quant heavy. Many b-schools offer refresher courses during orientation, and you should take advantage of them. At Virginia Tech, for example, students can take MBA Math, a series of online courses with practice exercises that include net present value equations and accounting balance sheets. These help set the foundation for the rest of your studies, says Laura Vinci, who works in PR in New York and is a 2013 Virginia Tech MBA graduate.

4. Study the syllabi

By now, you should know what your schedule is going to look like. So, try to get a head start on assignments, suggests James Kindley, MBA program director at the College of Charleston's one-year global immersion aimed at non-traditional business students. "Get books and cases as early as possible and get familiar with them," he adds. "Be sure of basic computer skills -- Excel, Word, PowerPoint." If you'll be traveling abroad for any courses, says Kindley, then learn about the country, its government, economy, and key businesses.

5. Learn the lingo

MBAs, like all professionals, have their own language, and now is the time for you to learn it. For starters, familiarize yourself with organizational issues, says Mark A. Clark, associate professor and faculty director of the full-time MBA program at American University's Kogod School of Business. "To me this means acquainting yourself with the world, your experience, what's reported in the business press (for example, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times), academic journal articles, organizational histories," he adds. Then, think about the greater context of what you're learning and how it might apply to your current and future work.

Focus on your career

1. Find yourself

Self-assessment is the first step in determining exactly what you want to do after graduation. There are online tests that can give you a sense of your strengths, weaknesses, and where you might fit in best. Most business schools require students do this ahead of the program. You can supplement this self-assessment with research on jobs that might interest you. "All entering students should go to the university library or their local library and do a basic search on topics of interest," says Tim Swenson, provost and dean of the Graduate School at Sullivan University. "The search abilities have expanded over the past few years and their ability to search topics is critical to their success."

2. Consider specialties

As you decide what role you want to pursue post-graduation, you should figure out what you want to specialize in -- finance, marketing, accounting, etc. You might also consider earning certificates in related areas. "Employers view certification in a very favorable light," adds Swenson. "They serve as indicators that potential employees have the knowledge and skill sets promoted in the position descriptions and on the applicant's resume."

3. Start networking

Try to meet your classmates, either virtually or in person. They will be your teammates at school, and many of them might have worked in the industry you're now pursuing. They could be your future business partner, not to mention best friend. You can check groups on social media, forums, or the school's directory to find them. There, you'll also find MBA alumni from your school, who can talk to you about your career options. Consider setting up informational meetings that will allow you to learn what a day in the life of someone doing the job you covet is really like.

In the end, it's up to you to maximize your business school experience. "You are the president and CEO of You, Inc.," says Jill Klein, assistant dean of Digital Initiatives and New Programs at Kogod. "Engage in the classroom and within the school to find your passion and your place." Then, you won't have to worry so much. Things -- even business school and your career -- have a funny way of working themselves out when you do your homework.