The first thing I did when I received my admission letter from HBS was tape it on the wall right behind my work desk. Initially, I joked that I needed the daily reminder that my admission was, in fact, “real” and that HBS hadn’t accidentally made some tragic mistake. I’ve since moved to Cambridge and recently finished my first semester, but I still keep that letter taped up on my wall. Despite now being one term in, I’ve found that I need to wake up every single morning and use that letter as positive affirmation to start my day. In the midst of the chaos which makes up most of the first few months of the business school experience, the symbolism of my admission letter taped up on my wall has served as a grounding tool and daily reminder of why I am here – and that is, quite simply, to grow into a leader who will make a difference in the world.
I had a lot of preconceptions of what the experience would be – and below have highlighted the 3 biggest lessons I’ve learned to date.
1) Imposter syndrome is real – but it’s also completely normal.
My daily need to see my admission letter probably tells you enough about what absurd degree of imposter syndrome I initially experienced. One of the first things I learned, however, was that I was most definitely not alone in this feeling. HBS uses the case method, meaning our classes are not lecture-based but rather are organized as an open dialogue around that day’s business case. The case method has since turned out to be my favorite part of the experience, but it initially was also one of the most daunting aspects of the curriculum. It’s a blessing to have the opportunity to hear diverse perspectives from my section-mates – each of whom have had successful but very unique and different life experiences. I found myself completely blown away by the brilliance I saw around me (this hasn’t changed…I still am!). Personally, I initially struggled commenting in class, due to a nagging feeling that nothing I had to offer was quite “good enough”. It wasn’t until I began to really get to know my classmates individually until I realized pretty much everyone felt the exact same way. I keep my admissions letter to remind myself that the seat I am filling is being filled by me for a reason. This simple change in mindset has helped me more comfortably express my viewpoint, regardless of how contrarian it sometimes is, and to now see my participation as a positive and necessary addition to our case discussions.
2) Business school is not a two-year vacation.
After 5+ years of 80-hour weeks spent in Investment Banking and Private Equity, I was looking forward to the “break” I kept being told business school would be. What I wish someone had actually said is quite how far off my initial expectations really were. True, no one is going to force you to pull all-nighters and the academic curriculum is not necessarily designed to require significant hours of study – but the experience is challenging in a novel and completely unique way. Transitioning from employee to student-life was an initial struggle for me, as it forced the exercise of a different set of skills than what I was used to while working. Business schools look to develop leaders, a role most of us didn’t have the opportunity to take on immediately post undergrad. I’ve found that I spend a lot less time “doing” and a lot more time “synthesizing”, which is a stark contrast to what’s expected in most junior-level pre-MBA roles. Again, this shift has become one of my favorite things about b-school – but coming to initial understanding this and then learning to actively change my mindset was certainly difficult. I say it’s not a two-year vacation not to scare anyone away from applying, but to address that you will face unexpected transitional difficulties – at least throughout the first few months of school.
3) It’s all about learning to balance.
Balance has never been a particularly great skill of mine. As an overachieving perfectionist (which most of us are!), the sheer quantity of classwork, social obligations, and recruiting all felt incredibly overwhelming to me. I made the initial mistake of trying to do everything at once and trying do everything well, a strategy I quickly learned left me frantically running in every direction but not actually getting anywhere at all. A few months in, I learned that something’s got to give – and perhaps this has been one of the most powerful lessons of my experience so far. In an environment constantly surrounded by high-achievers, the most important skill-set you can learn is how to prioritize. There simply are not enough hours in the day to “do it all”, meaning the ability to balance the aspects of the experience most important to you becomes extremely important. It took me some time to figure this one out, but once I did, my daily life shifted from feeling constantly underwater to being in a place where I felt genuinely good about my choices and could begin to recognize significant personal growth.
I could probably list 10 things this semester has taught me, as I genuinely do believe I have grown as a person. These top 3, however, are skill-sets I picked up which I wish I had previously been more prepared for. Business school is a once in a lifetime incredible experience, but it’s one which is also unique to each and every person and can literally be whatever you choose to make of it!