Coping with Stress: The First Year of MBA

The receipt of an acceptance letter from a reputed institute to pursue an MBA degree usually results in exultation and tears of joy. The happy scene continues all the way till the candidate actually sits down for the orientation program and that’s when reality strikes..and it strikes hard. The orientation program is usually held in the auditorium of the institute and there is this air of solemnity that hangs about the place that is soon transferred to the candidate making him realise that the program may be a different ball game all together. As the candidate interacts with the other lucky ones who were selected, he realises that there are others in the program who are better qualified and who have better accomplishments than himself. His confidence takes a beating and stress makes an entry into his life. Questions such as “Will I be able to complete this program?” or “How will I compete with the others?” plague his mind. And this is just the beginning.

The next shock comes in the form of the course content. It is totally alien to what he has studied before. Take the following:

  • Peoples and Culture of India
  • Organisational Behaviour
  • Verbal Communication
  • Basic Marketing

Only if the candidate had been pursuing a BBA would these subjects sound familiar. However, to an engineering, science, commerce or arts graduate, these subjects are almost as intimidating as Greek and Latin! Websites of institutes do touch upon the course curriculum, but there is a vast difference between reading about a subject and actually learning it. The subjects are very diffused in the sense that there is no set curriculum. While graduating and even in our school days we are used to “portions” i.e., something like: chapters 2 to 9 from the textbook for the exam. In the first place there is no textbook, there maybe reference books, not one but many. There are definitely no chapter numbers. Study Material replaces the Text Book and this study material could be loose handouts, chapters from various reference books, articles from newspapers and magazines, academic articles etc. The loss of the “Text Book” can be very frightening and confidence sapping for many students.

Apart from the bewildering variety of reference material, the next problem that a candidate faces is the way each subject is taught. Raw graduates are used to a teacher who stands up and dictates, or a question-answer format etc. This is not what happens in an MBA program. Classes are more discussion-oriented rather than classical ‘teaching-based’. This can be very disorienting, because in most school or college systems within the country, one is brought up to accept what the teacher says as the correct or the only answer. In the B-school programmes, professors act as sounding boards, they do not have the answers, or even if they do, they never give them out. The candidate is encouraged to think and come up with the answer or solution, and there may be more than one! In other words, they make you use your mind to arrive at an answer. And given the fact that as students we spend 15 years simply receiving or being spoon-fed answers, to suddenly start coming up with the answers, and sometimes even the questions ourselves, becomes a difficult and confusing proposition.

The way a candidate is evaluated is completely different from what he has experienced so far. Case studies, group assignments, projects, class participation are the primary evaluation tools. These tools help to test the candidate’s ability to apply theory to real life problems. To the candidate used to learning by rote and writing copious answers, or to engineers who are more comfortable finding mathematical solutions, these evaluation methods can be very confusing. Moreover, the outcome of the evaluation is very subjective. For example, what differentiates good class participation from excellent class participation is completely left to the professor taking that subject. Similarly, since the outcome of a case can be manifold, there is no right answer! This makes the evaluation very subjective and very vague. Adding to the confusion is the fact that each subject has a different professor who assigns different weights to each evaluation format. Thus what may be good for one subject could be inadequate for another!

All MBA programs are divided into Semesters. A year typically consists of three semesters, each having a duration of three months. Each semester has a different set of subjects to be studied. This comes as a huge shock to candidates, since we are used to dealing with 8 to 10 subjects per academic year. This adjustment from 8 subjects every 10 months to every three months can be traumatic since the scale of studying suddenly is crashed from 10 to 3 months and the number of subjects could become an overwhelming 24!

Everything about the MBA program is different. Even something as trivial as the duration of a single class begins to make a difference. During school, a single class usually lasts 45 minutes; in college, it stretches for an hour, but in an MBA program the class continues for an hour and a half! While this may not apparently sound to be a major issue, it actually is quite a demand on your concentration levels.

Keeping concentration up until the end of the class can be quite a challenge! Similarly, a typical day has five such classes, which means classes from 9 in the morning till 7 in the evening. There are no set holidays. Sundays are reserved for guest lectures and workshops. On top of this backbreaking schedule, are the numerous assignments and group activities that have to be accomplished overnight.

Finally, to add to all these stress-causing unknown aspects of the MBA program is the soul crushing competion. The MBA program is where battles are fought for 1/4th of a grade point because as small a difference as that can decide whether a candidate gets short listed for a top placement or not. At a time when starting salaries are in the range of 5 lakhs and above for a good B school, the stakes are very high since that fourth of a grade point could add to or reduce your prospects by some lakhs of rupees.

So how does a new candidate cope with all of this? There is only one way – live through it. Take each day as it comes and suddenly as time flies by, you get used to the routine and stress, and one day you awaken to find that nothing can faze you and you begin cracking case studies in two hours flat! Not to mention that it also equips you largely to face the stressful careers that are the order of the business world today.