“Building on that”: MBA Life in 2nd Year and Notes to my 1st-Year Self

Coming back for your second year of business school is a lot like being a senior in high school. Especially at MIT, where the majority of students in Course 15 are here for one-year programs, being a second-year MBA can make you feel like “Big Kid” on campus. Returning from a summer away, your step has every reason to be springy. You’re joyful at seeing your friends again after what feels like forever ago even though it was only three months. You’re giddy with the freedom to pick whatever classes you want. And unless you were out in San Francisco working in anything other than technology, you’re high on the feeling of a slightly fuller wallet after a summer working again.

If you were a terminal outsider in high school, as I was, you’re a little bit thrilled by the taste of something resembling popularity. That extra year of knowledge and experience (or in my case, of messing up and getting back up) goes a long way under the Dome, transforming you from the academic equivalent of the awkward freshman with braces into the breathlessly cool Varsity jock. You go from being the person seeking advice to becoming the source of it. How to get through Class X. Why to sign up for club Y. Whether to explore roles in industry Z. All this simply by being one year “older” and wiser.

There’s a little bit of the Spiderman complex at play: “With great power comes great responsibility.” People are hungry for information and those 12 months put you in the position where others just starting out really respect your insight and trust your opinion. I’m a huge proponent of paying it forward and having these types of conversations but it feels uniquely uncomfortable.

Sure, as a second year you come back from a summer away, excited to reconnect with your classmates from your time apart traveling and toiling around the globe. And there’s no question I’ve grown tremendously over the past year and have stories to tell from when my skin was less glowing and smile less gleaming from a summer out west. But when I talk to first-years and others new to Sloan seeking advice, I liken my feeling to the feeling some couples I know had when they decided to have their first baby, the frazzled feeling of, “Are we really cut out for this job?!”

As I said in a club event recently to some first-years, “I hope I made the mistakes so you don’t have to.” Still, the truth is I don’t know what will work for others and can only speak to my own experience. But if I could go back and tell my awkward, braces-bearing “freshman” self at Sloan anything, it would be these:

1. “The classes you’ll love the most may surprise you.” My best class was the one I thought I’d get the least out of and was a game-changer for the rest of my time at Sloan.
2. “Find the courage to say ‘no,’ even when you and everyone around you is saying ‘yes.’” It was only when I cut out my extra social and academic obligations and opted out of 80% of the club leadership positions I hurriedly signed up for last fall that I was able to spend my time on one initiative, the Yarn, and really make it my mission here.
3. “Your time is gold.” Inspired by the Whole Foods ad campaign, “Treat your body like it belongs to someone you love,” “Treat your time like it belongs to someone you respect.” You wouldn’t want to waste the time of someone smart, busy, motivated, doing the things you want to do—so don’t waste your own. Whether you spend it on the extra hour of sleeping, socializing, or sending emails, make it count.
4. “You WILL get a job.” I didn’t believe it then. My second-year self struggles to believe it now. But it’s totally true and the best roles are the ones worth waiting for. Citing a different blog post I wrote months ago, I remain a believer in being open to opportunities but unwilling to settle.

I couldn’t have predicted my last year if I tried, but that’s the beauty of this experience. So until graduation happens and I find myself in “Freshman Year of Real Life,” asking for advice all over again, I’m here to help and here to say that at a certain point, you have to stop asking and let it all unfold. The only thing you can expect is the unexpected.

The good news? You can’t really go wrong.

Erica Zendell

Erica Zendell is a MBA Candidate in the MIT Sloan Class of 2016. A former HBS case writer and researcher of contemporary China, she aspires to work as a Product Manager at the crossroads of the real and digital worlds of retail. When not hitting the books, she hosts a podcast with a classmate called "The Business of Being Awesome" focused on inspiring MBAs to find work they love after business school, even if it means going off the beaten path (www.soundcloud.com/bizobapodcast).

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