Advice to First Year MBAs: How to Not Get Overwhelmed

The first year of an MBA program can feel like a huge buffet. There are just so many activities to choose from. Should I go to that recruiting event? Or that club activity? How about the end-of-term party? When you combine this with the uncertainty of summer internship recruiting and the competition in the classroom, it can feel very overwhelming.

You can't prioritize until you know where you want to be

The key to not feeling overwhelmed is to prioritize. It seems obvious, but isn't actually easy to execute. This is especially the case as during an MBA program everything sounds (and actually is) amazing.

There was one piece of advice that I've inherited from early on in my first year in the Duke MBA that may help you do this. During the Day in Durham event before the Fall 1 term started in my first year, keynote speaker Dan Heath told us the following:

"Figure out what role you want to be in, then determine the experiences and skills you need to become the person in that role."

Let that sink in for a moment. What Dan is saying is this: in order to prioritize, you need to know where you're headed. 

Next time when you have a break from reading cases, ask yourself the following: "What position do I want to end up in?" For me, the answer was simply this: I wanted to run a company. As I imagined myself in such a role, it became clear what I needed to get out of the MBA to help me get started toward reaching that goal.

For example, I knew I needed to get a broad exposure of all aspects of running a business, and that was how I convinced myself to take Human Resources and Supply Chain Management in my second year. I realized I needed to have a lot of experience leading people, and that's why I focused on leadership development in my internship. I also knew I needed only basic business knowledge, thus freeing up time from not studying for SP's in my classes so I could focus on other things, such as P4E and Mentored Study.

For someone who wants to get into consulting or banking, those SP's do serve as a cost of entry. For me, it would not have made a difference. Without knowing your objective and prioritizing, it's extremely hard to purposely not study and let your grade go down. That's because we're all conditioned through decades of school that grades = learning. This is not the case in an MBA program.

Prioritization is all about saying: "No"

What will happen is this: pretty much everyone around you will recruit for consulting. If consulting is not your thing, you'll need to have clarity on your goals to avoid spending time preparing for something you don't actually want to do. Because I knew I wanted to do general management, I avoided almost all the consulting events - again freeing up time allowing me to do the stuff I actually needed to do.

I still went to some consulting events that were industry specific and informational, and I did do a case competition, but it was a deliberate decision to learn, and not because I felt like I was missing out. This was very hard to do and I admit that I still probably ended up going to more events than I should have.

It's up to you to figure out what you want to be and decide which MBA experiences are the most important for you. Then prioritization becomes easy. If you don't know what you want to be yet, take the time to set up informational interviews or engage with the leaders that the MBA program brings in. The 2 years of the MBA is essentially networking heaven, and you'll have plenty of time to connect with people. I'd probably dedicate at least 25% of your time to networking - maybe 50% if you're doing banking or consulting.

You'll want to be proactive with the informational interviews though, because recruiting will catch up to you really quickly. You have 400+ second years who are eager to help, plus Fuqua has a ton of alumni in every industry you could imagine. There are currently 10,267 alumni in the Duke Fuqua Alumni LinkedIn Group.

Again: "Figure out what role you want to be in, then determine the experiences and skills you need to become the person in that role."

This blog post is part of a 6-piece series called "Advice to First Year MBAs". You can find a list of all the post in the series here.


  1. This was amazingly insightful. Everyone tends to say "you must prioritize" but the hardest part about that is figuring out what is more important in the first place. I'm not a first year MBA (yet) but I think this is advice I'm going to bookmark.

    I want to run a company someday, just like you do but it never occurred to me that I should probably take classes like Human Resource Management and Supply Chain Management, especially when there are so many other interesting ones! I would probably just pick classes that I liked and not paid any attention to my actual goal of doing an MBA, which would be a colossal waste.

    I also think it would be easy to get swept away in the consulting wave, so the role you want to be in should be at the front and foremost of your mind. Great post!

    1. Thanks for the feedback! Glad that it was helpful.. The advice I got from the talk last year was very timely and helped give me a framework for making decisions in the first year. I think this applies to most decisions in life, perhaps even assisting you as you finish your applications and start thinking about schools, what to do in the meantime, etc.

    2. Oh yes definitely. Good advice for just about everyone!

  2. Hi Steven
    I came across your blog while researching Duke, but I bookmarked this blog because what you write is as applicable outside MBA as it is B-school. Coincidentally, I was in the process of preparing a career roadmap trying to figure what I need to do when while at B-school and this helps me figure out better.
    Keep up the good work!

    1. Hi Bejoy,

      Thanks very much for your comment. It's always great to hear feedback on how my blog has helped. It's awesome that you've found it useful even outside of the MBA.

      The content on this blog will continue to evolve as my own career progresses. Stay tuned!