Story by Matthew McConnell.
I always intended to return to school and earn my MBA. I developed a plan soon after undergraduate graduation – first, I’d work for a couple years developing my career. Then, I’d apply to full-time programs and choose the best program to advance my finance education. Finally, (fingers-crossed) I’d earn a scholarship and embark on my MBA journey. As much as I think I can plan out my future, I’ve learned life doesn’t always follow the course I’ve mapped out. It’s funny how quickly plans can change, and I learned that lesson first-hand submitting MBA applications.
My actual MBA journey differed dramatically from the one I’d envisioned for myself. My name is Matthew McConnell, and I recently completed my first year in California State University, Fullerton’s (CSUF) Mihaylo College of Business and Economics (Mihaylo) MBA program. I’m enrolled part-time, so I am working while earning my degree. I’ve lived in Orange County my whole life, apart from a brief study abroad opportunity in Australia. My current MBA situation is vastly different from the one I pictured for myself, but I’m extremely happy with the experience. I want to share how I chose CSUF’s MBA program, and describe some of the lessons I’ve learned during my first year. It is my hope that you find my story helpful and informative, and you learn some insider information about the CSUF MBA program.
I weighed numerous criteria when I first started researching schools, but I weighed tuition more heavily than any other factors. I planned on paying tuition myself, so whichever program I chose needed to be affordable on my income. I absolutely did not want to take out student loans. As I researched schools, I realized most were so expensive they’d force me to take on student debt. I knew CSUF was within my budget, but I also submitted applications to University of Washington and Texas A&M to diversify my options. All three programs met my criteria, but CSUF was the most affordable. And, CSUF offered a part-time program that allowed me to work (and receive a paycheck) while earning my degree. Washington’s and Texas’ programs were full-time, and first-years weren’t allowed to work. The lower opportunity cost (in terms of lost wages) at CSUF made the most sense for me – I could even stay at my current job. My employer offered tuition assistance, and classes wouldn’t start until 7pm (well after I got off work). The more I thought about it, the more I realized CSUF was the perfect fit for me.
I submitted my application in January 2011, and received my acceptance notice two weeks later. I’m not sure if that’s the standard response time, but I was excited to finally begin my MBA journey. Fast forward to today, and I’ve completed my first year of classes. During that year, I’ve learned several important lessons (sometimes the hard way) and picked up valuable tips that helped me successfully navigate my challenging and exciting first year:
- MBA classes require hard work. This may seem pretty obvious, but I learned this lesson the hard way. I approached my MBA coursework the same way I did undergraduate work at Chapman University. I didn’t bother with the assigned readings and assumed professors lectured on the major topics in class. I was completely wrong. Readings must be completed before class, because professors’ lectures build upon the assigned chapters. I quickly learned that not reading put me at a serious disadvantage, and I spent the entire fall semester playing catch-up in my courses. Expect to work hard, whether that means reading several chapters a week or spending hours preparing for a case study. The more you prepare for class the more you will gain from the lectures and discussions, thus making your MBA experience that much more valuable.
- Enroll in the tuition payment plan. This may be a minor side note for some students, but if you’re like me then you plan to pay for your MBA out of your own pocket. If that’s the case, do yourself a favor and enroll in the tuition payment plan. It’s free to enroll and divides your semester tuition payment into three installments. One installment is paid during each of the first three months of the semester. The plan is great because you don’t have to pay the full tuition bill at one time. I didn’t feel this option was well-advertised on campus, but it made a huge difference in managing my finances during the semester.
- Case studies force you to think on your feet. There’s a saying that no military plan survives contact with the enemy. When it comes to case studies, it can be said no argument survives scrutiny from a classmate. Case studies seriously test your understanding of the material covered, forcing you to develop well-reasoned arguments and then defend them during classroom discussions. Here’s the dirty little secret about case studies – they’re written in shades of grey. In other words, there are no right answers. The amount of information provided in each case allows students to craft arguments both for and against the topics being discussed. As a result, the most effective case study participants think quickly on their feet and adapt their arguments to address classmates’ counterpoints. There will always be a classmate presenting a counterpoint to your argument. Learn the material inside and out, because that preparation will allow you to conquer anything your classmates throw at you.
- Study groups are critical to your success. During my undergraduate experience I never enjoyed group projects. I studied on my own and preferred completing assignments by myself. That’s not possible in an MBA program. An MBA helps prepare you to face and address workplace challenges. The majority of these challenges often involve, or require, the assistance of coworkers. MBA courses prepare students for these challenges by assigning group projects in most classes. I’ve discovered (to my surprise) that I needed to rely on the groups if I hoped to be successful. The majority of my classmates work full-time while earning their MBAs, and therefore don’t have the time to devote to extensive projects. Group projects teach students how to work together effectively, divide the work in ways that compliment each member’s strengths, and accomplish a common goal on a deadline. Best of all, group projects aren’t a hassle because all the participants want to be in the MBA program and willingly do their assigned tasks. Considering my initial opinion of group projects, my feelings towards them have changed and I have a better appreciation for their value.
My first year was definitely a learning experience. I won’t be taking any classes during the summer, but the fall semester will arrive before I know it. In fact, there are several tasks I’m looking forward to accomplishing this fall:
- Finding my career path. I plan to spend this summer determining where to focus my remaining MBA studies. I’ll start taking elective courses in the fall, and my MBA concentration will determine which courses I choose. But before I finalize my concentration, I must decide where I want my career to go. At Chapman I thought I wanted a finance career. Now I’m not so sure. I have a variety of interests, but earning my MBA will force me to concentrate my studies on a career path that excites me. I hope that through researching, networking, and meditating on my skills and interests, I will start the fall semester ready to tackle my new career path.
- Selecting an MBA concentration. Once I’ve determined my career path, I’ll then need to choose a complimentary degree concentration. I’ve (tentatively) selected the finance concentration, but I recently started having second-thoughts. CSUF offers a wide variety of concentrations, so I know I’ll be able to find something that suits me. I’m debating between switching to marketing or choosing the general MBA (no concentration) so I can explore a variety of courses and topics. My summer soul-searching will shed light on my career path, and help determine where to focus my MBA efforts in the fall.
- Participating in on-campus activities. I promised myself I’d attend several MBA events on campus this past year, but I didn’t end up participating in any activities. Between my work and school schedules and wanting to spend time with my girlfriend, I talked myself out of attending the activities. My goal is to attend two events next semester, so I can ensure I’m making the most of my MBA experience. The school offered some interesting events during the past year, including career fairs, tips on networking, and strategies for efficiently utilizing LinkedIn. I curious to learn what will be offered next will, and definitely will attend at least two events next fall.
I really hope this review has provided you with valuable insight into the CSUF MBA program. When I was applying to schools, I became frustrated when I couldn’t find current students’ perspectives on CSUF’s part-time MBA program. So I promised myself that if I were accepted I would start a blog for potential students dealing with my same frustration. I was accepted, and the Orange County MBA blog was born. My blog explores topics relating to my CSUF MBA experiences and general MBA news as well, and I encourage you to check it out for additional insights into CSUF. I’m looking forward to this fall; I hope you found this article helpful and perhaps, we will see each other in class next semester.