How to survive an Executive MBA program

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This list started as a pet project of mine as I prepared for my Executive MBA program in 2017 (Cornell Executive MBA Americas).  While conducting informational interviews with EMBA students, I asked them how they completed their MBA while remaining successful at work and in their homes. Their leanings were invaluable. Over time, students in the cohorts after me would ask me about my experience. This is the list I shared with prospective students and it quickly went viral in my program with cohorts after me. While these suggestions might not work for everyone, I find they resonate with most people as they seek to be successful as they work and go back to school.

When people ask me how  they can survive an EMBA program, I tell them to organize their schedule and expectations with family and friends  first before looking at productivity apps and best practices.  Once that foundation is created, then it’s far easier to look at tips, trick, and hacks to make it through a program.  Without a realistic and hard look at one’s schedule, any organizational system will be built on a shaky foundation.  So to begin, I set up my life in a way that supported an Executive MBA program. I knew that I would no longer be able to sustain my current level of obligations

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Build a foundation for this season

Conduct a capacity planning exercise

Write down all obligations in a given month: work, family, volunteer, faith organizations, hobbies, kids’ activities, family time, date nights, and all of the people with whom there is an active relationship. Remove half of those activities. Pause. Walk away from this list for a day or two. Then cut the list in half again. Most students can only maintain 1/4 of what they normally do in their “regular life” while attending an EMBA program and working full time. I tell prospective students that they can have a life, albeit a small one. It takes some planning and ruthless prioritization. Before starting the program I did a “life assessment” much like the ones that are conducted in leadership development, life coaching classes, or goal planning seminars. I wrote down everyone with whom I wanted to maintain a relationship, any organization where I wanted to stay active and every activity that I wanted to continue doing during the EMBA program.  In the end, my priorities were my husband, my job, my MBA program, a couple of key relationships, and a few special events that happened annually in my life. Everything else fell second to those pillars. This helped me really focus on who was important to me, what I wanted to prioritize, and how I would go about spending my precious free-time while trying to succeed in an EMBA program.  I knew this was temporary so I wasn’t getting rid of those things permanently.  I simply paused them temporarily.  

Nurture the relationship with your spouse/partner

During an informational interview with an EMBA student, I was encouraged to sit down with my husband and talk through what life might be like over the next 18 months.  I had a candid conversation with my husband and asked him if he would mind taking up more than half of the house duties. We already had a fairly equitable relationship but I acknowledged that I might be able to help out as much as I usually did. I was told that even if my partner already does the majority of the work (which in many ways, he did), having that conversation upfront makes it easier in the long run so that he would know that I’m aware of the extra load that he would inevitably take on. EMBA students are notoriously absent for much of the “grunt work” that needs to be done around the house (cooking, cleaning, maintaining the household). With work, school, kids, and life, there isn’t much left for work around the home. I make sure to thank him and acknowledging it daily went a long way for our marriage.  He was very supportive and while it’s in his nature to be generous and thoughtful, I find that not forgetting to thank him went a long way no matter how stressed my workload was. During the program, my husband attended social functions solo, took the trash out in the rain, walked the dog without me, researched a new refrigerator when ours stopped working on vacation and did so many other things that “just got done” without me even noticing. Having his support made this program much easier and I credit it to having an agreement up front about what we would expect of each other and remembering to sincerely show my appreciation. MBA programs are hard on even the best marriages.  Make sure you understand what your partner needs (know their love language) and don’t forget that even though you’re the one stressed about the program, your partner is left alone and/or with the children without you. In a lot of ways, they become a single parent for this season. Your partner might get frustrated with your divided attention. Sometimes, you have to put down your books and spend time together. Don’t forget date nights and connecting. Start a “post-MBA gift” fund and prepare to buy something nice for your partner and/or children at the end of the program. They will deserve it. 

Maintain the relationships that are important to you

I had a conversation with those friends that I wanted to stay in touch with and told them that while I wouldn’t be able to be as present with them during the next several months, I definitely wanted to prioritize them and not lose touch.  warned them that I was told that I might be less accessible for the next 18 months and that they were still important to me. I didn’t say “I’m going to be busy” because everyone is busy and no one likes feeling like someone else’s busyness ranks worse than yours. Those conversations helped me feel better about saying no to social opportunities and missing events like birthdays, and camping trips, dinners out, text messages, and even a good friend’s wedding during my first residential (and yes, my husband went solo without me). My friends were supportive of me and that made me feel less guilty when I had to miss events that I would normally attend.  It helped me lay the groundwork for opening up time in my schedule while setting expectations with those for whom I cared most.

Now that you’ve laid that groundwork with capacity planning and schedules, these tips and tricks will be more effective. 

Tips and tricks

Automate your life

To the extent that you are able, automate your life as much as possible.  Pay for domestic help and use delivery religiously.  I hired a housekeeper and took the major cleaning off of our plates so that neither one of us resented doing the work.  Use delivery services, auto reorders, curbside pickup, and pay for Amazon Prime. I paid $10 for Sephora’s two day shipping and saved the hassle of having to drive somewhere at the last minute to replace my beauty products. For food, we ordered meal kits weekly from Sunbasket for dinners (new users can get $40 off their first order with my code here) and these kits took the question of “what are we going to do for dinner” off our plates during this busy time. We made meal times our time to pause, spend time together, and connect. Sometimes my husband prepped dinner without me and I would pause studying to come eat. But, that was our time together to connect before we went our separate ways for the night.  Whatever you do, take as much off your plate as possible via automation and give that time to your studies and family.

Find an organization method that works for you

Figure out what your organization method is going to be and stick to it. This is cliché but, the key is finding what works for you. I asked a lot of students how they did it and what they used. Normally, I prefer handwritten note-taking but that wasn’t compatible with my work life.  I traveled a lot during the program and I did not have space to carry my books, notes, and print outs with me. I had a classmate who printed everything and it worked for her even when she traveled all over the world with her notebooks and textbooks. That didn’t work for me. So, during the program I used the app Notability on my iPhone and iPad and uploaded all of our reading to that program; it was great because I could type notes, underline, and highlight. In hindsight I wish I uploaded all of my reading to OneNote so that I could have it with me on my work laptop for easier access on the go. For class note taking, I used OneNote and the only time I took handwritten notes was for quantitative classes where I know I learn best that way and needed to really focus. I even scanned those handwritten notes once class was over and put them in my OneNote app. So, my notes were with me at all times and I could read over them wherever I found time to study – at the dentist, waiting on my husband at an appointment, in the Uber on the way to the airport, etc.  As much as possible, I made sure everything in the program was digital. I am also glad I did this post-MBA because I refer back to my class notes in OneNote during work meetings and appreciate having my MBA learning at my fingertips.  

Know what keeps your energy up

You need something that keeps you going when the EMBA fatigue settles in.  For me, that was caffeine. We bought a Breville espresso machine and that kept me going for those late night/early morning study sessions. Specifically, I drank coffee first thing in the morning and then again at 3PM so I could rally for late night studying. Of course nutrition and exercise help immensely and we had some folks who kept up their fitness regimens and did well. I couldn’t do it. So, figure out what works for you.  Coffee was my friend. 

Block your schedule for studying

You don’t realize how much downtime you have in your life until you do an EMBA program. Everyone says that in the program. It doesn’t matter their family or work status. If you really want to complete your EMBA, you can find the time to do it.  I read on the bus, on flights, or waiting to meet a friend somewhere.  Because I kept everything in the cloud, I was able to find pockets of time here and there to study via the apps on my phone. I could get far in my studies with 15-30 min increments. Sometimes those increments added up to 2-3 hours a week. One of my classmates took her classwork to her son’s swim practice every week for that hour – you will always find time if you look for it. I filled all of my downtime with studying but also took scheduled breaks so that I wasn’t burning out.

We had a Navy Seal in our program who managed his studies while serving on missions. I felt like if he could do it, I could do it. I would also go to work early and study from 7-830, sometimes at lunch in a quiet conference room, and if my scheduled allowed, I would break away for 30 min as part of my professional development commitment at work. I used the hotspot on my phone almost daily when I was away from my home or work. Knowing that I always had Wi-Fi with me helped me capitalize on the downtime. It came handy in parking lots, airports, and lots of random places when I needed to get on the school portal or join a virtual meeting with my team. I also downloaded every app that would keep me connected to my school work – email, Office apps, virtual meeting apps, Adobe, etc.  Mobile access to these programs helped me when I was in a jam.  You learn to work smarter, not harder, and create pockets of study time.  

Don’t let yourself get behind

I was very afraid of getting behind because former students warned me about the horrors of trying to get back up to speed. That fear kept me going. However, I did get behind a couple of times and it was tough getting back on track. It happens to everyone at least once. I have two good friends in the program whose goal was to stay ahead of the class and not just “survive” week to week. It was impressive, but I couldn’t do that. So, I made sure I was ready for each class. I scheduled my study time with goals for what I wanted to finish. I would block time on my calendar for the week and move it around as things came up. 

For instance, I would create the following plan:

  • Sunday night 6PM – 9PM: Read Operations case study and prepare written assignment for team
  • Monday 7AM – 8 AM: Watch live recording of weekend class in the first hour of session 2 when the professor talked about something that confused me
  • Tuesday 6 PM – 8PM: Work on optional class problems that will be on exam
  • Wednesday 8PM – 10PM: Finish Operations homework and prepare for group meeting 

Scheduling worked for me and I was able to see what I needed to do before the next class to schedule it around my week. Even if I had to move my time blocks around, it helped me stay in control when things came up or I just didn’t feel like studying. I could easily see where I could reschedule the time and plan a night off if I needed it.

Show up prepared for class

Read the syllabus ahead of time and look at what you absolutely have to read/do/prepare for and do that first. Sometimes you have a bad week and can’t keep up. It happens but don’t let it happen often or you’ll get behind. Don’t be the classmate that is always behind and dragging on your classmates who prepared.  But, be the kind of team that supports each other when someone needs help and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Everyone gets behind at some point. 

If all else fails and you have a hard week, read your case study before class. An entire class will sometimes use a case study to teach a concept and if you didn’t read the case study, you’re wasting your time being in class and the time after class you’ll need to catch up. The rich dialogue that you are paying for will be wasted and you will never get that opportunity again. Case studies are where the learning happens. I learned the hard way a few times that not reading the case study caused me to be lost for most of the class discussion. I was angry with myself for not spending the 30 minutes to read a case study before a class. I realized that by not spending that small amount of time reading a case study before class, I was wasting my 3 hours in class and the 3 hours outside of class to catch up when I re-watched the recorded class. That was 6 hours of my life I wouldn’t get back and I did nothave time to waste. In general, if you’re behind going into a class weekend, the time it takes to make up that class is enormous and creates a lot of stress for you. When you do get behind, look at the minimum you need to get back to speed and do that. Don’t get behind more than once or twice and never in more than one class when they are running at the same time. 

Know the self-care basics and what works for you

If you don’t know what you need to take care of yourself (exercise, eating, sleep, connecting with others, hobbies, etc.) then find out soon. We all say we know this is important and then we don’t prioritize it or do what we know we should do. So, make sure you’re eating, sleeping, getting all the good family time you need. Schedule PTO ahead of time and work toward a goal of taking a couple of days off. Take a sick day/mental health day and relax if you need to. I did it and it worked really well for me when I was overwhelmed.

My husband and I still took vacations but they were three day weekends. I would take my readings with me and plan ahead for how I would study. We went on vacation once and I was typing edits to my final individual project in the car on the highway for two hours and submitted it on time by midnight. It was a great weekend and I took time away from school to be with friends and relax before starting up the grind again that next week. Another friend took a week off in Hawaii. She sent us a photo of her reading with the ocean in the background.  You can still take time off but it will look different for those 18 months and you’ll probably be doing classwork during that time. 

Build your network

An MBA network is incredible. I know people from so many industries in major cities across North America and South America. I credit my job at Microsoft to a classmate who was in oil and gas in Houston. He transferred to a industry sales role at Microsoft in Seattle during the EMBA program and sent my resume to my future manager when I applied to a job online.  I would not have the job I have today without that relationship and it started at the first residential when we had a one off conversation about how we approached completing our coursework in the program. When I travel for work, chances are someone I know from the program lives at that city or will be at the same conference. 

One thing our class did was build a solid WhatsApp group. Everyone in our section from the first residential is on it. We used it to coordinate going out when we were at the first residential but afterwards, we stayed very active encouraging each other, asking for advice, and getting help with difficult class concepts. We send photos of our boardrooms when we met up after class, memes that were funny, and maintained connected to each other. We still message each other weekly, if not daily. We have several spin off groups including an Investing Chat where we continue to talk about class concepts and what investments we are making in the stock market. During the program, some of us even traveled to other boardrooms to visit each other and spend time together. My section, and class, is very close.  We have had multiple mini reunions since graduation and even threw our own graduation party the night of graduation in Ithaca at the Statler Hotel. Some of these people are my closest friends, mentors, and advisors. Leverage those relationships and stay connected. 

Best practices when engaging your program

Don’t be competitive

Most Executive MBA programs require teamwork and collaboration. EMBA students aren’t competing with each other for internships or jobs at the end of the program. EMBAs go to business school to compete in their own careers back home. You will be successful in an Executive program if you know how to work well with others and be a good teammate. The sooner the competitive students realize this, the easier it is for everyone.  

Take good notes and build your network

The two biggest assets you take from an EMBA program are your notes and your network.  Take good notes so that you can reference them not just when you’re studying but after the program is over when you’re in a meeting and want to refresh your memory about something from class. Those notes are why you’re getting an MBA and what will set you apart in your career. Just as important as your notes are your MBA relationships. Use every opportunity to expand your relationships when the school offers happy hours, team dinners, and social events; this is when your EMBA network is built. If you drink, great. If you don’t drink, that’s equally great.  Make sure you leverage those times to create relationships with your classmates. Even if you don’t want to stay out late, go to the event for an hour, talk with a few people, and head home early.   

Get help as soon as you need it

My quantitative classes were tough for me. I used Varsity Tutors to book help in some of my classes. Your school may have tutors available but sometimes they are unavailable or their schedules are booked. It was very easy to book a tutor through the Varsity app. They are US-based so sometimes you have to work with someone in a different time zone. I appreciated that prior to the call, most of them would ask for an agenda. In addition, I would send any in-class problems I wanted them to walk me through so that they could come prepared to help. 

Behave yourself

Your brand and reputation are important in an Executive MBA program and will follow you long after graduation. Be nice, be prepared, have fun, and know your limits.

Come prepared for your team

Everyone in an EMBA program is busy, has a lot on their plate, and is stressed.  Don’t use it as an excuse to not be prepared for class or not come prepared for your team. Everyone is busy and working hard to stay on top of things. It amazed me that the busiest people in the program (i.e. the ones with the most senior roles in their company) never talked about how busy they were or used it as an excuse to not be prepared for class.  They were on time, prepared, and ready to learn.  woman in my boardroom worked for Amazon and during the program, she worked on a new venture with Jeff Bezos. She traveled constantly and during our global project to France, she negotiated with recruits while consulting with our business client on a new venture. She rarely complained and neither did the more successful students in the program who had much busier lives than the rest of us.

Get to know the program faculty and staff

Your EMBA program staff are great resources and can be a huge support if you have personal issues that arise during the program  They are your advocates with the professors and can sometimes help you if you run into challenges in the program. Don’t be a problem student for them, they are your secret weapon for success and do far more behind the scenes than most students realize. And yes, they talk about you during their weekly status updates. Don’t be the name that has a negative association tied to it.

Use the school’s resources

Take advantage of the leadership coaching, library resources for research, special school functions, and volunteer opportunities.  Once you graduate, they will not be as available to you as an alum.

Alert your program if you’re struggling in a class

If you’re worried about a class, tell the professor ahead of time.  Sometimes they will reassure you about your class standing, spend time on a concept you’re struggling with, or take note that you’re a conscientious student. That helped me in the quantitative classes where I struggled. Don’t wait until you’re underwater the week before a final to tell the professor (or staff) that you’re having problems. It’s easier for them to come up with a solution if you’re upfront with them earlier in the class. 

Follow your school’s best practices for a successful program

In my program, Cornell had a best practice for successful team dynamics. The teams who thought they were “too good for this” struggled immensely in the beginning. Don’t try to re-invent the wheel or be a super-EMBA and craft your own rules of engagement that differs too much from what they suggest or was something you learned in a leadership seminar. Just take what they offer and trust the experts who perfected the experience for years. Make a few tweaks as necessary for you and your team but trust their system.  Once your program gets started and classes begin, you won’t have time to refine a new approach. Take their best practices and focus your energy on learning new concepts and passing your classes.

Final words of encouragement

Hang in there.  I won’t lie, it’s grueling. But, it’s doable and the reward for finishing the program is worth it. An EMBA program goes by really fast and it’s common to hear former students say that while they don’t miss the stress, they miss the challenge of the MBA program. Good luck and feel free to reach out if you’re interested in the Cornell Executive MBA Americas program.

Join the Conversation

  1. Jen Blauvelt says:

    What a great, informative post! So
    Happy you’re blogging again.

    For me, I go back and forth on whether or not to bite the bullet on this. Like you, I’ve been in a challenging professional setting for well over over a decade dealing with clients, constantly problem solving, and navigating complex and political waters internally. I wonder what, outside of the network, I would realistically gain or improve upon that will justify the misery, expense and sacrifice. (Just being real, you know me! 🙂)

    On average, how many hours per week did you spend on this (including class time)?

    Congrats on this huge accomplishment!

    1. Hi Jen! Thank you so much for the kind words. Great question, I am a huge advocate for EMBA programs beyond just the great network you gain. (I will add that my network helped me with the branding and web dev of this site, something that would not have happened with out my program). I think that an EMBA program provides seasoned executives with an end to end view of a business. Depending on where you are in a corporation, chances are you are a subject matter expert within your functional area (marketing, finance, engineering, sales) and your vertical space (healthcare, technology, banking, oil and gas). An EMBA will give you an understanding of all departments so that you have a holistic view of your company’s lifecycle AND it gives you a purview into other segments that you otherwise wouldn’t have exposure. My EMBA affords me the opportunity to think critically about our company’s challenges and look at our complex projects with a different lens. I use my MBA daily in meetings – piecing together the business to look at our opportunities in a different light. That’s where those class notes come in handy in my OneNote. 🙂

  2. This is some sound advice for anyone looking to complete their EMBA.

    1. Thank you, Jeff! Hope you’re doing well.

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