get the most out of your mba programSo you want to earn a MBA degree? You probably have visions of being the next apprentice to Donald Trump, of watching waves of cash flow into your bank account as you sit in your corner office and boss your minions around as visions of Rolexes, designer suits, and Jaguars dance through your brain.

But with great opportunity comes great responsibility… and a ton of work. After all, they don’t just hand out six-figure jobs for showing up. You have to earn every dollar you make later. Even after all that work, if you haven’t set yourself up for success, you could walk away with little or no benefit for your work and money.

If you are thinking of going back for a MBA, consider these five tips to make sure you get the most out of it:

1. Don’t settle for the minimal amount of required work experience.

One of the biggest differences between undergraduate studies and a MBA program, is that most, if not all, of the students have real-world work experience. Most reputable MBA programs require that prospective students obtain a certain amount of work experience prior to entering the program. This gives students invaluable experience from which to draw for their studies and to enrich the studies of their classmates. However, those students who get less work experience may find themselves at a disadvantage against other, more experienced students.

When I first applied for a MBA program, the dean explained to me that a MBA program is an amplifier–but it can only amplify what you’ve already got. The more experience you have coming in, however, the more you will get out of the program.

Therefore, even though you might be anxious to get into school, it’s in your best interest to get enough work experience so you can get the most out of a MBA program. Work experience also increases your hireability for internships and jobs. So be patient. Get some solid experience. That MBA will be waiting for you when you’re ready.

2. Don’t overreach on those career changes.

Carefully consider what career you want to move into after earning your MBA. For some students, this will mean staying in the same field and the same career but moving up the ladder–like getting promoted from an assembly line supervisor to plant manager. But other students will be moving from one career in one industry to a totally different career in a totally different industry. This is a much harder transition to pull off, because almost none of your work experience will transfer over.

Consider, for example, an accounting associate in the real estate industry who wants to be a marketing manager in the consumer packaged goods industry. How many of this student’s skills will transfer to their desired position? This deficit puts them at a significant disadvantage when trying to get those jobs against other candidates with more applicable experience and skills. They are starting from scratch.

So here’s the general rule of thumb: you can either change careers (like from accounting to marketing) or you can switch industries (like from real estate to packaged goods), but you shouldn’t try both at the same time.

3. Don’t expect any handouts.

The days of jobs being thrown at the feet of anyone with a MBA degree are over for most graduates. Especially with so many out there waving their MBAs around, the degree doesn’t mean as much as it used to. You will have to work hard to get even one job offer, let alone multiple offers. So come ready to put your nose to grindstone and sell yourself like the dickens.

4. Learn how to network.

By the end of the first month of your MBA program–if it’s a good one–you’ll be vying for your internship for the following summer. If you aren’t comfortable rubbing shoulders with business professionals to build your network, you will miss out on some key opportunities. You might end up getting stuck with a second-rate, leftover internship.

If you aren’t a practiced networker, you have a few options. First, you can find a mentor and observe how they interact with others, expanding their network as they go. If you can’t find a mentor, read books and watch videos on the subject. And then practice what you’ve learned at work, church, school, and wherever else you go. The goal is to be absolutely comfortable with networking by the time you start your MBA program.

5. Make sure it’s what you really want to do.

MBA programs are typically more expensive per semester than undergraduate programs. You want to make sure you really want to do it. So ask yourself: why do you want to earn a MBA? To impress your in-laws? To make gobs of money? These aren’t the strongest reasons and might not be sufficient to motivate you all the way through.

Better motivations are more grounded. Maybe you want to get a MBA to become a better businessperson. Maybe you’re ready for the additional responsibility that will come with higher positions. These are better reasons.

If you find that you aren’t doing it for the right reasons, don’t be afraid to back out. Multiple years in a MBA program are a very expensive way to find out that you aren’t really cut out for it.

Are you starting a MBA program or thinking about it? What are the biggest questions on your mind as you start? Share in the comments below!

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