As someone who graduated college in December 2008, I know a thing or two about hustle. If you’ll kindly recall, the job market going into 2009 wasn’t great. While some thought the outlook was bleak, some optimists would describe it as a desolate wasteland — especially for those with thin resumes and almost zero experience.
After working for nearly a year in a New York advertising agency (convincing them to give me two internships instead of one), I ran out of money and opportunities. That’s when I moved to a small town with a reputable university, studied for the GRE, and applied for their Master of Business Administration (MBA) program, hoping to join in the most popular master’s degree in the U.S. I didn’t even make it through two full semesters. Here’s what went wrong and how you can avoid making the same mistakes.
I was woefully unprepared.
I’m no dummy, but I wasn’t ready to start an MBA. I have a BS in Communication, and I’d taken a few business classes during my undergrad, but my knowledge base just wasn’t up to par — especially when it came to accounting and finance classes.
When I was accepted to the program, they let me know that I needed to take several undergrad-level classes online to catch up, and that I could take them alongside my MBA classes. The administration was positive that with diligence, I’d be able to keep up with my classmates. In hindsight, I believe that I would have benefitted from a harsh reality check.
With nearly two semesters’ worth of prerequisites to accomplish, I wish someone would have told me to put my MBA off for a year while I caught up instead of urging me forward. Of course I was anxious to get started (and even more anxious to finish), but that year of preparation would have made me evaluate how much I really wanted the degree.
I wasn’t in the program for the right reasons.
As a writer, I thought I’d likely spend my career working for companies large enough to employ writers. Working with that assumption in mind, I thought I’d be able to differentiate myself and climb the corporate ladder quicker if I had a business degree under my belt.
If you can’t tell by this point in the story, there are a lot of holes in my motivation — and even more when it came to my expectations. I was working a 40-hour-a-week job, taking my MBA courses, and trying to fit in an additional six credits per semester of prerequisites at the same time. Since my goals were to obtain three letters of credentials after my name instead of an actual education, I quickly fell behind in school. Which leads to my next shortcoming:
I didn’t understand what I would learn in an MBA program.
There are a lot of things an MBA won’t or can’t teach you. On the flip side, there are things that come standard in almost every MBA program, like the aforementioned accounting and finance classes.
Unfortunately for me, these advanced studies covered a huge chunk of the core learning in my program, and I cared for them about as much as a woodchuck cares for tap dancing — which is to say, not at all. I’ve always chosen to steer my career path towards writing and marketing, neither of which comes near the financing or accounting side of an MBA. Again, my goals and motivation didn’t line up with what was being taught, and I suffered because of it.
The cost wasn’t worth it for me.
After six months of earnest effort, minor success, and major failure, I decided that I wasn’t up to the challenge. I quit my MBA program midway through my second semester, thinking maybe I’d return to it someday (spoiler alert: that day still hasn’t happened).
According to MBAPrograms.org, the average cost of an MBA hovers between $50,000 and $80,000, with top schools charging more than $100,000. My program, by stark contrast, would have come in at a relatively-modest $35,000. Unfortunately, that was still $35,000 I didn’t have, and wouldn’t see for years to come. After dropping out, I was left with a $9,000 ball and chain around my neck (even five years after the fact, I’ve only paid off half of this debt).
And although taking out a student loan didn’t lower my credit scores, it still shows up on my credit report even to this day. The overall cost and monthly payment raises my debt-to-income ratio, and lenders will see it when I go to apply for a car loan, mortgage or business loan. My monthly payment is like the ghost of my MBA program, reminding me that I never finished what I started. Its lingering presence follows me around and haunts my ability to secure funding for the things I really want. Fortunately, I’ve made on-time payments every stinkin’ month for the past five years, so in some ways it’s actually helped me build a better personal credit score. (You can check your personal and business credit scores for free on Nav.)
How I would do it differently.
First and foremost, I wish someone had told me frankly that what I was attempting was virtually impossible (for me, at least). I was in such a hurry to get accepted, get through, and get finished, that I didn’t notice all the red flags along my path. I’m sure that if you asked other students in my cohort, you’d find that most were prepared, understood the commitment they were making and got a lot out of the program (shout out to Team Circle, who are some of the best students I’ve ever worked beside).
Which is to say, I think there is still great value in advanced degrees. My advice to anyone considering going back to school to get those all-important letters next to their name is simple: make sure you’re prepared for the courses well before the program starts, factor in the cash and opportunity costs, and attend because you really want to learn, not because you expect a bump in pay afterward. Even though you likely won’t see me sitting next to you, I wish the best of luck to everyone who attempts to get an MBA.
This is an op/ed contribution to Nav and doesn’t necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.
This article was originally written on April 14, 2017 and updated on January 27, 2021.