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by Richard Montauk | March 10, 2009


If you're ambitious enough to seek a top M.B.A. degree, you're probably also eager to do well in the program. The easiest way to accomplish this is by preparing for business school before classes begin. Otherwise, you'll likely struggle during your first term and won't be able to compete on equal ground with your peers. More importantly, a lack of preparation will hinder your overall performance and mar your prospects of securing a summer internship at a leading firm. Many students in two-year programs land jobs from their summer employers before the halfway point of their second year.

A select number of students will come to business school having an undergraduate degree in business and a few years of professional work experience. They'll know a great deal about business analysis and performance. Most students, however, will have some related coursework or experience under their belt, but will likely possess a limited understanding of the core courses. Some will have no appreciable business knowledge. Liberal-arts grads entering business school don't need to be at home in all of the areas mentioned in this article, but the more they know, the better. A reasonable minimum familiarity would include:

  • Internet searching and e-mailing;
  • Software usage (word processing, presentation, spreadsheet);
  • Financial-calculator usage;
  • Algebra
and calculus;
  • Robert N. Anthony's "Essentials of Accounting"
  • (Prentice Hall, 2002) and Bob Vause's "Guide to Analysing Companies" (Garnder's UK, 2002);
  • N. Gregory Mankiw's "Brief Principles of Microeconomics"
  • (South-Western College/West, 2003); and
  • Jessica M. Utts's "Seeing Through Statistics"
  • (Brooks Cole, 1999).

    If all of this seems like a lot to review, note that anything you find difficult two months before the program starts will only get harder when you have to learn it along with all the other concepts and techniques that are piled on each day at business school. Frankly, once your program begins it will be too late to begin learning these skills.

    Getting a Jump on the Core Disciplines

    So much for the preliminaries; now let's turn to the substantive courses. The key here is to avoid shouldering a full slate of courses for which you're not adequately prepared. Limit yourself to taking only one quantitative or heavily conceptual course per term in an area where your background is weak.

    The Difficult Courses

    The most quantitative (and thus difficult) courses are accounting, quantitative methods/statistics, and, to a lesser degree, information systems. Economics, finance and, to some extent, operations management, are a cross between quantitative and conceptual.


    A traditional means of preparing is the classic self-teaching text, Robert N. Anthony's "Essentials of Accounting" (Prentice Hall, 2002). It takes you through a series of exercises that will teach you the basic vocabulary and methods of accounting. Better yet, take an introductory (financial) accounting course at a local college.

    Consider also reading a book that shows some of the uses of accounting information. Bob Vause's "Guide to Analysing Companies" (Prentice Hall/Financial Times, 2003) thoroughly explains how a company's economic health can be analyzed, in the process covering many important accounting and finance issues.

    It would be hard to overinvest in learning accounting before business school. The accounting knowledge you acquire will be of value in many of the other courses you take.


    Microeconomic concepts, such as supply-and-demand analysis, price and income elasticity, complementary and substitute products, opportunity costs and game theory, should be part of your toolkit before you arrive at business school. Useful preparation would be taking an intermediate microeconomics course -- or, better yet, a managerial economics course. If you're unable to take an appropriate course, consider reading N. Gregory Mankiw's elegant treatment of microeconomics, "Brief Principles of Microeconomics" (South Western College/West, 2003).


    If you have the basics of related areas, such as accounting and microeconomics, under your belt, finance won't be a complete mystery. Nevertheless, Burton G. Malkiel's "A Random Walk Down Wall Street" (W.W. Norton & Co.' 2003) will provide you with a sophisticated but highly readable introduction to key concepts such as risk and return, means of valuing assets, the capital-asset pricing model, and other foundation stones of modern financial theory.

    Information Systems

    The managerial issues presented by information-systems development, deployment and use is presented in Lynda M. Applegate et al.'s "Corporate Information Systems Management" (McGraw Hill/Irwin, 2003). The Economist magazine's periodically revised "Pocket Information Technology," "Pocket Internet" and "Pocket Telecommunications" (Economist Books Ltd.) provide useful overviews and glossaries of their respective fields.


    It isn't necessary to have a deep marketing background prior to business school, partly because the concepts are more intuitively obvious than those in other areas. If you'd like to increase your comfort margin, however, consider Roger J. Best's "Market-Based Management" (Pearson Higher Education, 2003), which provides a realistic view of key marketing problems. A good complement -- more strategic, and global, in its perspective -- is provided in "Marketing Strategy: Planning and Implementation" by Orville C. Walker et al. (McGraw-Hill Education -- Europe, 2002).

    Operations Management

    Rather than plow through a production and operations management textbook, I suggest that you read the interesting (and painless) "Lean Thinking" by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones (Free Press, 2003). It examines important issues in manufacturing and nonmanufacturing management by looking at American, German and Japanese practices, traditions and strengths and weaknesses in a half-dozen industries. The book is particularly valuable in introducing new M.B.A. students to methodological matters in a painless manner.

    Organizational Development/Human Resources

    A note of caution: Don't do any reading in this field until you're comfortable with all of the other areas discussed here. Most people find this subject the easiest to pass and don't value success in it very highly. Thus, reading to prepare for this field, if it displaced other preparation, would represent an overinvestment and poor use of time. That said, a good overview is given in Stephen P. Robbins's "Essentials of Organizational Behavior" (Pearson Higher Education, 2003).

    Quantitative Methods/Statistics

    Quantitative methods for managers courses generally include decision trees, sensitivity analysis, scheduling and queuing theory, linear algebra and programming, and various statistical methods. It isn't vital that you be up on all of these but have a basic understanding of the standard statistical tools. An introductory statistics course is a valuable investment. Otherwise, use a tutor to guide you through a basic business-statistics text. If you decide to learn on your own, one of the few books you can realistically expect to get through is Jessica M. Utts's "Seeing Through Statistics" (Brooks Cole, 1999), which provides a thorough treatment of the conceptual issues in a highly intuitive manner, complete with excellent examples. A much less sophisticated, but highly readable, approach is found in Peter Garrity's "The Fast Forward MBA in Business Math" (John Wiley & Sons, 2000).

    Another approach is to learn statistics via a text (and CD-ROM) that's matched to a statistics or spreadsheet program, with canned data files provided as the basis for exercises employing a range of different statistical techniques. A good choice for this would be Kenneth N. Berk and Patrick Carey's "Data Analysis with Microsoft Excel" (Brooks Cole, 2000).

    Additional Preparation

    For those who are generally ready for the core courses -- and gluttons for punishment -- several other subjects might be worth considering:

    • Corporate Strategy: Michael Porter's "Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors" (Free Press, 1998) was arguably the first modern book on corporate strategy; it's still the most widely read. Sharon M. Oster's "Modern Competitive Analysis" (Oxford University Press, 1999) would make a sophisticated second reading.

    • Information Economics: Still the best view of the modern information economy is offered in Carl Shapiro and Hal R. Varian's "Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Network Economy" (Harvard Business School Press, 1998).

    • Linear Algebra: For simple treatment of a subject that underlies much of mathematical modeling, try Bernard Kolman and David R. Hill's "Elementary Linear Algebra" (Prentice Hall, 1999).

    • Game Theory: A nontechnical but thorough introduction is provided by Avinash K. Dixit and Susan Skeath's "Games of Strategy" (W.W. Norton & Co., 1999).

    Try also to give yourself some time off before your program starts -- it will pay to be well-rested!


    Filed Under: Education|Grad School

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