If you are a newly admitted M.S. in Commerce student (congratulations!) or are thinking about applying, then you must be a non-business undergraduate. This program prepares you for the world of business and truly emulates that in the classroom. Acclimating to a new environment can be exciting, overwhelming, or something else entirely. To make the transition easier, I compiled this guide with the most common difficulties M.S. in Commerce students encounter and how to prepare for them.
All students who join the program come from a non-business background. The wide range of students’ majors can span from economics to drama to even unique ones such as viticulture and enology (grape cultivation and wine making)! To show you what a student body may look like, here is an infographic that shows all of the overarching undergraduate majors for my current class.
Below you can see the specific majors represented within each category for my current class.
As you can see, you and your peers will be highly new to business. Jumping into unfamiliar territory comes with its own challenges. Here is some advice to smooth the transition.
Challenge 1: Heavy Workload
There is a general consensus among the students here that the workload is heavy. This sentiment is not specific to any particular type of student. Whether you come from a top institution, a large or small school, a liberal arts or quantitative major, the work can be demanding. The readings begin at a steady pace, but as the semester progresses, there are more deliverables per week, more group meetings to arrange, and more recruiting activities to juggle.
Tip 1: Find a consistent schedule that works for you.
To manage the workload, Ira Harris, Director of the program and Professor of the Strategy course, advises us to stay on top of our work and maintain a consistent schedule. Many of us skimmed readings during our undergrad years, read just before our exams, or did not read at all. In this program, our classes are heavily dependent on what we contribute to the classroom. I find it crucial to do all of the readings before class because the readings prepare me for in-class discussions. It allows me to engage with the material better and helps to facilitate a richer exchange of ideas in the classroom. To fully invest in the material without drowning in the depths of the work, a lot of students have found success with practices such as time blocking. Experiment with different management tools to balance your responsibilities. It may seem obvious, but it’s possible. Be diligent and consistent, and try not to sacrifice the quality of your learning.
Tip 2: Don’t just work for the sake of completing your work. Immerse yourself in your learning and let it fuel you!
Although the sheer amount of work may seem daunting, the material itself is incredibly interesting. It’s awesome to read about a company that I myself am a customer of. I love getting those satisfying “aha” moments when I finally realize the reasons behind a firm’s decisions that I’ve been wondering about for a while. When doing readings, don’t just skim, but think critically and reflect deeply. The information we cover is highly relevant – things like current trends and firms navigating through the pandemic. Talk to your friends and family about what you’re learning. It makes it more fun that way too. You don’t have to love every topic, but let your interests and classes motivate you!
Challenge 2: Coursework
Tip 1: Don’t take the coursework for granted.
Many students come in with exposure to some of the course material and then gloss over those areas.
For instance, I was already familiar with the Wells Fargo Cross-Selling Scandal, in which Wells Fargo employees opened unauthorized accounts for millions of customers. In my previous classes last year, I discussed the ethics behind this event and decisions that led to this catastrophe. However, when I reviewed this case in Global Strategy and Systems this semester, the professors focused on aspects of this case that did not occur to me before. While I already examined this case from an ethics and product perspective, I learned about transparency, reputation, and crisis recovery. I gained an entirely new perspective that I would have missed out on if I skipped the readings or did not come in with an open mind.
Even if you are familiar with some course material, don’t neglect a topic. Don’t assume you’re an expert on any specific subject matter. There will always be something new to learn!
Tip 2: Business can be intuitive, but don’t underestimate its complexity.
Even if you have no prior knowledge of business, how businesses operate and make decisions can seem straightforward and almost too simple. In the first month of this program, I thought that this material was logical and common knowledge, but truthfully, it is actually more complex and sophisticated than it seems.
For instance, companies should obviously prioritize their consumers’ needs in the long term rather than cutting costs, right? Well, eBay used to own PayPal, which was fast-growing and generating a lot of revenue for eBay. What if I asked you why eBay would spin off PayPal (i.e., allow it to be its own company) when it was benefiting so much from it? What if I asked you why Amazon is opening brick and mortar stores if consumers are shifting to e-commerce and online shopping is the future?
Business teaches you critical thinking and how to apply course concepts to the real world. Even if the material seems straightforward, don’t slack or take it for granted because these issues are actually intricate. If it wasn’t, 90% of startups would not fail!
Challenge 3: Lots of Discussions and Smart Classmates
Tip 1: If you’re intimidated by classmates or scared of heavy discussions, it gets better with time and effort. Trust me.
What if you’re the opposite of these confident students who already know about business? If you’re introverted or scared of public speaking, the thought of raising your hand and talking in front of a lecture hall of 100+ brilliant young professionals may sound frightening. It certainly was for me.
Even if it seems like some people already know a lot about business, and you don’t, know that the professors have aimed the courses toward you. They are not expecting any prior knowledge and have designed the courses with that assumption.
Don’t be afraid to speak up, and don’t be intimidated by your smart classmates. No matter what your experiences are, your ideas are valuable too. Everyone’s unique background is what permits such diversity of thought. You will learn from your classmates, but your classmates will also learn from you. The classes are highly collaborative, and everyone plays off of each other’s ideas. As you progress through the semester, you’ll get to know your classmates better, and you’ll likely find yourself feeling more comfortable speaking up. Be willing to take risks, disagree, and defend your position. It’s OK to take time to feel comfortable, but also push yourself out of your comfort zone. You’ll start to find confidence in your own knowledge and abilities over time.
Tip 2: If you feel out of place in this scene, know that there is a reason you were chosen. Just be yourself.
It may be scary to join a business-oriented pre-professional setting. It might seem like all your peers are passionate about finance, digital marketing, or some other general business matter, and that may not be you. Perhaps you don’t feel like you match the typical student profile. I remember when listening to my peers talk about GDP and interest rates made me think that I might’ve been in the wrong program.
Not everyone goes through this, but it is hard if you do. Speaking up, as I mentioned in Tip 1, greatly helped me overcome my mental barriers and gain confidence.
In addition to that, just be yourself. Not everyone has to be the business student stereotype. Daulton Roach, my classmate and fellow ambassador, did exactly that. During one class session when we discussed mergers and acquisitions, he touched on the importance of integrating the cultures of the two merging companies. Having majored in Youth and Social Innovation, Daulton spoke not about finance or technology, but about people, because thinking about people is central to his background and his interests. Don’t conform to what you think the mold is. Just be your genuine self!
Challenge 4: New Surroundings and Unfamiliar Faces
Tip 1: Take advantage of the groups you’re put in and socialize within your groups.
This may be the first time you live outside of your hometown for an extended period of time. You may be anxious being in a new environment full of new and unknown people. Here are things to make that transition easier. Take advantage of these resources, and be open.
The first thing to ease you into this program is all of the different groups that you will be put in. These groups range from a core group of five that you work with across all of your classes, a group from your track that you coordinate with, and a partner that you collaborate with on a few assignments.
There are also groups during the Global Immersion Experience. After choosing a region, you will travel with roughly a fifth of the class to a region of the world. You’ll live together, eat together, and sit in conferences together. Needless to say, you’ll get to know your groups intimately.
These groups offer a great opportunity to make friends within the program and not get lost in the sea of people in an institution as big as UVA. The small cohort size also provides a way to get to know your classmates. There are only 150 students in the program. Even if the classes comprise 50 people, it feels like a small class, in that everyone’s voice is heard and you see these people every day. You get acquainted with all of your peers well.
Tip 2: Live with your classmates if you can.
In addition, living with other students helps you meet people too. There are resources to connect you with your peers before moving in, such as the Facebook housing group for M.S. in Commerce students. A large portion of students live just a short walk away from McIntire on the Corner. In fact, one of my classmates told me, “The Standard [an apartment complex] is a place that has a lot of McIntire and grad students… A lot of the time, the study room is dominated by M.S. in Commerce people, so I feel like every time I go into the study room before a big test or assignment, it’s kind of like this community.” She also said, “It’s just nice to go around the building and see people from McIntire.” She even walked her dog once and ran into another classmate who was taking care of her dog! Living with other students is a great way to bond with other fellow M.S. in Commerce classmates.