Navigating Business School with a Humanities Background

This blog post was written by Aileen Maria-Ritchie, 2017 MBA candidate. After graduation, Aileen will join Nationwide Insurance Company as a process management specialist doing internal consulting in the Business Transformation Office.

Business school can be intimidating for anyone, but even more so for those who come from a humanities background. I completed my undergraduate education at the University of California, Berkeley, with double major in English and art practice. I had avoided math like the plague and didn’t glance at it much until I was preparing for the GMAT.

As a result, it was no surprise I found myself struggling with the quantitative subjects in business school. In particular, halfway through the fall quarter, my finance midterm grade was a stark signpost that I could no longer ignore: I was failing. I realized that I had sat through the first three weeks of classes being so intimidated by the subject matter that I had learned nothing.

However, during the remainder of the quarter, I managed to turn it around. Here are some tips worth sharing from this experience.

head shot of Aileen Maria-Ritchie

Aileen shares her advice on how to excel in business school with a humanities background.

Don’t short sell yourself. Recognize your strengths.
Unlike many of my classmates, this was my first time seeing finance in the classroom. Most of my fellow classmates are pursuing an MBA with a finance focus. There are even multiple certified Level 1 and Level 2 CFA’s (Chartered Financial Analysts) in my class. With this in mind, I felt like I had to work twice as hard—and I started second-guessing my own abilities.

That was until I realized my strengths from my humanities background: the ability to learn, adapt, and understand people. Once I was more self-aware, I also became more confident. I made a plan to understand and conquer my weaknesses and to conquer finance.

Utilize your resources.
My next step was utilizing office hours with my finance professor and the finance teaching assistants. In my experience, office hours are extremely under-utilized in both undergraduate and graduate education. It was extremely rare to have any other classmate attend office hours at the same time—which meant I received free one-on-one tutoring multiple times a week.

My finance class offered three separate sets of office hours with teaching assistants, and I attended all of them for the remainder of the quarter. Sometimes we discussed concepts from lectures, and other times, we reviewed problem set after problem set.

By the third week of office hours, I felt confident and competent enough to complete the problem sets alone. By finals week, I was explaining the concepts of “Forwards and Futures” to my fellow classmates.

Reach out to your team and classmates.
Next, I asked my teammates for help. Once a week, during our lunch break, I reviewed practice problems with my friends. I reached out to a classmate who lives in my apartment complex, and we would work on finance problems together in the evenings. As finals approached, I studied in groups. Learning from classmates and repeating back concepts and problem solving methods helped me to solidify my understanding of finance.

Remember why you are in business school.
My struggle in finance class reminded me why I was here in the first place: to learn. But it was more than that. I was in business school for myself—to better myself so that I could make an impact in my future career. One of my main drivers for pursuing my MBA was that I felt I did not have enough academic knowledge in finance, accounting, and statistics. I knew this was holding me back in my previous job.

Remembering that learning this material would fuel my success in the future helped me to constantly challenge myself. It gave me the willpower to keep going when I was tired, upset, or frustrated with learning. Each time I struggled, I gained more understanding and yearned to learn more. I even began to like finance.

Hard work pays off.
When my grades were finally posted, I received a B+ in finance. My final exam scored an 88/100 and was above the class average. I was satisfied. I had managed to turn the entire situation around, and I now know so much more about financial ratios, the stock market, and arbitrage.

This success is a reflection of all the challenges and struggles that lie ahead. Learning new subject matter is tough. It was frustrating because I had to put myself out of my comfort zone every day. Yet, it was being out of my comfort zone that helped me to truly grow.

While academics are only one facet of pursuing an MBA, it is a challenging and rewarding experience. It was a reminder of how much I can achieve and that hard work does pay off.

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