For most of us in the Class of 2013, this August marks our seventeenth “back to school” season. Since we’ve experienced this familiar ritual so many times in the past, we can relate to the anticipatory excitement it sparks in us as enthusiastic students. I myself certainly want to be prepared for the big first day. Our fine institution seems to agree that preparation is the key to back to school success, as evidenced by the extensive “prematric” process we are obliged to complete before arriving on campus. All 35 items on the checklist track our progress in readying ourselves intellectually, logistically, and financially, down to the very last detail. It all seems a bit excessive to me as a new student not accustomed to the HBS modus operandi. These guys run a tight ship; they leave nothing to chance, not even printer configuration. But really the checklist codifies (and elaborates upon) the process we’ve followed for years as type-A students.
First, HBS wants us to scope out our new classmates. Like Elle Woods, a fellow first-year at our university’s law school, we are anxious to meet new friends and find a decent manicurist near campus. The classcard shows us how to pronounce each other’s names, giving us a starting point for mobilization on Facebook. The frenzy of communication this summer almost made me nostalgic for the days of printed directories and phone trees, but I didn’t mind too much after my membership to “HBS Class of 2013: New York Chapter” gave my social calendar a significant boost. For me, the highlight was definitely the premature reveal of section assignments. Just hours after the Julian Assange of the incoming class publicized the availability of the information, section logos, listservs, and book clubs were established. The enthusiasm of these efforts gives new meaning to the phrase “social entrepreneurship.”
In addition to the networking we’ve done to prepare for two years of networking, my classmates and I are told to do some shopping. Just as Billy Madison buys new boots “tied tight” to “prove to Dad [he’s] not a fool,” we want new duds and new supplies. In the old days, we received a shopping list from the teacher. If you went to public school like I did, you are familiar with the list as a collection of unfunded mandates meant to fill a gap in the classroom budget. Typically a Trapper Keeper and some colored pencils did the trick. Unfortunately, things are more complicated (and expensive) at business school. For what the nebulous “Program Support Fee” cost me on my first student bill, I could have purchased an Old Navy graphic tee for each of my classmates. Then we wouldn’t have to spend so much time on the phone planning our outfits for the first day.
Last but not least, our school requires preparation for the curriculum itself. I should have learned my lesson years ago after a terrible Labor Day weekend reading Oedipus in its entirety. But I delayed my tutorials. I figured that my on-the-job experience must’ve taught me something. After all, Rodney Dangerfield as Back to School’s Thornton Melon excelled in class by applying his real-world know-how as founder of the Tall and Fat clothing chain. I was mistaken; in the definitive hours leading up to 5pm on August 18th, I learned to properly fear and respect the fundamentals of the MBA curriculum.
Now the checklist indicates that I have successfully navigated HBS’s rigorous back to school process, a schooling in and of itself. The prematric powers that be say that I’m ready to go, but I’m not so sure. The back to school archetype, well documented in the annals of pop culture, show us that we can never fully prepare for what a new school year will bring. Every back to school protagonist is faced with new challenges and opportunities once classes begin. Billy, Elle, and Thornton undergo journeys of self-discovery that none of them had envisioned when they first registered for the semester. Each of them ends up becoming much cooler versions of themselves by graduation because of what they learn along the way. In a sense, I think that is what many of us are looking for at HBS, and it is certainly why we recognize the cool in going back to school.