Welcome to pre-MBA boot camp

July 25, 2012: 2:43 PM ET

Strong in marketing but weak in accounting and finance? A new online MBA prep course aims to help.

By Rebecca Reisner

(Poets&Quants) -- When Devi Vallabhaneni was accepted to Harvard Business School in the third round, she figured she'd sail through the MBA program. After all, she was a quant -- a facile-with-numbers CPA who had spent four years working for Arthur Andersen in Chicago, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

The daughter of an academic entrepreneur who had four master's degrees on his resume, Vallabhaneni had moved to Chicago from Hyderabad, India as a child and took an early interest in business. By the time she was 14, she had excelled in Junior Achievement, helping to develop a device that indicates when houseplants need watering, and her father had mapped out her educational and career path from high school to MBA on a chalkboard in the family kitchen.

Yet, soon after plunging into Harvard's MBA program in Boston, Vallabhaneni sensed that she was adrift, often befuddled by words, ideas, and concepts. "I felt that I didn't have the core building blocks to take full advantage of the curriculum," she recalls. "I did well in accounting and finance, but the first few operations classes were like another language." Terms like "queuing theory" and "cycle time" assaulted her like hailstones, and she scrambled to catch up.

She often found herself working "two to three times" as hard as other classmates to keep up with the engineers in her operations management class and with the Procter & Gamble brand managers in her marketing class. Of course, she got through it, graduating in 1997 and quickly embarking on a career with The Gap and as a dot-com entrepreneur in the boom years of the Internet.

But those early struggles at Harvard stayed with her. Realizing that many other MBA students, even those who studied business as undergrads and had solid work experience, lacked fluency outside the scope of their particular specialties, Devi and her father, Rao Vallabhaneni, an author of textbooks on accounting and auditing, began to devise a program to strengthen students' overall business acumen.

A pre-MBA B-school workout

In 2009, Wiley published Devi's book What's Your MBA IQ? and in 2011, with the help of Rao and her business partner and fellow HBS alumna Melissa Hayes, she launched MBA IQ, an interactive online curriculum designed to give students baseline knowledge in 12 core areas of business before they start their graduate degrees.

For poets, those aspiring business types who know more history and English than accounting and finance, MBA IQ's academic prep work allows them to enter the classroom with a level of comfort that would otherwise be elusive. For quants, students already used to more rigorous study and work with numbers and equations, the book and online curriculum address their lack of knowledge in strategy, marketing, and most core business concepts.

It works like this: For a fee of $195 per person, enrollees receive 60 days' use of MBAIQ.com. There, they can take quizzes to determine their own MBA IQ scores-- quantitative figures demonstrating an overall knowledge of business as well as individual scores for each of the dozen areas, or "modules."

Once they've identified their weaknesses ("Yikes, I've never heard of 'blue-ocean theory'"), they can avail themselves of content on the site to fill the gaps, learning such things as the difference between static budgets and continuous budgets, the finer points of penetration testing, and how to calculate weighted-average cost of capital.

In addition, students also have access to other self-assessment quizzes, 134 reading assignments, 1,000 E-flashcards, short daily lessons (example: "What is a Type I error?"), and a physical copy of Devi's book -- all in all, a rather daunting array of information. Devi says it takes 8 to 12 hours of cumulative online effort to complete all the coursework.

"Business school goes so fast and is on such a high level," says Devi, 42, who also serves as president and CEO of a Chicago-based non-profit she founded, the Association of Professionals in Business Management. "And it's hard to know how strong your business acumen is beforehand. The stronger it is before you go to B-school, the more you get out of it."

Many of the best business schools hold pre-MBA summer boot camps for students who need a little extra help making the transition to graduate study. But even these orientation sessions are usually little more than cursory reviews of the most common accounting or finance concepts.

MBA IQ, on the other hand, is a fairly deep dive into the lingua franca of business. Both the 353-page workbook and the online curriculum are not Business for Dummies intros to the various disciplines of the corporate world. In all their earnestness and academic intent, MBA IQ's numerous sections come off like textbook reading. The writing is always clear and concise, though not exactly beach worthy.

As Devi puts, "Business school is rigorous, so any pre-matriculation program has to be equally rigorous and serious. Otherwise, we would be doing the student major disservice. It would be like taking a non-runner out for an afternoon jog one day and expecting him to finish a marathon the next day.

On the growth path

Although Devi won't disclose how many subscriptions to MBA IQ have sold, she says it numbers in the hundreds and that the venture is already turning a profit. Some customers include business schools, which get a bulk rate and offer the online program to their students either for free or at a discount as well as companies that pay a licensing fee and incorporate the program into their corporate universities. Ten corporations have subscribed, some of them using MBA IQ as their own "business acumen" programs. And MBA IQ is currently working out an agreement with book-publisher Wiley to sell the program directly to business schools and share the profits.

The University of Chicago's Booth School of Business recently began offering the MBA IQ to newly admitted and returning students for $175 per person. "We had been looking for things aside from just pre-MBA accounting [to help students prepare]," says Christine Gramhofer, director of academic services for Booth's full-time MBA program. "What I appreciate about MBA IQ aside from just the quizzes and flashcards is that the layout of the material is very easy to get to. Definitions are clear. This material is a long time coming."

Devi says there are basically four profiles of MBA IQ users: "People who have already been admitted to business school, businesspeople who want to change careers, people who want to remain in one area of business but add new skills sets, and finally, the 'my boss made me take it' category."

Devi encourages "graduates" of the program to put their MBA IQ scores on their resumes or grad school applications.

"I see it more as a proof of proficiency than a resume bullet point," Gramhofer says. "I can see it being required as a means for waiving certain required courses."

Gramhofer reports getting positive feedback about the MBA IQ from students, with one modest drawback: their anxiety about taking the quizzes, even though no one but the students themselves see the results. "There's a lot of material to cover," she says, "and they don't like getting low scores."

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