How To Prepare For The Henley MBA Exams:
A Step-By-Step Guide For Exam Success.
By: Derek Jansen | January 2018
The exams for the Henley MBA are tough – that’s for certain. They’re time-pressured, handwritten, count for a lot of marks and can test absolutely anything within a module. This contrasts sharply with the assignments, where you, as the student, have a degree of control over your topic, plenty time, and the ability to go back and forth, make revisions and refine your work over a period of weeks.
Simply put, you need to prepare well for the Henley MBA exams or you will leave exam day disappointed (and worried!). In this post, I’ll propose a basic preparation strategy that should put you in a good position to conquer exam day. Naturally, everyone has their own “best way” of approaching exam prep, so please don’t take this as gospel – use it or lose it. But whatever you do, don’t leave your exam prep to the last minute.
T-minus 6 weeks – The initial prep stage.
Ideally, you should aim to complete your last major assignment (typically MFR) 6 weeks prior to the exams so that you can start your prep work 6 weeks ahead and focus almost exclusively on this (you’ll likely still need to prepare a PD assignment simultaneously, but this is manageable). Typically, the standard Henley schedule only factors in about 30 days (this can vary), so you need to plan ahead and fast-track your last major assignment to give yourself this 6 week prep period. If you’re reading this post less than 6 weeks before your exams, you can still use the approach here – you will just need to fast-track the suggested timelines.
So, what should you do at this stage?
#1: Review the module material.
At this stage, you have 3 weeks before the exam cases are released, and 3 modules to review (MPS, MP, MFR). Therefore, it makes sense to spend 7 days reviewing each module. However, you will have just completed 1 module, so you could allocate a bit more time to the earlier two, perhaps something like:
- 10 Days – Review 1st module (or the module you were weakest at)
- 7 Days – Review 2nd module
- 4 Days – Review the most recent module
Assuming each module consists of approximately 1000 – 1500 pages of content, and the average reading speed is 0.5 pages per minute (200 wpm), you’ll need 33 – 50 hours per module. In other words, it would be wise to budget 5 hours per day of pure undisturbed reading time for this stage of preparation (gulp!). Naturally, you’ll speed through some sections and drag through others – but this provides a rough guideline. Don’t underestimate the amount of reading required.
At this stage of the game, a good approach is to go wide, rather than deep. In other words, make sure you review all the content, from cover to cover, even if only at a fairly surface-level, so that you have a good idea of what all is in the module. Remember, the exams can test any area of theory, no matter how niche it may be, and this could count for 100% of the marks in a paper. Make sure that you’re comfortable with all the theory, but don’t burn time going deep into the content and applying to it sample cases at this stage.
The objective here is to make sure you have a big-picture understanding of all the content fresh in your mind so that once the cases land, you can consider them from as many angles as possible. Failure to have this big picture view means that you will have blind spots, as your assignments would have only delved into a small portion of the entire body of theory.
Take notes and develop summaries to help solidify the learning. Pay particular attention to the theory that you did not cover in your assignment. If there’s any piece of theory that you don’t understand, now’s the time to seek assistance – you don’t want to be doing this once the case lands.
#2: Practice your handwriting.
For many students, the exams are the first time they’ve written a substantial amount by hand in a long time. Therefore, it’s important that you spend time practising your handwriting, as you don’t want this to present a bottleneck. Even if you write by hand on a regular basis, legibility can be a problem (after all, no one can decrypt your scribbles as well as you can!), so it’s important to practice daily with a focus on both speed and legibility.
Given that you should ideally be summarising your reviews, it can be a good idea to handwrite these summaries. Whatever your choice of content, make sure you practice and find yourself a quality pen that you’re comfortable with. In fact, get two or three of the same – you never know when that trusty pen will let you down.
3: Practice your outlining.
Another skill that you will need to develop at this stage is your ability to outline answers before you start writing. Unlike assignment writing on a PC/Mac – where you can hit backspace, cut or paste – when you write by hand, you have to live with what you put on paper (or throw away a lot of time rewriting).
Therefore, it’s important that you get into the habit of briefly outlining before writing. In other words, drawing up a quick set of bullet points covering what you will discuss and in what order. Quick and dirty is the name of the game here – you’re not going to hand this in, you’re just going to use it structure your answer. New thoughts will emerge as you write and you’ll weave these in – this is fine. Taking a minute or two to gather your thoughts and sketch an outline will help you write more cohesive, well-flowing answers.
A potential way to practice this skill is to present yourself with a random (not before seen) question, and then force yourself to briefly outline how you would approach the answer. You don’t need to answer the question in full (although this would be good handwriting exercise!) – you just need to practice the outlining bit. But where do you find random, suitable questions? Well, as an MBA candidate, you can try Quora’s business strategy section – there should be some questions there that you’re well-equipped to answer.
T-minus 3 weeks: The case analysis stage.
The cases have landed, and a wave of panic has consumed the cohort. The pressure is now on to apply all the theory to 3 cases.
So, how should you approach this?
#1 – Take leave and manage expectations.
The timing is seldom ideal, but it is prudent to take as much leave from work as possible in these 3 weeks to spend time analysing the cases. First prize would be to take 3 solid weeks off, but chances are that’s impossible. Second prize would be to take off a few days each week. I would strongly encourage you to take consecutive days, as opposed to the 1-on, 1-off approach, as this will allow you to immerse yourself in the cases and achieve a level of focus that you otherwise wouldn’t.
Explain the situation to your staff and superiors and make it clear that you won’t be available on your off days (unless the roof is on fire!). Most importantly, give yourself license to switch off from work for the days you’re off. If you’re checking your phone every 30 minutes, you’re not going to be effective.
Along the same vein, it is critically important to manage the expectations of friends and family for these 3 weeks, or your time off will just be consumed by domestic interferences. Also, unless you’re home alone during the day, it will likely be best to head to the library (yes these still exist!) or book a room at Henley to ensure that you have a distraction-less place to focus.
#2 – Allocate and analyse.
As with the early prep stage, you’ll need to decide how to allocate your time. I’d recommend focusing on one case at a time (as opposed to juggling them). This allows you to immerse yourself in the case and achieve a higher level of focus and depth. From a practical perspective, a useful approach is to allocate 6 days per a case, and then allow 1 day (x3) for recap at the end. This ensures that you keep everything fresh in your mind.
Once you’ve decided on your schedule, get moving on your analysis. Consider each and every piece of theory you reviewed in the first prep stage and ask yourself whether it has any potential relevance to the case. If it does, apply it and note your outcomes in a document.
If you have a functional team, work with them to gain additional perspectives. Some will contribute, and some won’t. Don’t let this stop you from contributing to the discussion. Ultimately, by sharing your findings, you will create the opportunity to receive critical feedback (valid or otherwise), which is very valuable.
There are varying schools of thought on how best to work with your team for the exams. My recommendation is that you should not split up the work as this creates risk given that you are now relying on one or two people’s analysis (which may or may not be any good) to inform your position. You might disagree, and that’s fine. Just make sure that you cover all the content – you cannot reliably predict what will come up in the Henley exams. A small section of theory can constitute 100% of the marks in a single question paper.
#3 – Develop your “cheat sheets”.
Once you’ve worked through all the material, you’ll have a document with all your analyses (ideally a combination of your own thorough analysis and your team members). You should then begin summarising this into your 4x A4 “cheat sheets” for the day. As with assignments, copying and pasting models into your sheet is useless. The models/frameworks need to be thoroughly applied and populated. The “so what” needs to be extremely clear. Here, more than ever, you need to focus on analysis and not description.
Naturally, you only have 4 pages, so space is at a premium. I recommend using PowerPoint to jam-pack as much as you can onto each sheet. PowerPoint allows you to do this with much more freedom than Word. Make use of different colours to group themes of content and make the sheets more navigable.
One final recommendation is to keep the last page or half page for models, theories and frameworks that seemingly have no relevance. Ultimately, the exams can go in any direction, and theory that you thought was irrelevant could become central. For example, I recall an MP case which had very clear hard vs soft HRM, best-practice vs best-fit, Theory X vs Theory Y themes in it, with absolutely no links to anything recruitment related. Accordingly, no one considered recruitment, and no one included recruitment models in their summary sheets. On exam day, the paper presented a completely new situation in which students were tasked with opening a new branch and had to develop a recruitment strategy. As you can imagine, there were many tears. Long story short, allocate a small portion of your “cheat sheet” for those models, theories and frameworks that seem most unlikely. Consider the space consumed by this your insurance cost, and expect the unexpected.
T-minus 3 days: Recap and finalise
It’s almost time. By now you should know the cases inside out and feel like you’ve analysed them all to death. Assuming you’re on schedule with your prep, of course!
As mentioned earlier, your last three days are for recapping the 3 cases and finalising your “cheat sheets”. If there is any time that you need to take leave from work, it’s now. Address one case per day and make sure you’ve got all your key analyses on your sheets.
Leave the printing to the last day to give yourself time to make any last-minute edits, but make sure you have a reliable printer. Do a test print ahead of time to ensure that your margins are not too thin, or you may find that some of your content gets cut off.
Get solid sleep and adequate rest. Don’t pull all-nighters at this stage – you’ll just end up exhausted on exam day. Eat healthy food and drink plenty of water. You might also consider juicing up on some omega-based supplements to keep you mentally sharp – although whether this works is anyone’s guess. You’ve heard this all before, I know. However, it’s amazing how rare common sense is in the panic of exam time!
T-minus 0: On the day
It’s finally here. Hopefully, you’ve put in the effort and are well prepared. If not, I’m sorry, but there’s nothing you can do now. No amount of cramming is going to help you at this stage. You’re on the rollercoaster – buckle in!
#1 – Reduce sources of stress and anxiety.
On the day, you should aim to reduce or eliminate any potential sources of stress and anxiety. Accordingly, it’s wise to get up early and leave for Henley well ahead of time to reduce the stress and uncertainty of traffic. It’s fine if you get there early. Rather catch a nap in your car than your bed!
Similarly, plan ahead so that nothing and no one is dependent on you on the day. This might mean having someone else take the kids to school, the dog for a walk, let the gardener in. Today is a big day for you; you’re allowed to take a break from your usual responsibilities!
#2 – Take the right gear.
Dress comfortably – there are no marks for dress code. Comfort is key on the day. Take spares of all stationery, as well as a simple, easy to use timer. A basic sports timer is a good idea as its quick and easy to read and allows you to easily synchronise with the exact start of the exam (which probably won’t be perfectly on the hour).
#3 – Read the question, properly!
Read the question(s) slowly and repeatedly. Misunderstanding the question and subsequently answering the wrong question is a common mistake, and it will cost you dearly. Take the time to read the question slowly and repeatedly. Forget about all the potential questions you tried to predict during your prep – focus on this question. You have plenty of time to read – there is no need to rush. What exactly is the question asking you?
#4 – Answer strategically.
First things first, calculate what the mark weightings equate to in minutes and pen these down when allowed. For example, if it’s a 60/40% mark allocation split, it’s 36 and 24 minutes respectively (assuming a 60-minute exam). Naturally, there’s no need to stick to these timings religiously, but they should be used a guide.
Once the reading period is over, create a quick outline of your answer(s) before you start writing (see why you needed to practice this!). The temptation to start writing immediately will be strong but you don’t have a backspace button, so it’s critically important to plan in outline first.
Additionally, by outlining, you’ll keep an eye on the big picture – it’s very easy to get lost in the detail if you just start writing up an answer without a (quick and dirty) plan. Also, check that your outlines loosely reflect the mark allocation (i.e. is the answer too short or long for the mark percentage?). Don’t get hung up if you’re short – you’ll likely fill in additional thoughts as you write.
Start with whichever section you feel most confident about, as this will ensure that you don’t run out of time in your strongest mark-earning area. That said, keep an eye on the time/weighting – force yourself to move on if you’re heavily overtime for a section. A diversification strategy (answering multiple questions, rather than putting all your marks in one basket) is wise.
Write concisely and get to the point quickly – this is an exam, not an assignment. The average writing speed is 13 wpm. This means that at best, you’re likely to write 780 words per exam. This is not a lot of wordage, at least not compared to a 3000 – 5000-word assignment. Therefore, it’s important that you write concisely and make your arguments with fewer words. Forget the fluff and get to the point quickly, or you will likely run out of time.
#5 – Breathe. Regularly.
It’s easy to completely stress out about the exams, especially on the day once the clock starts ticking. When this happens, everything clogs up and you just become less effective. Its easy advice to give and difficult advice to apply, but you must remember to breathe, stay calm and focus on answering the question. You’ve put in all this hard work – don’t let your nerves wreck you.
In this post, I’ve proposed a basic preparation strategy to help you prepare for the Henley MBA exams. To recap:
- T-Minus 6 weeks:
- Review the module material – go wide, not deep.
- Practice your handwriting – potentially by summarising.
- Practice your outlining – find questions on Quora.
- T-Minus 3 weeks:
- Take as much leave as possible.
- Have the hard conversations to manage expectations.
- Analyse each case in-depth, 6 days at a time.
- Summarise into your “cheat sheets”.
- T-Minus 3 days:
- Recap on each case, 1 case per day.
- Finalise your “cheat sheets”
- Arrange to print.
- Get plenty of rest.
- On the day:
- Reduce as many stress sources as possible.
- Go with the right gear.
- Read the question properly!
- Answer strategically.
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