“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” ~ Albert Einstein


Darden’s First Year MBA students are facing their first set of exams. No doubt, like the characters in this classic Darden cartoon, exams loom large. After all, this is graduate school not undergraduate; many MBA students have been out of exam-taking practice for several years; for most students, the subject-matter is new. And Darden is known for its rigor. Suddenly, the student confronts doubts and uncertainty.

Yet in May, 2014, the same students will inevitably graduate and probably feel a measure of pride at having faced a series of looming exams—and having succeeded. How will they have done it?

Each student will tell a different story, but common to them all are a few deep lessons about life, leadership, and management, such as these:

· Honorable work is a lifelong gift. The Honor Code is serious at University of Virginia. With each honorable exam, you grant yourself a boost in self-respect.

· Faith, hope, and clarity are important; but the greatest of these is clarity. Be clear on the exam questions. Don’t answer some other question than what the test poses. Second, be clear about the problems embedded in the exam case. Sometimes the stated problem isn’t what’s really wrong. Problem identification is a key task in any case analysis. Finally, try to gain a clear point of view about actions that the protagonist should take.

· Get comfortable, but not too comfortable. Find a quiet place to work, free of distractions. Don’t zone out. Gain an energy edge and try to maintain it during your work on the exam—for some, this means getting a good night’s sleep in advance; for others it will take several hits of Red Bull (which I don’t recommend). An exam that lasts several hours is a marathon, not a sprint. Sustain your physical momentum over the whole time.

· Own the problem. Having graded thousands of exams, I developed a sense for the writer’s boredom, distraction, or disrespect for the manager’s problem in the case. Such sentiments undercut the student’s energy, critical thinking, and serious intent to perform well. Try to finish the sentence, “I think this problem is really important because….”

· Bond with the reader. A foundational principle in effective communications is to know your audience and speak to them. Tell the reader a story: how you see the problem, how you analyze the issues, how you interpret the analysis, and what recommendations you draw from the interpreted analysis. As Winnie-the-Pooh said, “Start at the beginning, and when you come to the end, stop.” If the reader can tell where you are coming from and where you are trying to go, you have bonded with the reader…probably to your benefit.

· Don’t leave the problem too early. Pause to reflect a bit. Even if a solution doesn’t come to you right away, give yourself the benefit of intuition, serendipity, and inspiration. Albert Einstein got it about right: sticking with a problem yields great accomplishments.

Learning to take exams from lessons like these builds a foundation for all kinds of successes. Best of luck to the exam-writers.