I did the Smartly EMBA program, here’s what happened

Many of my best life decisions were made by saying, "Let's see where this goes!" When my husband and I started dating, for instance, I thought, "This will be fun for the summer until we break up; we'll go off to college in different cities and never see each other again." And then that never happened: we were both in New York and the rest is history.

I can say something similar happened when I decided to apply for the Smartly program. I had just finished paying off 27K of student loan debt and the prospect of going back to school (read: more debt) was not exactly tempting. And the truth is age is a major factor; going back to school in my 30's was going to put a major cramp in my life goals of owning a home and having a child.

I saw ads for Smartly on the train (specifically their fee-free MBA program) and figured it was worth at least throwing my hat in the ring. What happened next was unexpected; I was admitted to their Executive MBA track given my work experience. This track normally comes with a fee and I was offered a full scholarship to cover the one year program.

I honestly didn't think I would be accepted so now that I was, at no cost to me, I had to make a decision — should I do it?

To answer that, I reached out to folks I know who have done the traditional (not online) MBA program. Both reinforced that I didn't have much to lose, especially if I wasn’t planning to do a traditional program anyway. Taking 2 years off (even for a highly subsidized program I might’ve qualified for) to go back full-time was going to be a huge financial hit. And the company I work for wasn’t going to subsidize my degree beyond the limited tuition reimbursement program offered to all employees. Armed with this information, I decided to enroll with the September 2017 cohort.

And, of course, as luck would have it, that same month my husband and I found the little red corner house we would end up closing on in January.

Many prospective students ask me about my experience. My journey through the Smartly EMBA program was definitely colored by the life events going on in parallel (buying and renovating a house in NYC – not an easy feat!) as well as the fee-free aspect. That said, I've decided to answer some of the most commonly asked questions in the event my very specific situation can help someone make a decision or narrow down their options.

(1) How intense is the workload?

I believe Smartly is now sharing some info with regard to the rough time commitment required per week at about 4 – 5 hours per week. Your mileage will vary and it may depend on the specific week's coursework. I found some topics I had more practical knowledge of simpler than topics where I had minimal background.

That said, I would not describe the workload as intense. Challenging at times, but definitely doable while also living your life (read: working a full-time job and spending your other waking hours packing or painting). It only got tricky when I began working on my business plan final project which requires you to have a viable idea and it took me a while to refine mine.

Also, I'd add if you keep up with the syllabus (completing assignments per that schedule) you'll generally be better off. At some point I fell behind and I had to spend the better part of a Saturday morning catching up on coursework.

(2) What is the structure for the online course? And exams?
I will start by saying, prior to Smartly, I never took an online course. I sincerely thought this would be the hardest part for me since I tend to be the kind of learner who needs to write things down and take notes to really absorb something.

I was pleasantly surprised by the coursework. I enjoyed the modules and how they repeatedly test your knowledge of the material. Essentially, the program does a good job of "drilling" the concepts to build your understanding. I also really enjoyed the mobile app — keeping up with coursework became very easy when I could do the work from my phone while commuting to work.

Exams were different from what I expected. In each module, the last week would be exam week. During that time you had to find a 48 hour block in which you could start and complete the test. Given there wasn't any other coursework during these weeks, I would spend a lot of that week studying.

Thankfully, Smartly creates study guides for each chapter within a module. I spent a long time with each of those guides, taking notes and refreshing my recollection. The notes were critical to me as they helped me reinforce the material in a way that I'm most comfortable and familiar with. I find I have a photographic memory so writing and seeing the words on paper helps me remember them.

(3) Has it helped you advance your career?
From the start, I didn't have expectations that Smartly would significantly impact my career. I chose to participate more for the gaps in my knowledge that I felt I needed to fill having gone to school for Computer Science. For instance, I never had to take Statistics in college so I learned a great deal from that course work.

My hope is that the information I've learned can make me a better employee and also more likely to succeed should I start my own side business. So far, I’ve found prospective employers tend to look favorably on someone taking initiative to learn versus snubbing their noses that it isn’t accredited yet (I say “yet” because I do hope they can gain accreditation at some point in the near future).

(4) How was the interaction with other members of your cohort?
The interaction with other students was pretty minimal. There is a Slack where folks can communicate but it wasn't particularly active. I think this is a consequence of it being difficult to create connections if you aren't in the same space and you don't have any reason to work together (there were no mandatory group projects).

Events like a weekend in Washington DC and an international trip to places like Finland were available options to connect with other students, but my moving schedule (and the budget for renovation work) made it difficult to participate. I can imagine those in-person meetings would've helped me network but most of them came at a cost I wasn't able to stomach. I did go to a happy hour and Smartly does try to organize those semi-regularly for students and alumni alike.

That said, on the positive side, I was able to really learn at my own pace as I wasn't in any situation where I was measuring myself against people in the cohort. And I didn't need to worry about teammates not pulling their weight – something I've always seen in group assignments and, to be honest, I was dreading when I started the program.

(5) Was it worth it?
Yes, but I define that differently. For me, the only cost of this was my time. I had to commit to this program for a year with very little idea of how it worked. However, if I think back, I don't recall any time when this commitment got in the way of my day to day. And I do recall several moments when I felt like I learned something that I probably would not have gained competency in otherwise.

For those reading this and trying to make a decision, I’d recommend thinking about your own goals and whether this program will help you get there. If you are in my boat — definitely not going to be able to make a conventional program work and already have a fair amount of career experience — Smartly is a great supplemental learning opportunity and worth considering.

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