This post is part of the series: “How to write distinction-earning MBA assignments”. Check out the rest of the series for straightforward, actionable MBA assignment ideation, planning, research and writing advice.
So, you’ve got this problem or opportunity at the office and you’d love to kill two birds with one stone by making it the topic of your next assignment. You’ve done some initial reading of the module material and you think it’s relevant – kinda…
In your eagerness, you get started writing. As you read more module material, you realise that it isn’t such a great fit after all – but you’ll make it work, somehow. You’re approaching deadline time and rapidly realising that you didn’t make the best choice – you work fiercely to shoehorn your business problem into the module-prescribed theories, models and frameworks that you’ve by this stage learnt are not the right fit. You reverse engineer. You shoot the arrow and then paint the target. You know it’s not right, but damn, you’ve come too far to start over. You submit.
And then, the mark arrives…
Irrelevant topics are all too common.
I’ve seen this sort of problem far too many times. I’m not sure whether the motivation lies in the potential efficiency achieved by throwing one stone, or if it is simply a matter of intellectual laziness leading students to fall in love with the first assignment topic idea they have. Perhaps it’s both, perhaps neither. Whichever way, it’s bad news.
How a bad topic results in bad marks.
An ill-fitting topic robs you of the opportunity to write a great assignment as it limits your ability to demonstrate knowledge and application of the respective module’s theories, models and frameworks. Given that this material-related knowledge and application is what the markers are assessing, a poor fitting topic often equals a failing or scraping assignment. Simply put, you cannot demonstrate a sound understanding of the module material (i.e. earn good marks) if the business problem or opportunity has no relevance to the module – no matter how good you are!
Accordingly, you need to make sure that there is an extremely good fit between your assignment topic and the module material (in particular, the key theories, models and frameworks). In order to find a well fitting assignment topic, you will likely need to wade your way through a fair deal of rubbish topic ideas. Therefore, you should start thinking about multiple topic ideas from day one, and refine these ideas as you progress through the module material. Inevitably, your thinking will develop through the reading process, and you may scrap some ideas, come up with new ones, revise, etc.
The implicit need to read.
Implicit in this recommendation is the need to actually read all the module material. This sounds obvious, but it’s a facet often overlooked by MBA students, given the unique (and intense) demands of the MBA, combined with full-time employment, family and so on. Everyone has different study strategies, but at the very least, I would argue that you should have a ‘skeleton’ idea of all the content in the module. You should know about all the bones (in particular, what and where they are) from the start, but you can learn about the meat as you need.
In other words, you should be well aware of all the key models, frameworks and theories in a module (these are oftentimes the ones spoken about at the workshops), and know what they are used for (i.e. their purpose). With this knowledge, you are at least able to assess the relevance (or irrelevance) of any given model, framework or theory to your assignment topic. If it is relevant, you can learn more about it – if not, you can leave it on the shelf. Importantly, you should be aware of that which you don’t know.
How to find an assignment topic that fits well.
So how do you know whether your potential assignment idea (or, hopefully, set of potential ideas) fits well? Again, different approaches work for different people, but I would recommend the following approach to ensure that you choose the best-fitting topic for your assignments:
Start each module by first reading the assignment brief 2-3 times – before your read anything else. Highlight the key requirements and make notes of anything that is unclear. The objective here is to start with the end in mind – what does the brief seem to be asking you to do? What is the ultimate outcome of this module? It will likely be unclear and jargon-laden at this stage. That’s OK – these are now questions that you will seek to answer in your reading, or worst case, at the workshop.
If any assignment topics bubble to the surface at this stage, write them down. If not, it’s OK – but start thinking about options.
Read the study guide only (i.e. no Key Resources or textbooks) in full before the workshop. While the depth of the study guide will vary from school to school, this is typically 100 – 200 pages, and can therefore easily be digested in a week or two leading up to the module’s workshop. The objective of this exercise is to give you a big-picture overview of the module’s contents (i.e. the skeleton mentioned above). You will still have many knowledge gaps, and some things will make no sense without you reading the key resources, but this is OK, given the objective (i.e. to gain an overview of the module’s contents).
As you’re reading through the study guide, evaluate any assignment topic ideas you thought of in the previous step. If you didn’t have any, start developing some ideas as you progress through this stage. Importantly, give some thought to what the key research question(s) might be, and what theory and fieldwork you might draw on to answer this question. If you still have time prior to the workshop, start reading key resources in the sections that relate to your potential assignment topics.
Lastly, read the assignment brief again. Has it become a bit clearer? Have you got a better idea of what is needed? Make notes of anything that is even mildly unclear. At this stage, you may come to the conclusion that you cannot undertake an assignment on your own business – this is OK. In this case, start thinking about what business might be ideal, and how you will gain access to the relevant data.
Attend the workshop with 2-3 assignment topic ideas locked, loaded and ready for critique. Having done your prep work, you will now be able to extract a substantial amount of value from the workshop. In particular, you will be able to get clarity and feedback regarding both your prospective assignment ideas and any questions you have regarding the brief. This is HUGELY beneficial, as it allows you to approach the workshop as a goal-driven idea confirmation exercise, rather than an aimless idea exploration session.
A word of advice – don’t be afraid to approach the lecturer during breaks. They’re typically quite impressed by students that have prepared for the workshops (given that this is sadly rather rare). Don’t be shy – share your ideas, ask questions and get (extremely!) useful feedback. Joining a lecturer for lunch can turn out to be the most valuable 30 minutes you spend at a workshop! Whatever you do, make sure that you do not leave the workshop without answers to your questions. Ideally, you want to leave each workshop with a very clear idea about what your assignment topic will be, what data you will need and what module material you still need to read up on.
Don’t forget the online support forum.
This may well be the most underutilised resource available to MBA students. While this functionality likely varies among business schools, Henley Business School’s Blackboard Learn collaboration space provides an online equivalent of taking the lecturer for lunch. If you have questions regarding module content or want some feedback on your proposed assignment topic, you can simply ask the tutors online and they will (typically) provide very useful feedback. Give it a try.
In summary, then:
- While the MBA is all about real world application, don’t make the mistake of forcing an irrelevant but timely business problem into an assignment.
- Don’t fall in love with the first assignment idea – take the time to cultivate multiple ideas and refine these as you progress through the module material.
- Prepare for module workshops by (at the very least) reading the respective assignment brief and study guide and preparing 2-3 provisional assignment ideas.
- Get critical feedback from the lecturer on your assignment – make sure you leave the workshop knowing what you will write about.
- Try out your school’s online support forum (if applicable).
Have a question, suggestion or counterargument?
I’d love to hear from you. Just leave a comment below, or get in touch with me here. Also, if you’d like 1-on-1 assistance with your MBA or business course, check out Grad Coach’s tutoring services here.