Why Intercollegiate Athletes Make Top MBA Candidates

Being successful in business takes a strong work ethic, solid team skills and strategic goal-setting. At the University of South Carolina, we recognize those traits are often already well-established in college athletes. That’s what makes them above-average MBA students.

Jaime Cuellar, a former Gamecock with the Men’s Tennis program and UofSC MBA ’14, believes the skills he picked up competing in high stakes situations have helped him excel in high finance in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Competing for MBA-level positions means you need something that sets you apart –even more so when you’re pitching a client in a high-stakes deal,” he says. “The skills gained, and the ability to connect to individuals on a level outside of the office, in my case, on the court, definitely adds an advantage to being successful in business.”

Inspired by what Jaime shared, we caught up with a few of our current MBA candidates who competed at the Division I level for their thoughts on how athletics helped prepare them for business school success.

Unstoppable Drive and Determination
Kornelia Kostka, IMBA ‘20, competed in track and field at the College of Charleston. She credits competing in as many as 12 competitions per semester taught her how to establish, and meet goals, even when it was difficult. She devoted about 20 hours per week — and weekends — to meets, practice and travel as a college athlete. “I learned you have to work hard to reach your goals,” says Kornelia. “When you start something, you have to finish it. It’s not enough to try to do something, you have to give it your best effort. The same is true with the UofSC MBA. It’s intense and you have to keep up.” Kornelia, who decided to pursue an MBA after entering the workforce, hopes her interest in economic development can, with a UofSC MBA, translate into a position with the World Bank. “If I want to make a difference in the world, I need to know more about international business and strategy,” she explains. “That made the UofSC MBA the obvious choice.”

Classmate and former college golfer Drake Cassidy, IMBA ’20, says the commitment, excellence and achievement required of collegiate athletes translates well into the classroom. “Those traits continue to define me in my pursuit of the International MBA and for my career after graduation,” he says. His plan for a career that taps into strategy, finance and leadership has already been tested by long hours of practice and developing mental preparedness that kept his swings and strokes steady. “If you want to be good at golf, you have to have grit, determination, and a solid work ethic,” he says. “The same goes for the UofSC IMBA program. If I find myself tired and questioning my path, I remember what it took to be successful in golf and apply that same mentality to my schoolwork.”

Ryan Cerino, IMBA ’21, competed in men’s lacrosse at Bryant University in Rhode Island. He says that being a Division I athlete means you’re always pushing yourself. “You can’t compete at that level if you’re not willing to test how good you are,” he explains. “My model is to get better every day, and in order to get better you have to push yourself. Like sports, I’m pushing myself in my education to see how far I can go.”

Serious Time-Management Skills
John Coleman, IMBA ‘21, credits playing football at Duke University for his exceptional grasp on time management. “In the fall, we were up at 5 a.m. practicing until noon when classes began,” he says. “It was hectic, but it prepared me for the IMBA program’s high-pressure environment.”

Drake agrees, recalling the first week of orientation as a time when their time management skills were tested. “The MBA staff surprised the incoming class with a case competition, where we were separated into teams and presented our case to employers from all around the globe,” says Drake. “Just as I did on the first tee in any tournament when I was nervous, I focused on controlling my breathing and using that nervousness to execute in the moment. Of course, everything went smoothly, and we won the case competition.”

John adds that even though the class had only known each another for a few days, he quickly learned how to collaborate with different personalities around a common purpose. “My time management skills as a student athlete definitely helped with the case analysis and presentation,” he says.

Current Full-time MBA students, John Coleman (far right) and Matt Oliveira (far left), at the program’s orientation.

Genuine Teamwork and Sportsmanship
Ryan, who wants to work in private wealth management, says Division I sports is the ultimate teacher of team skills. “You have to work together and know how to step into different roles,” he explains, adding that collaboration is critical both on and off the field. “My classmates are my teammates. It’s like playing lacrosse, but instead we’re doing school projects together.”

Former college athletes play well with others in time-sensitive situations, says John. “That’s important in business school and business.” The former Jackson, WY-based travel consultant who wants to work in supply chain management for either American Airlines or Delta says you want to “play well in the sandbox” with others. John chose the South Carolina IMBA because he loved the program’s international pedigree and global approach to business. “It sets you up to succeed,” he explains. “The world is getting smaller and you need to understand business from this interconnected aspect.”

Ryan sees his IMBA studies as a way to both open up his career options and see more of the world. He’s especially looking forward to the eight-week, in-country immersion as studying abroad wasn’t possible for him as an undergraduate. “I admired friends who studied abroad, but I could never for a leave for a semester because we had practice every day,” he says.

Positive Mindset
Kornelia says her experiences in track have made her a happier person and helped her understand how to cope with stress. Her past training is a “mental comfort” she uses in the classroom today — including how to manage the high expectations of professors. “It’s similar to managing the expectations of coaches,” she laughs.

Maintaining a positive outlook helps during times when you feel overwhelmed at school or in your work. “Focus is critical for a global leader because there’s a lot going on,” says Kornelia. “You have so many ideas on your mind. You can’t do everything and have to choose what’s most important. You need to be okay with that.”

Kornelia says college athletics also gave her practice in reframing situations. Right before a track meet, she acknowledged feeling stressed and anxious, but reminded herself to be excited, too.

Kornelia, Drake, Ryan and John plan to turn the lessons of team sports — ambition, time management, teamwork and positivity — into business school and career success in the years ahead. There’s a reason a UofSC MBA is part of their collective — and personal —plans, says Drake.

Like many of his classmates, Drake didn’t feel fully prepared and knowledgeable for the business roles he wanted with just an undergraduate degree. “I chose the UofSC MBA because of its astounding reputation in international business,” he says. “It offers the top-ranked IMBA degree in the nation, the Office of Career Management has a high success rate for job placement, and I always dreamed of being a Gamecock growing up.”