What is an MBA degree? It’s the world’s most popular graduate management degree program. Employers overwhelmingly agree that it prepares you well to succeed at their companies. But how do you know an MBA is right for you?
MBA stands for Master of Business Administration. There are plenty of factors to consider when deciding on doing your MBA, including MBA admission requirements, cost, curriculum, finding out which schools are the best fit and what you can do with an MBA too.
Below, we run you through the key things to think about as you research top MBA programs, and we hear from MBA admissions directors and students to get their advice and find out more about their MBA experiences.
MBA application process
Applying for an MBA involves a number of stages, and each school will have admissions requirements to meet.
As well as an undergraduate degree, most MBA candidates will have a few years professional experience under their belt before they start and a clear idea of how an MBA will benefit them.
“Research is critical,” says leading MBA admissions consultant Karin Ash. “For each school application you will need to explain how that particular program enhances your goals.”
You’ll have to complete an admissions test, most commonly the GMAT or the GRE. These tests assess your critical thinking, analytical skills, verbal reasoning and data analysis, and will take some preparation to ace, so it’s best to get studying early.
Most schools will require a strong score on this test and it is used as a fair measuring stick for applicants, who will be applying from a variety of backgrounds.
GPA = Grade Point Average for your undergraduate degree (US)
This is your chance to explain what you want out of your MBA, and how you would make a valuable member of your chosen school.
"Strong candidates come from all different backgrounds and industries. What they have in common is a habit of leadership in past and current endeavours, analytical appetite and curiosity, and a penchant for contributing to the success of a community.
"We want to get to know each applicant and to try to understand how s/he will contribute in our classrooms and in our community."
Your MBA curriculum will typically be a mixture of compulsory core subjects, elective courses, and some in-built internships.
Compulsory subjects are often weighted to the first half of the course, and cover business fundamentals like finance, strategy, technology, and economics as well as topics such as ethics, leadership, and communication.
Case-based learning is the most prevalent popular approach, where students are sometimes given real-life business problems and split into teams to work on solutions which they will later present.
“I think in any industry you’re a stronger professional if you’re open to looking beyond your own industry for new ideas and perspectives,” reflects Allegra Markson, a graduate of Cambridge Judge Business School.
“The MBA is the perfect environment to develop this mindset because it gathers professionals from any background, and encourages them to collaborate and learn from each other,” she adds.
The cost of an MBA varies depending how and where you do it. It’s important to keep in mind that there are will be costs on top of your tuition, such as living expenses, program materials, admin fees, and healthcare. In our BusinessBecause Cost of MBA Report 2020, we compiled all the costs associated with going to a top-ranked business school.
At the top end, we found the most expensive MBA is on offer at MIT Sloan, with an estimated total cost of over $237k, closely followed by Stanford and Wharton.
The least expensive top-ranked MBA is found at NUS Business School in Singapore, with a total cost of $87.6k. In terms of total cost, Cambridge Judge provides the cheapest top full time MBA in Europe, weighing in at $88.5k.
These figures may be daunting, but given the numerous funding options there are plenty of ways to make it work. Some students opt for private or government loans, or even corporate sponsorship from their current employer. There are also an array of bursaries and scholarships available to fully or partially fund your studies.
B-schools are showing their commitment to a diverse classroom by offering scholarships aimed at minority groups such Wharton’s Howard E Mitchell Fellowship for people of colour.
There are several independent foundations that support underrepresented groups too, such as The Forte Foundation, which provides talented women in business with the financial means to get their MBA.
Increasingly, there are even a range of specialist scholarships based on your work experience and career goals, such as the Lisbon MBA Social Impact Award, as well as more traditional bursaries given out based on academic merit.
Online MBAs tend to be more affordable than full-time MBAs since they cut out living costs and you can continue to work while you study. They are becoming increasingly popular amid the coronavirus crisis.
“For most, the MBA is not an investment in a diploma; it’s an investment in ourselves, that will shape the future of our professional careers,” says Chicago Booth graduate Eric Gene. An MBA may be a big financial commitment, but there are many benefits—we counted 50!
World's best MBA programs
Publications such as Forbes, The Financial Times, and The Economist put out annual MBA rankings.
Harvard Business School, Stanford, and Wharton are commonly seen topping the charts for the USA, while CEIBS often comes out on top in China. HEC Paris and London Business School compete for Europe's top spots, and INSEAD’s multi-campus MBA in Singapore and France is also consistently near the top of the list.
Financial Times MBA rankings 2020
These comparisons are a useful reference point, but it’s important to personalize your research based on your own preferences.
For some students, class size is key. At Harvard, for example, you’ll find around 900 students in the MBA class, whereas other schools' classes will be more intimate. There are pros to both large and small numbers, with bigger classes meaning a bigger potential network, whereas smaller cohorts tend to translate to more face-time with faculty and a tight knit community feel.
Others may choose an MBA based on the opportunity to move to a new country, develop a global network, and gain an insight into how international markets may differ, so will whittle down their choices by region.
Ranking is not everything. There are many MBA programs which aren't ranked which will offer a similar level of experience and career outcomes. The best school for you depends on what you want out of your MBA.
What can you do with an MBA? MBA graduates go on to pursue a great range of careers. B-schools will have working relationships with top employers, leading to internships, on-campus recruitment, and unparalleled networking opportunities.
Many world-renowned companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and AB InBev, offer MBA leadership development programs with the aim of fast-tracking MBA talent into high-level management positions.
Entrepreneurship is also becoming more popular, with many students meeting their future business partners during their MBA.
Growing numbers of MBAs are migrating into non-profits, or public sector roles such as healthcare, where business-minded individuals who can optimize efficiency and manage teams are highly coveted.
The most popular MBA industries are consulting, finance and tech. These sectors particularly value how an MBA can develop soft skills, like problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork, on top of professional experience.
"I feel so lucky to have an MBA from a top business school; it has put me in a really strong position going forward," says Adam Siegal, an MBA graduate from MIT-Sloan.
In terms of salary, full-time MBAs promise a great return on investment, earning you as much as $20,000 more a year in the American jobs market once you graduate.
According to a report by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), four-in-five business school alumni agreed that their course had excellent value when it came to salary increase and job prospects.
Ultimately, your MBA will be whatever you make of it. It’s a chance to travel, network, and make life-long friends, all while sharpening your business acumen. For most people, it’s a truly life-changing experience, and it could be for you too!
This article was first published in August 2020 and updated in January 2021.