Compiled and Written By OnlineMBA.com Staff
Last Updated: March 2020
More than 800,000 prospective students apply to MBA programs each year, and one million people are enrolled in business school at any given time. MBA programs are popular for people who want to work in business. As the next generation of MBA applicants prepares to start their journey, all must work to find the answer to one fundamental question: which MBA program is right for me?
Where you decide to pursue an MBA shapes your professional network and influences your professional prospects. Fortunately, because there are so many MBA programs, learners are likely to find a program that matches their professional and personal interests.
The following guide is a useful tool for those interested in pursuing an MBA. The information contained within can help you determine whether the rigors of business school will help you accomplish your current academic and career goals.
Are You Ready to Pursue an MBA?
Many students worry about choosing the right MBA program, but the most important question to consider before reaching that point is whether you should even pursue the degree at all. MBA programs are intensive, stressful, and laborious. Many programs also require students to have previous business experience before applying.
An MBA is a big commitment. The questions below can help you decide whether an MBA program is right for you.
- Does an MBA align with my goals?
- MBA programs propel graduates into upper managerial roles in nearly every industry, but if students do not aspire to these types of careers they may want to rethink whether an MBA is the right educational path for them. Additionally, MBA holders often work well over the standard 40-hour work week — especially at the start of their careers — so individuals who value a relatively even work/life balance may want to consider a less strenuous program.
- Can I handle graduate-level work?
- If you thought undergraduate courses were difficult, you may want to think again before committing to an MBA program. Notorious for being stressful, MBA programs push students out of their comfort zone and saddle them with more coursework than they're used to. Those who succeed in MBA programs are motivated, focused, and determined students who have enough time and energy to commit to the many requirements.
- What is important to me right now?
- Before devoting thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars to graduate school, students need to determine whether they need an MBA. Some of the most common motivators include earning more money, credentials, new skills, and/or preparing for the future. Consider talking with those who already have MBAs to learn about how different priorities can affect your scholastic objectives.
- What experience do I have?
- Most MBA programs do not allow degree seekers to move directly into the program straight out of college. MBA programs are highly interactive and collaborative, and students typically need to bring their professional experience into class discussions. Most programs require at least three years of prior work experience.
- How long will it take me to see the payoff of my degree?
- The answer to this question varies for every student, but a study by the Graduate Management Admission Council found that graduates from MBA programs see an average salary increase of 90% relative to their pre-MBA salaries. This increase in income relates to either getting a promotion from their current employer or being able to leverage their advanced degree to move elsewhere. Because many individuals end up taking out six-figure loans to secure their degree, the time it takes to pay off student debt depends on the aggressiveness of the monthly payment plan.
- What skills am I seeking from this degree?
- Most successful MBA graduates go into a program knowing exactly what they want to get out of the experience. While some students aspire to lead large, multinational companies, others may want to start their own businesses.
- Where do you see yourself in five years? 10 years?
- MBA programs are a big commitment, financially and otherwise. Before embarking on an MBA program, carefully assess whether or not you really need the degree to meet your goals. Does the future career you envision demand the skills and/or credentials provided by an MBA? Or would you be better served by following a less expensive and less demanding degree path?
Why You Should Consider an MBA
Each MBA applicant has their own reasons for pursuing a graduate-level business education. While some may be driven by the desire to start or own a business, others may want to work in international business settings. Regardless, these students believe they cannot achieve their professional goals without earning an MBA. Aside from personal preferences related to job type and setting, some of the other reasons individuals consider an MBA include:
- Earning Potential
Annual salaries depend on a worker's industry and the school they attended, with graduates of institutions such as Stanford University receiving an average starting salary and bonus of more than $160,000.
- Professional Networking
In addition to the approximately 13,000 new MBA graduates each year, many industry veterans can share their wisdom and make introductions at potential workplaces.
- Leadership Roles in a Target Industry
A wide range of fields, including technology, finance, retail, and real estate, have an increasing number of high-ranking positions suitable for MBA graduates.
- Professional Development
If you can't decide exactly what you want to do with your career, MBA programs represent a great tool for professional development, providing exposure to many opportunities after graduation.
- Change of Career
Many workers pursue an MBA in order to change their career direction to enter a new industry and/or pursue a new job.
- Employer Reimbursement
Some employers offer to partially or fully pay for workers to earn their MBA if they commit to stay and work at the company for a minimum amount of time after graduation.
What to Consider When Choosing an MBA Program
Deciding to pursue an MBA is a big decision, but learners have many other important things to consider before actually matriculating into a program and starting classes. For example, you may find yourself asking which MBA program should I choose? And what should I specialize in? The answers to these questions will shape your career. Before making any concrete decisions, degree seekers should come up with a plan that suits their skills, academic talents, and career goals. The following sections examine these questions in greater detail.
Accreditation for MBA Programs
Proper accreditation ensures that a school and its program are certified and trustworthy. Accredited schools must adhere to standards articulated by outside learning commissions, so degree seekers know that they are obtaining a quality education.
Institutional accreditation typically comes in two forms: regional and national. Regional accreditation is a far more rigorous process, and students who have aspirations to eventually attend graduate school or receive licensure or certification should only consider attending an institution that holds regional accreditation.
Programmatic accreditation looks at specific degrees to ensure that the curriculum adequately prepares graduates for practical employment after college. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business is one such organization: it currently accredits 799 business schools in 53 countries. Employers and recruiters know which schools hold AACSB accreditation. To learn more about the ins and outs of accreditation and why it is so important, please refer to this guide, provided by OnlineMBA.com.Guide to MBA Accreditation
If you've begun researching the MBA admissions process, you already know how competitive schools can be. Acceptance rates vary widely between programs, however. While schools like Stanford and Harvard accept less than 10% of all applicants, many schools accept 35-50% of students who apply.
Among the 130 graduate business schools that submitted these data to U.S. News in an annual survey, the average acceptance rate for full-time students entering in fall 2016 was 45.7 percent. - USN
Before starting the application process, degree seekers should look at the admissions policies of numerous schools to get a sense of common expectations and requirements. In general, learners should be prepared to provide the items listed below.
- GPA and Official Transcripts
While some schools, including Stanford, have no minimum GPA requirements, many other institutions do.
- GMAT Scores
Not all schools post GMAT score ranges, some don't require it at all but learners can check out the average GMAT scores for the top 10 business schools to get a sense of what may be expected.
- Work Experience
The average MBA student is 28 years old when they enroll, meaning they have five to six years of professional experience under their belts. A school typically includes information about experience-related requirements on its admissions page.
- Letters of Recommendation
Most institutions ask applicants to submit at least three letters of recommendation, but individual programs have different requirements.
- Personal Statement
This document should highlight why you want to attend business school and how you're a good fit for the program in question.
The majority of MBA programs start in the fall semester, but some online programs provide multiple start dates throughout the academic year.
Each MBA program's schedule differs slightly, requiring varying lengths of time to move from matriculation to graduation. While the average program length is 20 months, some take as few as 10 months to complete. Other programs take up to four years to complete.
One of the biggest factors affecting program length is whether a student is enrolled on a full- or part-time basis. Because many students can't simply take off work for multiple years to attend school, the majority of individuals continue working while completing their degree. Another factor that influences program length is whether or not a student elects to complete an accelerated track or a traditional program. Accelerated degrees typically cover similar content but feature truncated class blocks rather than full semesters. They also tend to operate year round and cover course material at a quicker pace.
Most MBA programs do not allow students to adjust the curriculum extensively, instead offering degree paths tailored to either full- or part-time study. Many schools also place time caps on how long students can be in a program without graduating. A common maximum is five years, meaning students who haven't met all the requirements for graduation by the end of those years may be ineligible to continue in the program.
Cost of an Online MBA
Cost is one of the most important factors for many individuals considering an MBA program; prospective students should find a balance between cost and potential salary when choosing a school. While most degree programs have a high price tag, MBAs are notoriously costly. A report by Online MBA found that the majority of programs cost between $20,000-30,000, while those at the most expensive schools can cost well over $100,000. As of 2018, the average tuition for an MBA program is $28,840. The University of Virginia charges the highest tuition (currently $130,000), while the University of Wyoming offers the most inexpensive program (around $7,500).
Online MBA students have several options for finding additional funding for their degree. In addition to school scholarships, a variety of foundations, professional associations, and organizations offer funding to help offset costs. Most students also end up taking out loans and paying them back over time. MBA program payments are due each semester, and learners work with their scholarship donors, lending agents, employers, and personal accountants to ensure the full amount of tuition and fees is covered.
To qualify for federal student aid, learners must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. These forms can be sent in anytime after January 1; however, it is important to note that funds are awarded on a rolling basis, which means punctual students tend to fare the best. Depending on their place of employment, some students also benefit from employer tuition assistance programs. All told, 59% of MBA students receive some form of financial aid.
Tuition is the most expensive part of an MBA program, but students also need to consider hidden charges. For example, students at Harvard Business School can expect to pay $4,272 in student fees and insurance, $2,500 in course and program materials, and $13,194 for housing and utilities per year.
Curriculum in an MBA Program
Most MBA programs require students to complete between 55 and 65 credits; approximately one-third of these focus on core topics. These core classes tend to be similar across business schools and include coursework in areas such as managerial statistics, financial accounting, business analytics, operations management, and the global economic environment.
While students can't waive core classes, those who previously completed a business (or related) degree at the undergraduate level may be able to test out of a few of foundational courses.
Students do not need to pick a concentration or specialization during their MBA program, but most schools make these available to students who want to focus their knowledge in a particular area. In addition to providing a more focused education, specializations make it possible for you to market yourself as an MBA graduate and expert with a particular skill set and/or knowledge base. Common concentrations include accounting, business management, economics, entrepreneurship, finance, human resources management, information management, marketing, real estate, strategy, and supply chain management.
Typical MBA Concentrations
Marketing concentrations prepare students for roles in advertising, branding, market research, digital media, or product management. Some graduates plan to find employment at tech start-ups, while others focus on working with restaurant groups. Common coursework includes studies in strategic market planning, global marketing strategies, marketing research and analytics, and digital marketing.
Individuals who concentrate in finance bring home mid-career salaries averaging $126,800 and typically work in financial management institutions, banks, hedge funds, or other enterprises that require a nuanced knowledge of financial issues. Some of the classes in this concentration include investment management, securities trading, financial derivatives, and multinational banking and finance. Individuals who want to start their own financial or investment firms may also find this specialization particularly useful.
Whether a student wants to work with multinational corporations from American headquarters or plans to move abroad, an international business concentration is worth pursuing. These professionals find work in a variety of settings, including global fashion houses and boutique international hotels. Individuals who follow this path can expect to take coursework in international accounting, multinational financial management, international business law, and global operations and supply chain strategies.
Nearly every company in the world requires the knowledge and skill sets of human resource directors; as a result, this concentration is a favorite amongst students and employers alike. Many choose this concentration because it deepens their knowledge without limiting their job prospects. Coursework in this specialization covers social issues in management, leading the strategic change process, foundations of negotiation, and strategic management.
Faculty and Staff
It is important to ensure that your school offers a curriculum that aligns with your future goals, and it's just as critical to ensure that your program's courses are taught by respected professors. Some questions to consider include:
- Do your professors and MBA staff have diverse backgrounds?
- When evaluating potential professors, consider how their experiences and backgrounds can complement your future goals and inspire you. Do their accomplishments match your career goals?? Do you relate to their personal backgrounds? While finding teachers who you can relate to is important, it's also important to consider whether or not they can expand your horizons. A diverse student body led by competent teachers can help everyone increase their potential.
- How does the faculty contribute to a program's culture?
- Degree seekers should consider how the faculty as a whole promotes and encourages learners. Do teachers seem passionate about their subject? Do they engage with students outside of class by offering generous office hours and/or make themselves available in a mentor role?
It's important to pay attention to a program's reputation. MBA programs with renowned alumni and respected professors will attract attention, and the business community knows which schools reliably function as talent pipelines. Rankings give recruiters and hiring panels a sense of how adequately a school prepares its graduates for employment.
However, many schools offering MBAs do not appear in official rankings, despite turning out large numbers of prepared, successful students. Therefore, while finding a school with a good reputation can be important, it is up to the learner to make the most out of their time in a program and seek out additional opportunities to learn and grow their skills outside of the classroom.
Does it matter where you get your MBA? Yes, but every student has their own set of metrics when it comes to determining what they want out of their education. Does brand recognition matter? Are there certain companies you want to work for that you know recruit from specific MBA programs? By considering these questions, students can adjust "official" school rankings according to their needs and desires.
The strength of alumni networks at business schools impacts the perception of a school and the overall success of its graduates. Some questions to consider when assessing a school's alumni network include:
- How large is the network?
- Schools with large, active alumni networks provide ample opportunities to students, making it easier to make connections with prospective employers. This can be especially beneficial to learners considering an international role after graduation, and those who want to learn more about a particular region or field before applying for jobs.
- How engaged are they?
- It could be a bad sign if a business school has 100,000 alums where most individuals fail to actively engage in the network. Students who had a good experience completing their MBA tend to be more interested in staying in contact with the school long after graduation. Do alums regularly attend events at the school? Are they routinely featured in departmental newsletters and bulletins?
- Do alums participate in school events?
- An active alumni network is a sign of a healthy program. Schools where alums regularly participate in panels, speak to classes, and volunteer as mentors generally have a well-functioning MBA program.
- What are they doing now?
- A quality MBA program should have alums located around the world working in a wide range of industries. If this is the case, it stands to reason that the school adequately prepared its graduates for the rigors of their chosen career, allowing individuals to find success.
When thinking about the location of prospective business schools, students should consider whether they see themselves working in the same city as their school after graduation. Networking is a crucial part of the MBA experience and much of that hard work can be wasted if you move away directly after graduation. Lots of schools also offer extensive resources to alums; if you plan to relocate across the country, some of these may be difficult to access.
The alumni network is a powerful outlet because they are all people who have been in your shoes and understand how to navigate the path that we as students are anxiously attempting to walk successfully. - Harvard Business School
Alternatively, students who opt to enroll in online MBA programs likely have different concerns. The online alumni network tends to be spread out more across the globe, and learners can interact with prospective employers wherever they live.
Program Culture and Composition
While researching prospective MBA programs, students may come across rankings related to program culture; don't ignore these. The environment of a school or program and how the students interact are incredibly important factors to consider. Some business schools are known for their competitive, almost cutthroat culture, and students should carefully consider whether they can thrive in that kind of environment. If possible, it can be helpful for prospective learners to talk to current students and see for themselves what a regular day looks like.
There are a few other factors to reflect on as you evaluate programs. Don't forget to ask yourself the following questions:
- In judging the alumni network, does it seem like a good fit for your needs and interests?
- Do the people in this program seem genuinely motivated?
- Are my goals completely different than those of my prospective peers in this program?
- Is there time to participate in extracurriculars?
- Does this program push students? If so, is this done in a healthy and productive way?
- Is collaborative learning encouraged through a cohort model or is the program taught asynchronously?
- What is the program composition? Is it a truly diverse mix of experiences and viewpoints?
- How many students attend each class? Is the professor able to devote enough time to the needs of individuals?
Due to the intensity of the average MBA program, students typically require ample resources and support in order to thrive. While most business schools offer similar resources, not all programs are created equally. When researching prospective schools, try to speak to current students or alums to determine the availability and efficacy of student services. Some of the tools to look for include:
- Student Mentoring
This can be either with a former student or someone in the business community
- International Student Office
These are for learners who need to deal with additional cultural barriers while pursuing their degree
- Better Halves
A group for the spouses/partners of MBA learners
This is an extracurricular student club that sponsors dinners, events, and other activities largely unrelated to schoolwork
Research provides details about the latest developments in the field that learners can access
- Alumni Bulletin
You can use these to learn about former graduates
Aside from providing top-tier educational opportunities and teaching graduates the skills needed to become business leaders, one of the most significant services business schools provide is helping new graduates jumpstart their careers. Most MBA programs have career services separate from the rest of the school, providing tailored support to each learner.
Consistently touted as one of the best offices of career services, Cornell University's Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management is a good model for the types of resources students should seek. In addition to providing a range of career placement workshops and webinars, the school regularly hosts alumni panels where previous students speak about their professional experiences and share tips for getting hired.
Another service to look for is one-on-one coaching or mentoring. These assistive services can benefit young MBAs and experienced professionals looking into career changes, helping individuals figure out their next step and find jobs that match their desired career trajectories. Columbia Business School is a good example of a school that provides a range of online tools for busy students. Some of these include self-assessments, access to the alumni network, and a wide range of updated job postings. While these services benefit current students, alums can also rely on their alma mater to take advantage of networking opportunities.
Extracurriculars for MBA Students
Extracurriculars can help your resume shine. These programs better position MBA students for competitive jobs.
Extracurriculars in business school tend to be separate from other parts of the college or university and specifically focus on MBA-related activities. Individuals interested in giving back can volunteer as community consultants or provide their services to nonprofits seeking business advice. Learners can also opt to join entrepreneurship or marketing clubs. Many campus-based organizations offer opportunities to compete as individuals or as part of a team in business plan competitions and start-up contests.
Another popular option is to attend conferences — either locally or internationally. Some events include the Financial Management Association's Finance Leaders' Conference, which is specifically tailored to students, or the annual conference of the National Association of Women MBAs.
What to Expect After Graduation
According to data collected by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, 83% of 2015 MBA graduates found employment within three months of graduation, and 67% received a job offer by the time of graduation. Another survey from the Graduate Management Admission Council found that 84% of companies worldwide planned to add MBA graduates to their employment roster in 2015 — up from 62% in 2010.
It's important to understand how graduates from one school fare against others. As you evaluate schools, check to see if the employment rate and starting salary of graduates from the colleges under your purview are on par with other programs. Because recruiters play a significant role in hiring MBA graduates — and because many of these recruiters have personal opinions about or relationships with individual schools — well-researched candidates should consider reaching out to a few recruiters to assess how their prospective schools are perceived within the field.
What to Consider When Choosing an Online MBA Program
The popularity of online MBA programs has increased over the previous decade and shows no signs of abating. Degree seekers considering this path have much to consider before picking a school. In addition to researching things like accreditation, employment stats, and the many other factors listed above, prospective distance learners need to evaluate a set of factors that will affect their experience on a daily basis. The following section provides advice about what to look for in a top-tier online MBA program, as well as some questions that prospective online students should ask.
What Technology You Will Need for an Online MBA
- What technology does the program use?
- Most schools use a common learning management system like Blackboard, Moodle, or Canvas to facilitate any online materials, though some schools may also rely on proprietary systems. Prudent students should get to know these learning systems and ascertain whether or not they fit their learning style.
- How are courses delivered?
- Online courses can be delivered synchronously, where students learn in real-time alongside their peers and professors, or asynchronously, meaning learners login and view pre-recorded lectures, respond to forum comments by their peers, and turn in assignments at their convenience. Because the course delivery style has profound implications on the flexibility of a program, individuals hoping to continue working while pursuing their degree typically gravitate towards asynchronous programing.
- Who helps when I have questions?
- In addition to receiving support from your professors and/or teaching assistants, online programs typically have tech support professionals available — usually 24/7 — to help learners overcome technology-related problems.
- How do I interact with teachers and students?
- This varies depending on the specific program, but learners tend to interact with their professors and peers through a mix of email, chat programs, online forums, phone calls, and/or video conferencing.
Access to University Resources
Being able to access resources while enrolled in an MBA program can be important, and many prospective distance learners have questions about whether these resources are available and how readily they can be accessed online. Important things to consider include:
- Do online students have the same resources as learners in traditional programs?
- This varies significantly depending on the school. While some online MBA programs work to make sure that distance learners feel just as supported as campus-based students, other programs lack digital resources. This is an area where students should conduct extensive research before choosing a program.
- How are resources accessed for online students?
- In addition to providing online libraries, video conferencing for career coaching, and extensive job boards, some schools use separate, secure portals to connect current distance students to alumni or host online student clubs and organizations.
- How can online students take advantage of these resources?
- Aside from online avenues for involvement, learners also have the opportunity to visit campus to take part in face-to-face meetings, conferences, and competitions.
As discussed with campus-based programs earlier, faculty typically have an overwhelming influence on a student's experience, greatly affecting their future success. While some online MBA programs supplement their teaching staff with adjunct professors, the best schools use the same faculty who lead campus-based courses to teach distance learners. This continuity creates a sense of equality amongst students and ensures all degree seekers receive the same level of education.
Aside from the faculty leading your courses, students should also have access to teaching assistants, program administrators, and support staff to help with day-to-day concerns, such as understanding the requirements of an assignment and ensuring that an online project is successfully submitted.
When evaluating online MBA faculty, prospective students should ask whether the teachers have experience with online classes and if they've received any specialized training on how to best deliver courses to distance learners.
On-Campus and Travel Requirements
As with many other components of distance education, requirements for visiting campus or traveling depend on the individual school.
Some programs — especially those offered as hybrid degrees — ask learners to visit campus as infrequently as once per semester, while others may require students to show up once per week. Some schools allow distance learners to complete an online orientation, while other institutions require individuals to visit campus to meet with professors and get to know their peers. The type of experience a student hopes to have and how far they live from the campus determines whether these requirements represent pros or cons. Furthermore, many schools give online students the opportunity to walk across the stage to receive their diploma; this is seldom mandatory.
In addition to possible campus travel, some programs encourage students with international aspirations to take part in global business trips. For example, UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School offers online MBA students the chance to participate in a range of international and global immersions during their time in school.
How to Choose an MBA Program
1. Define your must-haves
Before comparing rankings, researching employment stats, and considering the best locations for completing an MBA, prospective degree seekers should determine their non-negotiable requirements. The U.S. is home to 4,000 MBA programs, and many more are available overseas. Because there are so many MBA programs, students with high GPAs and GMAT scores can afford to be selective.
When thinking about your must-haves, consider making an exhaustive list of everything that is important to you. Examples include the student-to-faculty ratio, location, average starting salaries for graduates, range of extracurriculars, and options for international study. After creating a list of 10-20 important factors, try to cut this list down to your top 5-10 requirements. Students with a strong set of priorities spend less time considering programs that aren't quite right for their goals.
2. Do your research
After creating a list of reasonable must-haves in an MBA program, the next step is to conduct research and find business schools that meet your needs. Once you have a list of 10 or so prospective schools, compare them against your list of non-negotiable needs. Rank these according to your preferences, weighing each against your personalized metrics to see how they stack up against each other. During this stage, it's also important to realistically think about your probability of acceptance. Consider dividing your list into "reach" and "safety" schools to get a better sense of what's possible.
3. Ask questions
Even if you think you have a good sense of each school after the research phase, there's still a lot to learn. At this point, many prospective students reach out to alums and current students to determine if a program met their expectations, what they would do differently, and what the culture is like. Current and former students often give a less biased viewpoint than information on a program's website.
It's also worthwhile to chat with any of your colleagues who already hold an MBA to learn about their experiences. Some questions to ask include: what did you like least and best about business school? What is your best advice? What do you see as my strengths and weaknesses?
When you speak to campus staff members, talking with the career services department is crucial. Find out their school's placement rate, how quickly students find employment, and the average starting salary for graduates. If possible, also try to speak to a few professors. Do they seem interested in your career goals? What previous business experiences do they have?
4. Visit Campus
Conducting research online and communicating with past and present students and professors can help degree seekers develop an idea of what attending a particular school might be like. However, none of these interactions is likely to provide as much information as actually visiting campus and getting a day-in-the-life experience.
Many schools host recruiting events throughout the year and invite interested students to tour campus, meet faculty and students, and shadow a class. This is a great way for prospective learners to see if they can picture themselves on campus and have any remaining questions answered.
Additionally, students interested in pursuing an online MBA should ask if they can test out the course delivery technology and virtually sit in on a class. Does the distance learning format suit your style of learning? Can you access course materials and assignments from anywhere and at any time?