Earning a Master of Business Administration is a popular path for those with hopes of climbing the corporate ladder and moving into a managerial or executive role. It’s also an attractive route for those with an entrepreneurial spirit.
An MBA isn’t always a “silver bullet” to success in the business world, though, says Steve Thompson, senior director of full-time admissions at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Business. It’s a significant commitment that requires time, money and energy. Before prospective students enroll in graduate business school, there are several factors to consider, experts say, including understanding the purpose that an MBA is intended to serve.
“I always say that when someone’s looking at pursuing an MBA, it’s meant to be a catalyst for change,” Thompson says. “And that can look very different depending on the circumstances someone is in. So reflecting on that, ‘What is this supposed to catalyze for me?’ It’s about amplifying your career as it is currently.”
In theory, an MBA is designed to help people become more effective leaders and managers, says Jack Smothers, associate professor of management and MBA program director at the University of Southern Indiana.
“If you need to make better sense of your environment and be more effective in your leadership, then that’s the benefit of the MBA,” he says.
There are several different options students can take if they’re interested in an MBA. Many schools offer full-time and part-time programs, as well as online and executive programs. Depending on where potential applicants are in both their lives and careers, one program might serve them better than another. Some people might also realize an MBA isn’t necessary for their long-term career goals.
Here are four questions prospective MBA students should ask themselves before applying to graduate business school.
Is an MBA Right for Me?
As students contemplate applying to business school, experts say one of the first steps is to determine their motivation for pursuing an MBA. Some people might be looking to forge a long career at their current company and see an MBA as a credential to help them advance up the corporate ladder. Others might be looking for a change of pace or even to change careers and enter the business world. Some may be hoping to start their own company.
It’s vital for people to first determine their “why,” experts say, as that often corresponds with their long-term career goals and whether an MBA would provide value to that pursuit. An MBA might prepare someone to be the chief financial officer of a company, but may not be necessary for a position in middle management.
An MBA isn’t for everybody, Thompson says. It’s a degree that is often highly focused on practical business applications rather than intellectual curiosity.
An MBA program is “not a time to explore careers,” says Rachel Beck, a managing director at mbaMission, an MBA admissions consulting company. People should only apply if they’re working toward specific goals.
Prospective students should take time to figure out what their ideal outcome is and what they ultimately hope to get out of the program, Thompson says.
What Do I Hope to Gain From an MBA?
A common motivation that Beck says she hears from MBA applicants is “building a network.” While this is valuable, she cautions against students using it as a driving factor for going to business school. Instead, she says prospective students should consider how an MBA will help to practically advance their career.
“Think about where you’re going to center your studies,” she says. “Are you somebody who doesn’t have a business background from your undergraduate degree and you really need to build your foundational skills? Do you want to center your studies in an area that you want to really build knowledge in?”
One example, Smothers says, would be someone with an undergraduate degree in nursing who has been working in a hospital as a registered nurse getting an MBA in health-care administration. That would allow them to stay in their field of health care but migrate to the business side.
Like undergraduate tracks, MBA programs offer majors, pathways, specializations or concentrations, though the structure may vary at different schools. At USI, for example, students can choose from specific pathways like health-care administration, finance, data analytics, project management, engineering management and human resources.
“You also want to think about how an MBA will keep you growing as a leader and a manager,” Beck says. “I think this is an area that a lot of people overlook, but it’s a very important part of the MBA experience where you’re seeing yourself growing into leadership and management in the years ahead. So you really want to build those skills during the MBA.”
For some prospective students, there might not be much to gain from an MBA.
The average full-time MBA student is typically between 27 and 28 years old, experts say. People can theoretically get an MBA at any age, but those who are older are often far enough along in their career that an MBA wouldn’t serve much purpose for them, Beck says. Someone changing careers later in life might benefit from an MBA, however, especially if their career change involves entry into the business world.
Which MBA Path Makes Sense?
Part of figuring out if an MBA is right for you is also determining if it makes sense logistically. Because of the average age of MBA students, many are balancing a full-time job and family or community responsibilities.
Prospective students should determine what time commitments are required for various programs. A full-time MBA program typically lasts two years, though some accelerated programs can be completed in one year.
Part-time and executive MBA programs may vary in length and, like online MBA programs, are typically designed for people attending school while working a full-time job. Some schools, like Kellogg, also offer evening and weekend MBA programs to help accommodate working students.
Even part-time programs may be more intensive than people expect, says Kevin Bender, executive director for MBA enrollment management and recruiting at Wake Forest University School of Business. It’s important to understand the time commitment required, he says.
“A lot of students are married, some with kids, and want to be able to live their life while they’re trying to change their position in life, but they don’t want to give up going to weddings on weekends and family vacations and things like that,” Bender says.
Will I Be Competitive in the MBA Applicant Pool?
Admission to a top MBA program can be competitive, Beck says, but programs vary in what they’re looking for.
Schools often vary in their admissions requirements, though. USI, for example, doesn’t require test scores, although students may submit them if they choose. Students are evaluated on their undergraduate GPA, which must be 2.5 or above, resume and three professional references, Smothers says.
Wake Forest doesn’t have a minimum GPA requirement and places emphasis on professional work experience, giving preference to applicants with at least two years of full-time work under their belts. Kellogg also does not require a minimum GPA, although their typical student has a 3.7 undergraduate GPA.
Full-time programs typically require two years of work experience, while part-time programs usually like to see three to five, Bender says.
Executive MBA programs typically prefer between eight and 12 years of work experience, Beck says.
“The biggest reason that people are pursuing an MBA is they’re looking for career advancement,” Bender says. “Most MBA programs are going to have some level of work requirement.”
Students should research their prospective schools and determine if they fit the typical student profile and if the program is right for them, Bender says.
“Hopefully they’re looking at more than one program and they’re asking the same questions to each school, and they can create a pros and cons list for each university, each program, and make a very well-informed decision,” he says.
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