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The Masters of Business Administration (MBA) Degree - A Guide

Think you’ve got what it takes to become a future leader? An MBA could help you achieve those goals.

Intensive, competitive and highly respected, the Master of Business Administration (MBA) is an elite professional qualification. No other Masters degree is as totally focussed on getting you to hear the words: ‘you’re hired’.

This isn’t to say that studying an MBA will earn you a spot on The Apprentice, but it just might help you become the next Lord Sugar. Which is probably better, really.

This guide provides an introduction to the MBA degree for new students. It explains how an MBA differs from other Masters programs, including specific details of its application process and course content.

If you’re not sure an MBA is for you, that’s fine. Our guide to postgraduate qualifications covers other types of degree - including MA and MSc courses in Business.

What is an MBA?

An MBA, or ‘Master of Business Administration’, is an elite qualification for business professionals. MBA courses focus on developing the leadership, initiative and individual excellence required for high-flying careers in management and entrepreneurship.


Master of Business Administration (MBA)
Type Professional
Subjects Business & Management
Level 7 (NQF) / Second Cycle (Bologna)
Length 1-2 years
Credits 180 CATS / 90-120 ECTS
Availability Worldwide

Originating in America during the twentieth-century, the MBA is actually a relatively new postgraduate qualification. But don’t let that fool you. MBA programs have rapidly established themselves as the mark of serious business professionals around the world.

Today’s MBAs are prestigious degrees, with strict entry and application requirements. Most expect candidates to have existing experience in addition to undergraduate qualifications. Many also use specialised admissions tests to select applicants by aptitude.

Who should study an MBA?

A traditional Masters degree is designed for student seeking to advance their knowledge of a subject.

An MBA, on the other hand, is designed for a talented and effective professional, with the ambition to become an even more talented and effective professional.

If that’s you, you should definitely consider an MBA. A qualification from a respected business school is an impressive achievement, with the potential to seriously enhance your CV. But it won’t be easy to obtain.

If you’re primarily interested in the academic study of management theory and techniques, an MBA may not actually be the best option for you.

Instead, you may be better off studying an MSc (or other course) in Business or Management. You can always return to do an MBA after you’ve gained the necessary professional experience.

Or, if you’re certain an MBA is for you, read on!

What are the differences between MBAs and other Masters degrees?

The MBA is a postgraduate course, delivering a Masters-level qualification. But this is where most of the similarities between MBAs and other Masters programs end.

So, before going any further, it’s worth summarising some of the things that make the MBA stand out.

MBAs require professional experience

Unlike other Masters degrees, MBA programs aren’t designed for applicants coming straight from undergraduate study. Instead the MBA is targeted at professionals with work experience, seeking to enhance their careers.

So, if you’re applying for an MBA you should normally have some experience in business or management. This doesn’t have to be at a high level, but it should provide a solid foundation for your MBA to build on.

The amount of professional experience required for an MBA varies, but most programs will expect you to have spent at least two years in a business and management role.

You’ll probably find that the quality and relevance of your experience plays an important role in securing a place on a course. It is this, as much as your academic background, that will be developed by your course. Some programs will even use your professional experience in case studies and assignments.

Studying a Business Masters without professional experience

You’re unlikely to gain an MBA place without management experience, but this doesn’t mean you can’t study business at postgraduate level. Specialised MScs and other Business Masters degrees are also available. They may focus on theory over practice, but can still offer advanced business training.

MBAs are (normally) terminal degrees

No, this doesn’t mean an MBA will kill you (MBAs are challenging, but not life-threatening!). It just means that most people study the MBA as a final qualification.

Whereas academic Masters degrees can prepare students for PhD study, an MBA is an elite professional qualification. If your aim is to succeed in business management, an MBA will provide all the training (and prestige!) you need.

So, what’s a DBA?

The DBA is a research-level business management degree. Put simply, the DBA is to the PhD as the MBA is to a traditional Masters. But there isn’t normally a direct progression from MBA to DBA study. Many DBA-holders are experienced management professionals who now combine theoretical knowledge with business practice and teaching. You can read more about the DBA on our sister-site, FindAPhD.com.

MBAs are highly competitive

An MBA is all about achieving individual excellence. By the time you graduate you should have the skills and experience to succeed in high-pressure, high-paying leadership roles. Which is also to say that you’ll have the skills and experience to succeed where someone else might not.

An MBA develops this by creating a highly competitive learning and development environment – right from the admissions stage.

Many programs have more applicants than places and use a system of short-listing and evaluation to select the best candidates. You’ll be asked to complete standardised admissions tests, write application essays and perhaps attend an interview.

Simply getting a place on an MBA can therefore be a very impressive achievement. And once you’re there you’ll be encouraged to test yourself against the rest of your cohort – all of whom will be as talented and ambitious as you.

This doesn’t mean an MBA is an unpleasant learning experience. You and your fellow students will be professional, respectful and ready to learn from each other’s examples. But each of you will be seeking to be the best.

Ultimately this means that you’ll leave your degree with an excellent degree, valuable experience and justifiable confidence in your own abilities.

Students enhance MBA programs

The quality of your cohort can actually add significant value to your MBA. Learning alongside (and competing with) the best students won’t just improve your skills. It will also provide excellent networking opportunities. Like you, your fellow candidates are seeking to become the leaders of the future. You never know when connections with other MBA alumni could be of value later in your career.

MBAs are expensive

There’s no getting away from it – a typical MBA costs dramatically more than other postgraduate degrees.

Whereas the average cost of a Masters in the UK is around £8,000 per year, an MBA program could have annual fees of £20,000 or above.

These extra fees reflect the complexity and intensity of an MBA. Most programs include a wide variety of course components and opportunities, with contributions from leading management and business figures.

The good news is that you may not end up shouldering the full cost of your program. Universities and business schools will often have a selection of scholarships available. In keeping with the culture of the MBA, these will often be merit-based, with funding going to the best applicants.

You may also be able to pay your fees by remaining in work. Even a full-time MBA will usually be designed to allow for more flexible learning.

Support from your employer

MBAs are designed for professionals, but studying one doesn’t always mean taking a career break. It can be worth asking your present employer if they can adapt your role, or perhaps even provide sponsorship for your degree. After all, the training you receive is likely to benefit their business.

What are the different types of MBA?

MBA programs are offered in a few different formats. Some are designed for candidates with more specific career goals. Others allow for flexible learning patterns.

Your choice of MBA program will depend on your own circumstances and career goals. The following are some of the main options available to you.

  • Standard MBA programs - The most common type of MBA is a two-year course. These programs are normally full-time, but they may arrange timetabled sessions to suit flexible learners or those with ongoing professional commitments.

    Choose a standard two-year MBA if you are seeking to boost your job prospects and can take a sufficient career break for a longer program.

  • Accelerated MBA programs – These courses are much more intensive, usually lasting around a year. They include the same content as a two-year MBA, but allow students to gain the qualification much more quickly

    Choose an Accelerated MBA program if you would prefer to take a shorter career break, but have the time and commitment to complete a very demanding course.

  • Executive MBA programs – Executive MBA (EMBA) programs are designed for very experienced applicants, often with senior management backgrounds. They tend to be more specialised, allowing you to transform and adapt your skills to suit new business developments and opportunities. Programs are usually part-time (allowing you to maintain your existing responsibilities) but are still very demanding.

    Choose an Executive MBA program if you are at a suitable stage in your career and believe this training will help you and your organisation move forward. EMBA programs are often exceptionally expensive and employer support is commonly required.

  • Graduate Entry MBAs – The majority of MBAs require professional experience, but some are designed for students coming directly from undergraduate study. These are sometimes referred to as ‘Graduate Entry’ programs. They may have a greater focus on internships and placements in order to make up for candidates’ lack of work experience, but will otherwise be a lot like a conventional MBA.

    Choose a graduate entry program if you wish to gain an MBA immediately after a Bachelors degree. Be aware though that not all business schools will offer courses in this way.

  • Dual MBA programs – Sometimes an MBA can be combined with another qualification. Popular dual MBA subjects include medicine, law and politics. They allow candidates to take up management roles in professional fields. Courses are usually longer and very demanding, but the process is simpler than studying separate consecutive degrees.

    Choose a dual MBA program if you wish to pursue a high-level leadership position in a career with its own specific professional training requirements.

Want to know more about choosing an MBA?

MBAs are different to other Masters degrees and the same advice doesn’t always apply to them. If you’ve decided this is the qualification for you, you may wish to visit our sister-site, FindAnMBA.com. There you can find more specific information, including a guide to choosing the right MBA program.

Which countries award MBA degrees?

The MBA is a globally popular (and well recognised) degree. Programs are offered by famous business schools in America and Europe as well as large numbers of new providers in emerging higher education destinations.

MBA programs themselves are also highly international, with candidates travelling great distances to attend their chosen schools.

This means that you will probably be able to study an MBA in almost any country.

Which countries offer the best MBA degrees?

Of course, the worldwide availability of business schools offering MBA programs doesn’t change the fact that reputation is a huge factor in determining the value of these courses.

MBAs are designed for aspirational applicants, prepared to invest a significant amount of time, energy and money in a qualification that will help them meet ambitious career goals.

The best MBA for you will still depend on your plans and circumstances, but it’s no secret that some programs – and some countries – have a particularly strong reputation:

MBA study abroad

The MBA is a truly global qualification and the opportunity to share in a wide range of values and experiences can add significant value to a course. Building an international network may also provide a valuable asset later in your career. You can read more about international MBA study at FindAnMBA.com.

What is MBA accreditation?

A business school’s reputation has an important role to play in guaranteeing the value of its MBAs. But it’s not the only factor. MBA programs are also subject to accreditation by various professional business and management organisations.

These accreditors evaluate areas such as the quality of a program’s course content and facilities, the skills of its instructors, the profile of its internships and the success of its graduates.

Accreditation is one of the first things you’ll want to check when comparing MBA programs. It’s not compulsory for business schools to be accredited, but the vast majority are (and any that aren’t should be regarded carefully).

Who accredits MBA programs?

A wide range of accreditors exist and it’s common for business schools to be approved by more than one.

Some organisations are domestic, reviewing schools in their own country. Others are regional or international.

The three most prestigious accreditors are:

  • The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) is a North American organisation, founded in 1916. As of 2016 the AACSB accredits 746 business schools worldwide. AACSB accreditation has a broad remit, assessing the quality of an organisations teaching across business, management, accountancy and related disciplines.
  • The Association of MBAs (AMBA) is a British organisation, founded in 1967. As of 2016 the AMBA accredits over 200 business schools, worldwide. AMBA accreditation is highly focussed, assessing only MBAs and related programs.
  • The European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) is a European organisation, based in Brussels and founded in 1997. As of 2016, it accredits over 150 business schools, worldwide. EQUIS accreditation assesses the overall quality of a business school.

Accreditation by any of these organisations is an international hallmark of quality. A small number of the very best business schools are ‘triple accredited’ by all three.

Triple accreditation

Business schools and MBA programs that are approved by the AACSB, AMBA and EQUIS are referred to as holding ‘triple accreditation.’ Less than 100 schools have this status. An MBA from a triple accredited business school is a coveted qualification, but you should expect places on these programs to be very competitive.

How do I apply for an MBA?

MBA admissions processes are usually much more selective than those for other Masters degrees. Class sizes are often kept small, with more applicants than places. This is especially true for programs at triple accredited schools and other prestigious institutions.

As a result, your MBA application will need to do two things:

  • Prove your aptitude – MBA programs are often particularly demanding, designed for candidates with existing management experience. Whereas another Masters degrees are designed to provide additional advanced training, an MBA hones the professional skills you have already begun developing. Your application will need to provide evidence of these and prove that you are up to the task of completing the program.
  • Prove your worth – The likelihood is that you won’t be the only candidate applying for your place. This means that it isn’t enough to demonstrate your ability. You’ll also need to show that you’re the best person for the course. To this end, many admissions programs use testing processes to compare and shortlist candidates.

The admissions process for your course will need be designed to assess you in both of these areas.

Because the application and admissions process for an MBA is so stringent, we’ve gone into a little more detail about than we would on our other postgraduate degree guides.

You can also read our more general advice about applying for a Masters.

Your MBA application

Each business school will set its own procedures, but your application should normally include some or all of the following:

  • Submission of your academic qualifications and degree results – Despite being a professional qualification, the MBA is still a postgraduate course and most programs will expect you to hold a good undergraduate degree. The subject won’t necessarily matter, but higher grades will be desirable. MBAs are about excellence, so proving that you’ve already excelled will strengthen your application.
  • Evidence of your professional experience – In order to gain a place on an MBA you’ll almost always be expected to have some management experience. Your program may set a minimum standard for this (usually two or more years in a management or supervisory role) or it may allow you to make the case for your own experience and its relevance. References from your past or present employer will usually be requested (and will be valuable even if they aren’t).
  • Graduate Admission Test scores – MBA programs often select candidates using standardised graduate admissions tests. The two most common are the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) and the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT). Of these the GMAT is the most relevant to MBA courses (it’s in the name). Not all programs will require test scores, but the most competitive probably will. The good news is that you can use the same score for multiple applications over a period of years.

How do graduate admissions tests work?

Admissions tests can be an important part of an MBA application. They’re designed to reveal core general skills in reasoning, numeracy and communication. But that doesn’t mean they have to be confusing or intimidating. After all, huge numbers of students take these tests each year. See our guides to the GMAT and GRE for more information.

Your MBA admissions process

Submitting a strong application is just the first part of your admissions process. Many programs will also put candidates through a process of further shortlisting and selection.

This could involve:

  • Application essays – Your program may ask for an essay as part of your initial application, or it may set this requirement for shortlisted candidates. Topics will be set by the business school. You could be asked to evaluate a business scenario, solve a hypothetical problem or simply reflect on your background, goals and choice of program.
  • Interviews – MBA programs often use interviews to distinguish between candidates who have satisfied their basic entry requirements. Gaining an interview is a positive sign – meaning that you’ve made it through at least one shortlisting round. Most take place in front of a panel. You might be asked to give a short presentation, or simply respond to questions.
  • Interview reflection – The most competitive business schools include a further stage after the interview. This involves evaluating your interview experience and submitting a written reflection. Doing so demonstrates your ability to think critically about your own performance and evaluate yourself – both of which are important skills on an MBA program.

Looking for more Masters application information?

The MBA applications and admissions process is often highly competitive and selective, but it’s not completely unique. You can find more general information and advice in our guides to applying for a Masters.

What’s it like to study an MBA?

MBA’s are relatively unique amongst postgraduate qualifications. They aren’t simply Masters degrees in Business or Management (those exist too, but they’re different courses).

Instead of being focussed on understanding and contributing to academic theory, your MBA will challenge you to put that theory into practice. You’ll be judged as much on your success as a business professional as you will on your understanding of the principles behind business success.

How are MBAs taught?

MBA courses are highly vocational, with an emphasis on practical problem solving and developing leadership potential. This is reflected in their instruction methods.

Whereas a traditional taught Masters will follow an academic program of group instruction and discussion, your MBA will probably feel much more ‘hands on’.

Expert training will still be an important part of the course. But this will often take the form of masterclass sessions with industry professionals. You’ll be encouraged to put theory into practice, rather than simply reflect on it.

What will the course content be for an MBA?

MBA programs are surprisingly interdisciplinary. Remember: an MBA isn’t an academic degree in business or management. It’s designed to turn you into an effective management professional.

You’ll obviously spend a lot of time on subjects related to business and economics. But you’ll also learn about the psychology of leadership and the communication and interpersonal skills involved in effective networking or marketing.

Some programs also include the opportunity to specialise.

This might be built into the course. Your program might have a focus on business marketing, for example).

Or you may be able to choose to focus on a particular area later in your course. This is sometimes referred to as a ‘concentration’.

How many credits is an MBA worth?

MBA programs are normally organised into modules, much the same as other Masters degrees. These are given a credit weighting, according to their scope and significance within the course as a whole.

The total credit value of an MBA is normally the same as that for a standard taught Masters degree. This reflects the academic value of an MBA and its place as a ‘second cycle’ postgraduate degree within most higher education systems.

  • In the UK, an MBA is normally worth 180 CATS credits.
  • In Europe (particularly within EHEA countries), an MBA is normally worth 90 ECTS credits.

How long is an MBA?

An MBA will usually be longer than other Masters programs. Most full-time courses are up to two years long.

This allows time for placements, internships or other projects as well as more conventional taught units and assessments.

Part-time or Executive MBA (EMBA) courses will be longer. In contrast, some Accelerated MBA programs only require a single year of very intensive study.

Do MBA courses include a dissertation?

Like other Masters programs, an MBA will normally conclude with an extended independent project.

This will be equivalent to the dissertation included in an academic Masters program. However, an MBA project will normally have a greater practical component. You’ll conduct work in the ‘real world’ rather than focussing on academic research.

This could involve working within a company associated with the program, or completing a personal business project.

You will normally ‘write-up’ and reflect upon your project once complete, but your success in meeting actual business objectives will be a significant factor in determining your performance.

Last updated - 23/02/2016

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