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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.

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

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
Qualification Level 7 (NQF) / Second Cycle (Bologna)
Length 1-2 years
Credit Value 180 CATS / 90-120 ECTS
Availability Worldwide

Originating in America during the 20th century, the MBA is actually a relatively new postgraduate qualification. MBA programmes 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.

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.

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 consider an MBA. A qualification from a respected business school is an impressive achievement, with the potential to seriously enhance your CV.

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.

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 programmes 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 programmes 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 programmes 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 programmes will even use your professional experience in case studies and assignments.

MBAs are (normally) terminal degrees

This 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.

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

Many programmes 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.

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 programme could have annual fees of £20,000 or above.

These extra fees reflect the complexity and intensity of an MBA. Most programmes 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 programme as various MBA funding options are available. 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. Find out more in our guide to employer sponsorship.

What are the different types of MBA?

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

  • Standard MBA programmes – The most common type of MBA is a two-year course. These programmes are normally full-time, but they may arrange timetabled sessions to suit flexible learners or those with ongoing professional commitments.
  • Accelerated MBA programmes – 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
  • Executive MBA programmes – Executive MBA (EMBA) programmes 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. Programmes are usually part-time (allowing you to maintain your existing responsibilities) but are still very demanding.
  • 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’ programmes. 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.
  • Dual MBA programmes – 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.

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 programme.

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 programmes are also subject to accreditation by various professional business and management organisations.

These accreditors evaluate areas such as the quality of a programme’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 programmes. 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 programmes?

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 programmes.
  • 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.

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 programmes 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 programmes at triple accredited schools and other prestigious institutions.

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

  • Prove your aptitude – MBA programmes 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.
  • 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 programmes 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.

The MBA application

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

  • Submission of your academic qualifications and degree results – Despite being a professional qualification, the MBA is still a postgraduate course and most programmes 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 programme 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.
  • Graduate Admission Test scores – MBA programmes 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 programmes 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.

The MBA admissions process

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

This could involve:

  • Application essays – Your programme 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 programme.
  • Interviews – MBA programmes 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 programme.

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?

MBAs 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 programme 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 programmes 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.

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 programmes. 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 programmes only require a single year of very intensive study.

Do MBA courses include a dissertation?

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

This will be equivalent to the dissertation included in an academic Masters programme. 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 programme, 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.

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Last updated - 16/05/2019

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