Graduate Business School: What is an MBA Program Like?

mba programAre you considering going back to school to earn your MBA? If yes, you may be wondering what an MBA program is like. While all graduate business schools are unique, there are many common characteristics and themes. If you are contemplating earning your MBA, the insight provided in this article will let you know what you can expect from the program.

A few points of distinction before we begin:

  • This article is intended discuss “traditional” MBA programs (in classroom) rather than online MBA programs. Earning an online MBA may have some similarities, but there will be some substantial differences between the two.
  • Traditional MBA programs can either be full-time or for working professionals (these are oftentimes called Executive MBA or EMBA programs).  Many graduate business schools offer both programs. There may be some slight differences between the full-time and EMBA options. However, in my experience, these differences are usually negligible. The main distinction between the two is fairly obvious – the full-timers will graduate more quickly than the working professionals.
  • Finally, there will also be nuances depending on the type of graduate business school you attend. A top 10 nationally ranked business school will vary compared to a small private university or a state school. Most schools will be similar in how they are structured although there will emphasis placed in certain areas depending on the school’s teaching philosophy.

With those caveats out of the way, let’s take a close look at what your MBA experience will be like.

The MBA School Experience

Graduate business schools will include most of the following elements:


  • Group Work – Chances are there will be a heavy emphasis on group work. Why? Because leading and working on teams is a stark reality in the business world. What better way to have students learn to cohesively come together than by having them do group work?  The majority of your classes will require some sort of group assignment. These assignments can range from group papers, oral presentations, and even collaborative homework. In some cases your entire grade may be based on team assignments, but more often than not the group work will account for a portion of your grade while individual tasks (often mid-term and/or final exams) will constitute the rest. Oh, and be prepared to be in groups with all types of people. Sometimes you will have responsive, responsible team members and other times you will be matched with unreliable members who do subpar work. But, hey, that is just like the real working world! You will have to learn to cope with all types of co-workers.
  • Case Studies – In your undergrad studies, you most likely learned straight from your textbooks. Your professor would assign a chapter and the corresponding homework or project. There will still be plenty of that in your MBA program. However, you will also encounter “case studies.” Case studies are essentially write-ups of real life business stories. In other words, these detailed articles chronicle classic cases where corporations or other business entities faced obstacles and found their way to success through innovation, strong management, etc. Most of these case studies will be sourced from the Harvard Business Review.
  • Presentations – If you are anything like me, you dread standing up in front of a large, well-informed and smart audience to give a speech or presentation. Despite any aversions you may have, you will still need to be well-versed in giving presentations because doing so is a core component of being a business professional. As such, presentations are abundant in MBA school. Sometimes you will have to deliver a presentation by yourself, but most often you’ll have to work with several others in a team effort.
  • Connection to the Real Business World – The entire point of getting your MBA is to prepare you to be the best business person possible. To this end, graduate business schools go to great lengths to establish connections with the local business community. There will be guest lectures made by corporate executives, projects where you join forces with or consult for a local business entity, and, of course, internship opportunities.
  • Curriculum – The good thing about your MBA program is that you will not have to spend any time on general education courses that have nothing to do with your major. You won’t have to take a foreign language class (although being fluent in a foreign language can be an asset in the business world!) or history or sciences classes. You will have to take some basic or “core” business classes in the beginning of the program. If you were a business major as an undergraduate, most of these core classes will be a refresher. For those with different educational backgrounds, these courses will expose you to business fundamentals. After completing the “core” courses, most MBA programs let you tailor your experience as much as possible by letting you select which classes to take. There may be some guidelines or requirements to take a certain amount of classes in specific subject areas (such as Finance or Organizational Behavior), but for the most part you should have some latitude in charting your MBA pathway. Of course, freedom of choice may not apply if you are getting a specialized MBA such as a Masters of Accounting. Also know that advanced niche courses will be available in the program – ones that probably were not available in undergraduate business schools.
  • Competitive – Do not be surprised if there is a healthy amount of competition among your classmates. The business world is competitive – why wouldn’t graduate business school be the same? I am not talking about devious competition. Rather, MBA students represent the cream of the crop. It is only natural for students to set the bar high and strive to reach those goals. As a result, students pit themselves against others who are also pushing to be the best. To go along with the competition there will also be camaraderie among fellow students.
  • Networking Opportunities – The camaraderie mentioned above leads to invaluable networking opportunities. Building a network is one of the most important aspects of graduate business school. In fact, obtaining your MBA could be a waste if you slack on networking opportunities.
  • More Interactive – In general, MBA programs are more hands on and interactive than undergraduate programs. It is common for undergrad classes to be massive in size with a professor merely lecturing to students. Conversely, MBA classes are smaller and interaction is encouraged – sometimes required as part of your grade! You can also have more direct dialogue with professors during class or after since they are often quite accessible via office hours or through e-mail.
  • Higher Standards – This should not come as a surprise – MBA programs require a high level of standards. You will not be able to coast through like you might have done in your undergrad studies. Unless you don’t have a problem with throwing your tuition money away, you will need to dedicate yourself to quality performance. Otherwise you will stand out – in a bad way!
  • Thesis – Lots of MBA programs will require you to prepare a thesis project (not all with though – mine did not). Thesis requirements will vary, but be aware that, in addition to all of the other coursework, you might have to prepare an in-depth, comprehensive project. Be thinking about your thesis in advance since it might be a struggle to come up with a good topic. And, don’t procrastinate! There will be nothing worse than getting near the end of your class requirements yet still having most of your thesis waiting to be completed.

Well, there you have it. You now should have an idea about what to expect when pursuing your MBA at a “traditional” business graduate school. If you have any questions then be sure to ask them by leaving a comment below. Also, if you have already earned an MBA or are currently in grad school and have further insight, please feel free to share.

Good luck in your studies!

I’m trying to drive up my Twitter followers, Facebook Likes, and E-mail subscriptions. You can also follow along via Google+, BlogLovin, or RSS. Please help me reach my goals by selecting one or all of these options!

Image courtesy of LifeSupercharger at Flickr.

15 Responses to Graduate Business School: What is an MBA Program Like?

  1. Jon @ Money Smart Guides April 29, 2014 at 3:25 pm #

    I think this is how many graduate studies are like. I was looking into an MBA but I wanted to concentrate in finance. After thinking it over, I decided to get my masters in finance instead. The MBA would have given me 3 finance courses – the rest were leadership and management. But in my masters classes, there was a ton of group work projects and presentations. It was nice to network with other professionals in the area too.
    Jon @ Money Smart Guides recently posted…Betterment ReviewMy Profile

  2. krantcents April 29, 2014 at 4:05 pm #

    I think there is only one other credential that can measure up which is a CPA particularly in finance and accounting.
    krantcents recently posted…How Do You Track Your Expenses?My Profile

  3. Little House April 30, 2014 at 6:57 am #

    I think another benefit of receiving an MBA is the networking. People you meet in an MBA program may someday help you land a job, which means that a traditional MBA program might be a better option than an online program where you really don’t come into contact with as many people.
    Little House recently posted…7 Garden Designs for Small Outdoor SpacesMy Profile

  4. Brian @ Luke1428 April 30, 2014 at 5:56 pm #

    My wife just completed her accounting courses to become a CPA. So many of the classes overlapped with an MBA that she added that degree on at the end as well. Her experience was quite different as it was an online program but that’s all she could do given her full-time work schedule.
    Brian @ Luke1428 recently posted…A Student Debate: Are There Absolute Truths About Money and Personal Finance?My Profile

  5. Untemplater April 30, 2014 at 10:45 pm #

    I don’t have any plans to get my MBA. I just can’t be in the classroom for long periods anymore. I could do a couple weeks to learn some new things, but that’d be my maximum I think. I enjoy working more than studying and group work.
    Untemplater recently posted…An Untemplate Off The Grid RetirementMy Profile

  6. Kay @ Green Money Stream May 4, 2014 at 6:19 am #

    I think the networking and presentation skills would be the most valuable for myself. I have a Master’s degree in Math, but have thought about the MBA for the experiences that you mention above. But the thought of working full-time, running a blog, being a mom, and getting an MBA is a little too much right now!

  7. Tie the Money Knot May 5, 2014 at 8:31 pm #

    I went to school full-time for an MBA and found it to be a great investment. There is a lot of learning both academically and socially that really helps. It’s often about the people and relationships in the end.

  8. Jen @Sprout Wealth May 8, 2014 at 2:31 am #

    Graduate school and MBA sound very intimidating but I believe for a good reason. After all, as you have mentioned, the business world is a place of tough competition that anyone contemplating about it should be prepared to the highest degree.
    Jen @Sprout Wealth recently posted…3 Times it’s Ok to Make Less Than You are WorthMy Profile

  9. Peter May 15, 2014 at 3:44 pm #

    I’m thinking about MBA solely for networking purposes.

  10. EL @ Moneywatch101 May 16, 2014 at 9:02 am #

    The MBA has its pros and cons as about any other self improvement endeavor. What you put into it is important because it will reflect what you get out of it. I agree with all the insights mentioned in this post. As we advance in technology online schools are promoting a ton, I just do not know if that type of education will help advance a career compared to a traditional MBA school.
    EL @ Moneywatch101 recently posted…The 10 Secrets to Build WealthMy Profile

  11. John McKinney August 22, 2014 at 2:32 pm #

    I have been looking at getting an MBA myself. Thanks for providing some insight into what an MBA program is like.
    John McKinney recently posted…What is an affordable term life insurance rate?My Profile

  12. Maureen October 8, 2014 at 4:44 am #

    I’d never recommend anyone to rely on an online MBA certificate to get placed better in future. World is evolving but the value that traditional MBA classes would carry, online MBA class wont be able to replace it ever.

  13. Business School in India January 18, 2016 at 1:45 am #

    Informative post, There are lots of benefiets of MBA and many faculties are in MBA you have to decide in which faculty you want to do your MBA. Lots off article availble online read it for more details. Thanks

  14. inder roy March 17, 2016 at 4:49 am #

    Couldn’t have asked for anything better today!
    Thanks for this amazing article. The insights helped me sort out a lot. Made notes and shall be using the tips right away! 🙂

  15. Hazel Owens May 2, 2016 at 7:45 am #

    I hadn’t thought about how much a business graduate program would focus on group work. However, it does make sense, since being successful in business requires working with other people. It’s a good thing to be prepared for doing group projects, especially if it’s something you haven’t done very much. Thanks for the information!

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge