An MBA can do wonders for your career, whether you are looking to accelerate the career track you are already on or switch to a new one.
But a full-time MBA program will require two years of intensive business study, and while it is a generalist degree, you will still need to dive into many business subjects in-depth. Increasingly, in addition to the valuable general management knowledge, you will receive, you can specialize your degree to tailor it to your goals. But what will your coursework actually look like during your MBA? What will you study from day to day? We will dive into the academic portion of the MBA to give you a complete guide to the academic credits you will earn, and the knowledge you will hopefully gain, during your MBA.
The General Structure of an MBA
While MBA courses vary widely, they all include core courses under some name. These are the foundations in marketing, accounting, finance, operations, organizational behavior, strategy, and business ethics that will be the building blocks of your management career. While you may feel as though you don’t need all of those basics to enter the specific role you are seeking, this is actually one of the advantages of the MBA degree—you will have a solid understanding of every aspect of business beyond your specific bailiwick. Even if you don’t need those other competencies for your short-term goal position, they will be invaluable later in your career.
Once you’ve completed your core courses, or at some programs simultaneous with those core courses, you can dive into electives. This is where you get to take a little more agency over your MBA degree and decide where you want to specialize in. Depending on what you intend to pursue as a career post-MBA, you can dive deeper into any of the core, foundational business areas mentioned above, or pursue other specialties your school has expertise in, for example in specific industries or even regions. The strengths of these specializations will vary by school, so look into that when you are applying to various MBA programs.
We believe that the wisest choice is to go to the most prestigious and widely known school you can get in to and afford, but topic specializations can be useful as a tie-breaker between equally elite schools. For example, go to Wharton for a finance specialty, go to Stanford for an entrepreneurial focus, go to CBS or NYU for retail, etc. While all of these schools do many specialties well, they are known for particular strengths in certain areas, and you should be aware of this as you are considering your options.
Breakdown of Your Two Years
Basically, those foundational, core courses will consume most of your first year (approximately 30 credit hours by the typical U.S. standard). Beyond that, you will usually have the ability to shape your MBA degree in whatever direction you want, so long as you meet basic graduation requirements by taking (and passing) enough elective courses. Most schools require somewhere between 48 and 62 credit hours to graduate, and a certain number of those (usually all but 6-10) must be from the graduate school of business—after all, you are there to get a business degree.
Credits Required and Some Examples
The 48 to 62 credit hour range mentioned above applies to most traditional U.S. four-semester-two-year programs. Many schools don’t follow that semester structure, however, and have their own unique systems designed to emphasize immersive styles of learning, flexibility, or global immersion. Let’s take a closer look at some example schools, each with their own take on the MBA program and how their students earn credits.
Columbia Business School (CBS)
CBS follows a more traditional system. MBA candidates must earn 60 credits to graduate; 18 credits must be in core courses and 42 credits will come from electives. Students typically take about 15 credit hours per semester to stay on track to graduate in two years. Finally, while you can exempt out of core courses if you prove you already have the foundational knowledge required, you must replace those credit hours to meet the required 60. That means, that if you have those foundations under your belt already, you could free up time and coursework to dive deeper into a specialty or two.
Harvard Business School (HBS)
Unsurprisingly, HBS does things a little differently from everyone else. Credit hours are not really relevant to their program, as during their first year ALL students follow the same required curriculum that includes foundations in finance, marketing, organizational behavior, and strategy, as well as the famous HBS FIELD Global Immersion program. You will take all these first-year courses with your designated “section” of 90, so get ready to get intimately familiar with 89 bright peers. In year two, having completed all your required core courses, the MBA student has total freedom to design their course load. You can take up to 5 elective courses per term (semester) in your second year, leaving you lots of freedom to broaden and deepen your MBA education.
Stanford requires its MBA candidates to complete 105 credit units to graduate. Yep, you read that right, 105. Before you panic and cross Stanford off your list, keep in mind they are on a quarter system and count credit hours a little differently (in the U.S., the exact hour requirement of a “credit” varies slightly state to state). You will take more courses, but those courses will be shorter in duration. The important breakdown to know is that your first year will be centered on core courses, with room for an elective or two and a focus on leadership coaching and a unique Global Experience Requirement. Like HBS, the second year is up to you—dive into those electives, and take up to 12 credits at other Stanford schools. That freedom to go outside the business school is heavily emphasized in Stanford’s marketing, though as we will see there are other schools with a similarly relaxed attitude.
For example, Booth claims to be the world’s most flexible full-time MBA program! Rather than counting credits, Booth requires its MBA candidates to take 20 courses broken down into three categories: foundation, function, and elective. During your MBA you will take three courses in the “foundations” category, choosing from a variety of courses on financial accounting, microeconomics, and statistics. Then, you will choose six courses from among seven “function” areas of study, including subjects such as marketing, operations, people, strategy, and more. The remaining 11 courses fall under the “elective” category, giving you broad opportunity to specialized or seek breadth in your MBA degree. In addition, all students will take the LEAD, or Leadership Effectiveness and Development, course. By giving you a variety of options even in the required “foundation” and “function” courses, Booth may be justified in claiming to be the most flexible full-time MBA program out there.
Fuqua requires a whopping 79 credits, 35 of which consist of required and core courses, and 44 of which are electives. 26 of those required credits are “core” courses, which students can be exempted from, but they will still need 79 credits to graduate, so plan on replacing those core credits with elective courses. If you hadn’t guessed from that high number of credits, Duke also operates on its own unique schedule structure, consisting of fast-paced 6-week terms. To start, you’ll participate in a month of orientation, taking three required courses that are intended to prepare you for the next two years of study. Following that orientation, you’ll dive into those 6-week terms. By the spring terms you will be adding electives into your course schedule. Year 2, as at other programs, is driven by electives of your choice.
Do your own research!
As you are compiling a list of programs you are interested in, it’s important to research how your schools of interest set up the academic aspect of the MBA. Find out what credits they require, how they structure (or don’t structure) your two-year course of study, and how much flexibility you’ll have to make the degree your own. These are factors can be useful talking points in your essays.
Beyond earning credit
Don’t forget that in addition to being a student during your MBA, you need to think about networking and recruiting to take full advantage of your two years. The academic portion of your degree is, of course, central, but more so than most graduate degrees, the MBA is about who you meet and how you get involved. Look into student organizations and networks that would interest you at your programs of interest, and research the size, accessibility, and reach of the school’s alumni and career services program. These are essential factors in setting you up for success in your career.
You should walk away from your MBA degree with not only strong academic foundations in business, but experiences, leadership skills, and a network of valuable contacts to help you advance quickly in your chosen career. To make sure that you do walk away with these advantages, make sure that you do adequate research during the application process to find the right program for you: one with academics that suit your needs, flexibility or lack of flexibility that will help you thrive, and a strong program for whatever specialty you might want to focus on during your MBA.
Now, read up and get smart:
- Master in Finance Crash Course
- MBA Essay Analysis Book
- 50 Essays That Worked (Latest Edition)
- Resume Guide
- LOR Guide
- European Crash Course
That’ll get you started. Still have questions? Reach out, and let’s gab.
Our only requirement is that you don’t prefer warm milk over cold milk. Everyone else, 100% welcome.