What an MBA Degree Is and What You Need to Know

An MBA is ideal for people who want to gain business skills and accelerate their careers.

MBA programs teach students how to motivate people and command respect.(Getty Images)

College students and young professionals often wonder whether attending a top graduate business school will set them up for career success.

An MBA degree is a popular steppingstone to C-suite jobs at large corporations and an asset for budding entrepreneurs. It's a credential that appears on the resumes of numerous Fortune 500 executives, including Walmart president and CEO Doug McMillon, who earned his MBA at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, and Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg, an MBA alumna of Harvard Business School in Massachusetts.

But while many prominent business executives hold an MBA, the degree isn't a golden ticket to fame or fortune. Excelling in business requires initiative, creativity and effort, regardless of someone's academic pedigree, according to MBA experts.

"There's nothing about getting an MBA that doesn't require initiative from that point all the way through your career," says Elissa Sangster, CEO of the Forté Foundation, a nonprofit that encourages women to attend MBA programs and pursue ambitious career goals.

An MBA degree from a quality business school can help people break into certain highly competitive business sectors, such as Silicon Valley tech companies or the Wall Street finance industry, Sangster says. Prospective students who dream of working in major cities far from home can often benefit from earning their MBA at a nonlocal school, she adds.

"When you think about business school, there are so many great choices that are going to require you to pack up your apartment or your home and move across the country," Sangster says.

However, MBA hopefuls who have family commitments or want to stay at their current company may not want or need to attend a nationally renowned B-school if that means moving across the country, she acknowledges. Those who are more focused on gaining skills than adding cachet to their resume can benefit from attending a regional B-school.

For students who are intrigued by the possibility of earning an MBA degree but wonder whether it's a good fit, here's an outline of what they can expect to get out of an MBA program.

What 'MBA' Stands For

MBA is the common abbreviation for a Master of Business Administration degree, and recipients typically stop attending school after receiving it.

However, those who are interested in conducting business research may decide to pursue a doctorate in business or management. Such students can earn a Ph.D. or a Doctor of Business Administration degree, commonly known as a DBA.

The Cost of an MBA

Annual tuition and fees are far higher at some ranked, full-time MBA programs than at others. The most expensive ranked programs charged yearly rates of $70,000 or more in the 2021-2022 school year, while the least costly programs were below $20,000.

Top business schools tend to have higher tuition and fees than schools further down the rankings. But this isn't always the case, and cost differences sometimes exist between B-schools that rank similarly. For example, New York University's Leonard N. Stern School of Business charged $78,700 in tuition and fees for the 2021-2022 year, but the school it tied for 12th place in the overall U.S. News MBA rankings – Duke University Fuqua School of Business in North Carolina – charged $70,000.

Sticker prices are typically lower at public schools than private schools, especially for in-state students. However, advertised MBA costs can be misleading, since many students receive merit scholarships or need-based financial aid.

Partial and full-ride MBA scholarships exist, but they can be extraordinarily competitive. Some MBA scholarships are reserved for specific populations of applicants such as women, students of color, active-duty military personnel and military veterans. But there are also scholarships open to any applicant, regardless of background or profession.

The Average MBA Salary and Bonus

Starting salaries and signing bonuses vary greatly among MBA graduates, with alumni of highly ranked B-schools in the 2023 U.S. News Best Business Schools rankings earning notably more than their peers who graduated from lower-ranked schools.

Among the 10 ranked B-schools where the average salary and bonus were highest, the overall average compensation was $175,789. At the 10 ranked B-schools where the average salary and bonus were lowest, the overall average compensation was $55,755.

U.S News data shows that pay among MBA grads differs by sector. Those who work in the consulting sector are paid an average base salary of nearly $147,200, while those who work for the government typically make approximately $87,700, or about $59,500 less.

How Long it Takes to Get an MBA

A full-time MBA program typically lasts two years, though many accelerated full-time MBA programs take a single year. This fast-paced type of MBA is common, especially at non-U.S. business schools.

Part-time and executive MBA programs vary in length, depending on how many credits a student enrolls in each academic semester or quarter. Executive and part-time MBA programs are designed for working professionals who are attending school while maintaining a full-time job.

MBA Requirements

MBA applications typically include standardized test scores, resumes, academic transcripts, essays and recommendation letters.

Many B-schools will accept either GMAT or GRE test scores. However, there are some test-optional MBA programs where applicants do not need to submit business school entrance exam scores. Additionally, some B-schools that ordinarily require test scores will waive that requirement for applicants who qualify based on impressive work experience or a solid college GPA.

B-schools occasionally invite applicants to interviews and sometimes require applicants to submit video essays. And most programs prefer MBA applicants who have significant work experience, though some programs are designed for college students or recent college graduates.

MBA admissions officers generally like to see evidence of career progression in an MBA application, meaning that the applicant gradually took on more professional responsibility. It's also helpful if applicants have success stories about how they were able to contribute to their current company, past employers, college campus or local community, experts say.

Types of MBA Degrees

There are multiple types of MBA programs to choose from, including full-time, part-time and executive MBA programs. Each type is appropriate for a different kind of student, says Rebecca Horan, a former admissions officer for the executive MBA program at NYU's Stern School of Business.

A full-time MBA program is an all-consuming educational experience that allows students to reset their career trajectories, Horan says. "You can use it to accelerate your career and you can also use it to do a career switch, because it is such an intensive, all-in program."

That said, a part-time program may be a better fit for someone satisfied with his or her career path but who wants to move up at work, especially if the company is willing to subsidize the cost of the program, Horan says. Someone who is happy with his or her current job may not want to leave it to pursue a full-time MBA program, she says.

Executive MBA programs, Horan adds, are designed for seasoned businesspeople who want to leap to the next level in their career and increase their leadership skills.

One-year, full-time MBA programs typically cost less than two-year programs, but the speed of these programs means that students must carry a heavy academic workload, experts say.

MBA Concentrations and Specializations

MBA programs generally offer a range of concentrations or specializations that allow students to acquire expertise in a specific aspect of business, such as finance or technology.

MBA hopefuls should decide which topic to specialize in based on what skills would help them improve their work performance and which specialties are most likely to increase their job opportunities, experts say. MBA graduates with in-demand specializations are generally paid higher wages than their peers.

How to Prepare for an MBA

It's important for aspiring students to figure out their general career goals before pursuing an MBA program so they can capitalize on their program's on-campus recruitment opportunities, Horan says. MBA recruiters often visit business school campuses shortly after MBA programs start.

According to Sangster, college students who know they are interested in business school should take the GMAT or GRE as soon as possible. MBA hopefuls are likely to perform best on standardized tests while they are still students, as opposed to after they have spent years in the workforce, she says.

What Skills an MBA Teaches

MBA programs help students develop the skills required to excel as business executives, such as the ability to quickly and accurately analyze large amounts of information. MBA programs also teach students how to inspire and motivate people and command respect, skills that are vital for those who want to tackle ambitious business projects that require teamwork, MBA faculty say.

"An MBA degree is designed to teach everything needed to run your own business," Michael Provitera, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Barry University in Florida who has an MBA and a DBA, wrote in an email. "However, the program caters to managers that want to become leaders and students aspiring to climb the corporate ladder."

Phyllis Zimbler Miller, who received her MBA in finance from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 1980, says she has greatly benefited from the lessons she learned in MBA courses decades ago.

"And every day of my life since then I have used my graduate business education, which provides an effective mindset and framework for looking at situations and acting on these situations – both professional and personal – that is not provided in most undergraduate education," Zimbler Miller, a screenwriter, author and playwright, wrote in an email.

What Classes Are Included in an MBA

An MBA typically includes courses in accounting, finance, marketing, organizational behavior, economics, management and business ethics.

The breadth of the MBA curriculum is something that James Reeves, a practice director of environmental, social and governance consulting with Patina - A Korn Ferry Company, says he appreciated about his MBA experience at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. The MBA program Reeves completed in 2013 offered him exposure to multiple aspects of business and didn't pigeonhole him into a specific career track, he says.

The variety of courses was a selling point for him, Reeves says, though someone who wants to become a subject matter expert may be frustrated by the fact that an MBA covers so much material. His MBA provided a big-picture understanding of business and is useful as he consults with the C-suite and members of boards of directors, he adds.

"Now, because of my education, I'm easily able to speak their language, present data to them in the way they're used to receiving information, and get my point across in a way that creates advocates for my point of view," Reeves wrote in an email.

According to Horan, a top-notch MBA program not only offers theoretical lessons in how business works, but also experiential learning opportunities where students do meaningful business projects for actual companies.

Horan, a brand strategist who earned her MBA at NYU, says that during her MBA program she worked on a marketing campaign for a chocolate company that needed to increase sales during the slow summer months. Such projects help MBA students gain real-world skills, she says.

When Combining an MBA With Another Grad Degree Makes Sense

Before pursuing an MBA and another degree in a dual-degree or joint-degree program, prospective students should think seriously about whether they need two graduate degrees, MBA alumni suggest. Earning two degrees at once is psychologically and financially taxing, so it's not right for everybody.

However, it could be a good choice for people who have genuine interest in two degrees and a serious plan about how they would use both. For example, someone who wants to run a hospital may wish to combine an MBA with a degree in a health care field, while a person who intends to run an arts organization might decide to pair an MBA with a Master of Fine Arts, or MFA, credential.

"Don't fall in love with the idea that you want to get into that type of program for vanity reasons, meaning that you want that J.D.-MBA because it would look really good on your resume," Reeves says.

It's important to ensure that you have a compelling reason to pursue a dual-degree program that explains why a single advanced degree will not suffice, Reeves adds.

People contemplating a J.D.-MBA should know that business executives and business lawyers tend to have different mindsets, Sangster says. Corporate leaders typically are willing to take bold risks if those opportunities could result in hefty profits, she explains. Meanwhile, corporate attorneys usually strive to minimize risks, since their job is to recognize the potential for legal harm and mitigate the possibility of penalties.

For that reason, it can be hard to combine those two disciplines, she suggests.

Decide for Yourself: Is an MBA Worth It?

"An MBA degree is not a password into a secret society," Reeves says. "Success doesn't just find you because of your degree. You will still work just as hard as you did before the degree and I might even say you have to work harder because you're working on more complex, higher-stakes assignments."

The greatest benefit of an MBA degree is the relationships students forge with their classmates and faculty, says Nirav Mehta, senior associate director for MBA admissions at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business.

"The MBA degree's real value comes from membership in a lifelong learning community and access to the alumni network," Mehta wrote in an email. "The overall network serves (as) an active source of personal and professional support. The connections that one makes through the MBA program can be life-changing, and these relationships help to facilitate career transitions long after graduation."

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Updated on May 10, 2022: This article has been updated with new information.