Your guide to MBA programs

4 minute read

You’re in quarantine watching the unemployment rates and contemplating your life decisions, when you start to think about going back to school. You’ve never seriously considered pursuing an MBA, or maybe you have, and you have a lot of questions. Like that one C you got in your calculus class freshman year — would any top-tier MBA program even consider you if you didn’t graduate summa cum laude? Do you have enough money saved up to pursue higher education? And, after remembering some articles titled “The Death of the MBA”, you wonder: Is it even really worth pursuing?

These and many other things might cross your mind at this point. There is an inexhaustible amount of information available online which can quickly become overwhelming. Here are my thoughts on a few key topics to get you started:

Why get an MBA?

There are three primary reasons for pursuing an MBA: learn foundational business skills, transition careers and accelerate your career. If you majored in something other than business, getting an MBA is a great way to to learn more about different business functions and develop a foundational skill set.

An MBA is also frequently used to pivot into a different role or specialize in a more specific area. The flexible nature of an MBA curriculum allows you to pursue coursework that is specific to your interests, and the vast extracurricular opportunities and peer network can help you get a foothold at your dream company or role.

Finally, an MBA can be used to accelerate your career into a leadership role. In addition to the specialized coursework, MBA programs also focus on building advanced leadership and management skills that can help you access leadership roles and accelerated management tracks.

What types of MBA programs are out there?

MBA programs have undertaken innovative efforts over the last few years to develop specialized and targeted programs that will serve many different types of applicants. There are dual degree programs where you can get master’s degrees in public policy, engineering or law. There are also specialized MBA programs that cater to specific industries, such as healthcare or technology.

Some schools lend themselves better to certain industries based on their geographic location, such as New York or Silicon Valley, or their traditional focus areas, such as financial services. It is important that you start by thinking about what you want to get out of an MBA program before you start honing in on the specific programs that will cater to your goals.

What are typical pre-MBA career paths?

Traditionally, finance and consulting have sent the largest number of applicants to MBA programs. It’s helpful if your job falls into one of these two categories because admissions directors are familiar with your work experience, but it’s equally important to think about how you’re going to differentiate yourself from the large number of applicants who are applying with a very similar background.

For this reason, falling outside of these two employment categories has its own advantages, but you need to think about what types of skills and experience people with consulting and finance backgrounds are bringing into MBA programs, and how your background is similar or complementary to people with these skill sets.

Overall, MBA admissions teams are looking at your work experience to see how you are progressing compared to your peers and how your experience and background will enable you to contribute in the classroom.

How can you prepare now?

First things first: It’s never too late to start thinking about an MBA. There are students at top MBA programs who have advanced careers in other disciplines, such as law or academia, who go back to school to enhance their skill set. Whether you are at your first entry-level job or have several years of industry experience under your belt, start by understanding your goals for getting an MBA and researching various MBA programs.

“Sitting down and making a plan now, and taking a few early steps toward those longer-term goals, can help you write your applications and signal to MBA programs that you are action-oriented.”

There are also tactical steps you can take now to prepare before you start your apps: address potential issues with your undergrad GPA, make a career plan and cultivate your network. In addition to your test scores, MBA programs are going to look at your undergrad GPA. Their main goal is to determine if you are going to be able to handle the coursework. If you are worried about how your undergrad GPA might look to admissions, consider taking some of the foundational MBA courses on Coursera to show that you will succeed in the MBA classroom.

When it comes time to write your MBA applications, you’ll see that MBA programs are going to ask a lot of questions about your career plans. The intention is to understand how you are going to leverage the MBA and ensure that you are thinking about the future. Sitting down and making a plan now, and taking a few early steps towards those longer-term goals, can help you write your applications and signal to MBA programs that you are action-oriented.

Finally, cultivating a network of mentors and advisors is always important, especially for MBA admissions. Leverage your network to help you refine your career goals, identify opportunities to build your resume, and provide feedback on your applications. It is especially important to start building your personal “board of advisors” who are going to be your core mentors and will provide critical feedback on your career and MBA applications.

As I said above, this is a non-exhaustive list of things to consider when deciding to pursue a master’s degree. With so many topics and approaches to research, it can quickly get overwhelming, especially at the beginning. The most important thing is that you take your time gathering information and thinking critically about your personal and professional goals as you begin your path toward an MBA.