What to expect in business school: A guide to getting your MBA

Before preparing your MBA application, it's important to understand what to expect in business school.

A master's in business administration (MBA) can lead to leadership roles and higher earnings. But how hard is an MBA program? What will you learn during an MBA? And what do professors expect in MBA courses? 

Prospective MBA applicants should also consider their concentration options, the difference between part-time and full-time formats, and online MBA programs. They should think of both the academic to personal aspects of enrolling in an in-person or online MBA program –– including how to balance coursework with responsibilities outside of school. 

Earning an MBA appeals to many professionals seeking career advancement and higher paying roles. Our guide answers all your questions about what to expect in business school. 

How hard is an MBA program?

How hard is an MBA? The answer depends on the business school, the format, and the student's own strengths and weaknesses.

MBA programs require the ability to analyze qualitative data. The most demanding MBA courses draw on problem-solving skills and the ability to think creatively. In addition to academic strengths, MBA students need time to complete rigorous projects and internships. 

An MBA program also requires dedication and self-motivation. Students struggling with difficult concepts should reach out for support early on to make sure they get past any barriers and are ready for the next progressive challenge in the program.

While MBA programs can be challenging, many students are able to rise to that challenge. Students concerned about earning an MBA can improve their chances before even enrolling. Studying business concepts, choosing a part-time program, or focusing on certain specializations can make an MBA more manageable. 

What you should expect to learn in an MBA program

What will you learn in an MBA program? Business school teaches core skills in finance, accounting, marketing, and management. Through coursework and projects, learners strengthen their public speaking, analytical, and strategic thinking skills.

The skills gained during an MBA program depend on the business school and MBA concentration. For example, students in an entrepreneurship specialization will take different courses than those in a healthcare management concentration. 

MBA program core courses and electives

During an MBA degree, learners complete core courses and electives. In most programs, students start by completing core requirements. Then they choose electives to customize the program around their interests and professional goals. 

These MBA courses build the knowledge and skills required for leadership roles in business. Keep in mind that the number of electives and the course options vary greatly depending on the business school.

Examples of Core Courses

  • Organizational behavior
  • Marketing management
  • Strategic decision-making
  • Managerial finance
  • Data analytics

Examples of Elective Courses

  • Mergers and acquisitions
  • International finance
  • Entrepreneurial strategy
  • Sustainable business strategy
  • Strategic project management

Hard and soft skills you will learn in an MBA program

An MBA program builds both hard and soft skills that help graduates succeed in the workplace. Programs emphasize technical skills like data analysis, quantitative decision-making, project management, and logistics. Depending on the MBA concentration, learners also gain industry-specific hard skills in areas like healthcare management, human resources, or marketing.

MBA programs also build in-demand soft skills, including creative thinking, communication, and public speaking. These soft skills help graduates manage people, lead teams, and build visions.

Part-time vs. full-time MBA course scheduling

MBA programs offer part-time and full-time enrollment options. Students can also choose an accelerated, one-year MBA degree. The course load requirements, expectations, and program length depend on the format of the program. Students in accelerated or full-time programs take a more rigorous schedule but earn their degree faster. Those who choose a part-time option gain flexibility but take longer to complete the degree.

Lifestyle flexibility

A full-time MBA program requires a full-time commitment. Most MBA programs recommend that full-time students avoid working while in school. However, some full-time online MBA programs are designed for working professionals. Part-time programs often enroll working adults as well. Before applying to an MBA program, research the time commitment and flexibility for that specific program.

Number of courses per semester

The number of courses students take each semester varies depending on the format. In a full-time MBA program, learners typically take three courses each semester. Part-time MBA programs let degree-seekers take 1-2 classes per term. Accelerated programs often divide the semester into two terms, with students taking two classes each term, for a total of four per semester. Prospective applicants should research the course schedule before applying. 

Length of time to complete

Most full-time students earn their MBA degree in two years. The typical schedule includes one year of core courses, a summer internship, and a year of specialized courses. Part-time MBA programs stretch the coursework over a longer period, typically around three years. Students can also choose a one-year MBA program or a 15-18 month accelerated MBA. 

Academic rigor

Regardless of the format, MBA programs set rigorous academic requirements. Both full-time and part-time students complete a similar number of courses and workload. However, full-time and accelerated programs place higher demands on students taking multiple courses each term. As a result, while part-time programs often use the same courses and materials, the program may feel less demanding to students.

What to expect from MBA courses

MBA courses train students in advanced business concepts. MBA students must be prepared to engage in class, complete multiple projects, and treat classes as a networking opportunity. 

Each MBA program comes with unique challenges, and students will face different circumstances depending on their delivery format and concentration. Still, MBA students should understand the expectations in MBA classes.

You will be expected to actively participate in class.

MBA programs expect a high class participation rate. During in-person classes, professors might randomly call on students to answer questions or share their analysis of case studies. In online classes, instructors might use chat features or discussion boards to encourage participation. Class grades often factor in participation, so sitting out can mean lower grades.

Expect to work with case studies.

Case studies make up the backbone of many MBA classes. A case study presents students with a business scenario. Some case studies use real-world examples, while others use an imaginary business problem. Students must read the case study, identify the issue, and recommend solutions. Instructors may ask students to discuss case studies in class, analyze a longer case study to present conclusions, or write a paper based on a case study. 

Be prepared for group work and projects.

Business school builds strong collaboration skills. MBA classes encourage teamwork and collaboration through group work and projects. Group projects replicate the working experience many graduates face, so strengthening these skills during business school helps professionals in the workplace. 

Group work might take as little as one class period, with groups analyzing case studies and presenting their conclusions, or an entire term. Many projects involve a written report or presentation that strengthens public speaking skills.

You will have a lot of reading, prep work, and take-home work.

Outside of class, MBA students devote time to reading assignments and homework. Instructors might assign textbooks, case studies, and books. Students also need to stay on top of business and economic news. 

Some classes assign an overwhelming amount of reading. Students must learn to read efficiently and take away the most important information from their assignments. It is important to prepare readings before class in order to be able to participate in class discussions. 

You will want to network within your program.

MBA programs all emphasize networking. Many students focus on networking outside of their program during an internship. However, building relationships with peers and professors also helps professionals after business school. Current classmates become future contacts, so students must invest in their network even while taking MBA classes. Students can also connect with their school's alumni network while still taking classes.

You will need to be intentional about how to balance your lifestyle with an MBA program.

An MBA program requires a large time commitment. Students must balance their studies with their commitments outside of school, including family and work. In particular, working students and those in accelerated programs rely on their time management and organizational skills to balance school with other commitments. 

Some goals might need to wait until after graduation. Other priorities, like travel, might fit with an MBA. Many business schools offer international internships and other opportunities for travel.  

What do you need to know before going to business school?

Before going to business school, prospective students should evaluate their academic preparation. They can also research what to expect in business school to prepare.

Can you fail an MBA program?

Yes, students can fail an MBA program. Students with low grades or those who fail to complete coursework may not complete their degree. MBA programs reserve the right to expel students for poor academic performance.

What kind of math is used in an MBA program?

MBA students often use statistics, probability, and algebra to forecast earnings, estimate risk, and create budgets. Most MBA programs do not require advanced math concepts. 

This article was reviewed by Krystal Covington, MBA 

Krystal Covington, a woman with medium-length, curly hair, smiles at the camera.

Krystal Covington, MBA, is a business growth strategist with 15 years of experience in marketing and public relations. Her company, Go Lead Consulting, provides clients foundational tools to build new client and customer relationships. 

Covington founded Women of Denver, one of the largest privately held membership organizations in Denver, Colorado. Her program helps women increase their business acumen, sharpen leadership skills and connect with other high-achieving women. Covington received her MBA from Western Governors University in 2012.

Krystal Covington is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.