What is an MBA degree?

Learn more about how you earn an MBA, what you study, why you might want this degree, and how it may support your short and long-term career goals.
Written by Nate Delesline III, Staff Writer

MBA stands for "masters of business administration" and is one of the most popular graduate degrees available. MBA education originated in the early 1900s at Harvard as a way to address the growing national need for greater business acumen. Today, more than 60,000 people per year earn their MBAs. Professionals interested in accounting, finance, business operations, marketing, sales, or product management careers may benefit from earning an MBA. 

Earning an MBA may help you stand out from other applicants. Many MBA programs also encourage professional networking. These connections can link you to future career opportunities. Data also shows an MBA often boosts your earning potential.

An MBA is usually a two-year academic program. Almost all MBA programs require applicants to hold a four-year degree. MBA programs are available in-person, online-only, or in a hybrid format.  

What kinds of MBA concentrations are there?

It's common to choose a specialization within your academic program. MBA concentrations allow you to develop specialized skills and knowledge. 

For example, if you're interested in pursuing a career as a chief financial officer, you may want to earn an MBA with a concentration in finance. To earn that concentration, you'll likely take elective classes like financial risk management. 

If you're interested in an MBA in human resources, you'll take courses like compensation and benefits management.

Who should pursue an MBA?

To pursue an MBA, you usually don't need a specific professional or educational background aside from having an undergraduate degree. Also, you don't need a bachelor's degree in a business-related field, and you don't need to get an MBA right after college. 

Individuals pursuing an MBA after several years of professional experience may have an advantage during the admissions process. 

What should I expect from an MBA program?

To apply for an MBA program, most — but not all schools — require taking either the GMAT or the GRE. Both of these standardized tests are a snapshot of your ability to write analytically, comprehend data, and use critical thinking and reasoning skills.

Candidates who have at least two years of full-time professional work experience may be exempt from taking the GMAT or GRE. 

 People with military experience or those who hold a certified public accountant credential may also qualify for test exemptions. 

Check with the school before applying, as waiver opportunities vary. 

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MBA programs equip students with both theoretical knowledge and practical professional skills. These include financial knowledge, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Students also focus on valuable soft skills, like communication, cross-cultural awareness, and flexibility.

Earning an MBA involves taking a mix of theoretical and practical classes. The difficulty of the coursework will depend on your professional background and academic strengths.

In addition to core coursework, some programs also require a thesis, an internship, case studies, a project — or any combination of the above. This is usually the case whether you're taking an in-person, hybrid, or online MBA program.

Required MBA courses typically include:

  • Accounting
  • Finance
  • Leadership
  • Marketing
  • Business law 
  • Ethics

Electives in an MBA program

Most business schools require students to take between 40 and 60 credit hours of classes, including electives.

Some schools require students to take a certain number of electives from specific disciplines, such as finance or management. 

At some schools, students may take electives from other departments within the university.

For example, at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, MBA students may take up to four courses from the university's 11 schools. These schools include law, engineering, arts and sciences, and social policy and practice.

How long does it take?

Most full-time MBA programs take two years to complete. 

But there are exceptions. Almost all schools also offer a part-time MBA option. Some even offer a "4+1" program, where students complete a four-year bachelor's degree and a one-year master's back-to-back.

Some schools offer a slightly different schedule for students who participate in an exclusively online program. Other programs have 12-16-month accelerated or executive MBA-style options. To complete an accelerated program, you may need to take a full load of classes on a nighttime, weekend, and summer schedule. 

How much does it cost?

The cost of earning an MBA varies widely. It may range from about $10,000 for an online-only program to $100,000 or even more than $200,000 to enroll in a prestigious, top-tier program at schools like Dartmouth, UCLA, or Northwestern. 

If cost is a concern, consider applying for a scholarship to help pay for your MBA. The same factors that make you a good candidate for business school — like self-motivation and a unique professional background — also make you a good candidate for MBA scholarships. 

Why get an MBA?

Is an MBA right for you? Unfortunately, there's no single answer to the question. But with a better understanding of what pursuing an MBA degree involves, we can guide you through some important points to consider.

What can you do with an MBA? Quite a bit. One of the best aspects of MBA programs is the many format and specialization options. You can customize your choice to fit your career goals, budget, and timeline.

Earning this degree can open doors and advance your career. However, if you don't plan to start your own business or work in a business, management, or finance-related field, earning an MBA might not advance your career. 

One exception: If you want to be a corporate leader with a C-suite title — CEO, CFO, etc. — an MBA has value, even if you're not working in a mostly business-related role.

But with a potential two-year commitment and costs that can quickly jump into six-figure territory, you might ask: Is an MBA worth it? Often, the answer is yes.

People who earn an MBA tend to get an outstanding return on their investment. The National Association of Colleges and Employers projected starting salaries averaging $87,966 for 2021 MBA graduates. That's well above the $75,461 average projected for all business-related master's graduates.

This ROI comes not only from compensation but also enhanced professional opportunities, visibility, and networking.

This article was reviewed by Alexandra Tapia, MBA

Alexandria Tapia, a blonde woman, smiles at the camera

Alexandra is a driven, high-spirited, unapologetically energetic, and optimistic person. She prides herself on her devotion to becoming a better business leader and overall human. 

She has reached many populations throughout her career. Alexandria has studied recidivism, helped prior criminal offenders reintegrate into society, and built trusting relationships while working at a homeless shelter. 

Her passion for education also shines through in her work. She taught younger children for many years but has since turned her focus to higher education. She loves collaborating with others to be a disruptor in the education industry, creating and delivering programs that are unlike others — all while building a better future for her clients and students. 

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

Last reviewed March 3, 2022.

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