If you look at most of the titans of business and industry today, chances are you’ll see three little letters behind their name — MBA. These letters can command respect, and open so many doors that would otherwise be closed without a graduate degree.

If you’ve been thinking about continuing your education, you’ll need to know the basics of what an MBA is, and how it will benefit your life. Here’s some information to get you started.

What is an MBA degree?

MBA stands for Master of Business Administration. It’s a graduate-level program that allows you to study formal approaches to management and hone the skills that will benefit you in a corporate or entrepreneurial environment. Depending on which program you take, you’ll learn strategies for managing the technical aspects of a business, as well as the personal and operational knowledge necessary for success. Typically, MBAs will cover areas of business that include anything from business statistics, economics, and accounting to business law, management, marketing, operations, and staffing.

Many people feel that an MBA is necessary for them to take the next step beyond C-level management, as well as a required degree for them to have before they open their own business. While it’s true that many people succeed in their chosen career path without the assistance of a professional MBA degree, an MBA gives you a baseline that has been established as basic knowledge for executives.

Who can benefit from an MBA program?

There are many people who could benefit from an MBA degree. Typically, there are two major categories of people entering graduate school with the hopes of achieving an MBA. There are entrepreneurs, who want to start their own company, but feel they lack the knowledge and skills to deal with the complex financial and organizational aspects of their new business. The other major category people hoping to break into, or advance in, is the competitive business sector like tech, service, or finance.

Although advancing in the corporate world requires traits like creativity and dedication that are hard to teach, having an MBA shows that you’re committed to your chosen career path, and are willing to educate yourself in a way that will benefit your employers. Undertaking an MBA degree is especially beneficial if you’re looking to move away from your home city and are looking for new contacts. Many MBA programs offer work studies and internships with local companies, which is a great way to get to know potential future employers, as well as the landscape of the local industries.

What types of MBA degrees are there?

One of the major choices that you’ll have to make when you decide to get your MBA is whether you want to graduate with a specialized or general degree. Some schools require students to enroll in a specialization or concentration (also called a major), while others do not. Some popular concentrations include finance, consulting, or marketing. If you don’t know whether you want to specialize yet, that’s ok too. Most schools ask you to choose your specialty or concentration in your second year. You’ll spend your first year taking general courses, then declare your specialty. However, this all varies by school. Some schools do not offer specialties, and instead, ask that students complete the exact same curriculum as their peers.

These concentrations will enable you to focus your course of study and are extremely beneficial if you already have an established career path. They’ll give you more detailed knowledge about your chosen field, and will give you access to more in-depth, current knowledge. Plus, having a concentration on your resume makes your interest and commitment to the field extremely clear to potential employers, clients, and industry contacts. However, if you’re contemplating a career change or are not yet sure which field interests you, you may want to stick to a general degree. It will give you the most flexibility post-graduation.

What is a typical MBA course like?

There are many different types of MBA programs that are available to potential students. Since this is considered a professional degree and is a course of study that many people undertake mid-career, there are lots of flexible options.

The most traditional course takes place over two academic years, which is around 18 months of active class time. Classes in these traditional MBA programs usually take place during the day, and students are expected to have no other commitments during school hours. There’s often a break between the first and second year, like most other university and college programs. Students will graduate with approximately 60 course credits or around 500 hours of class time. There are several core courses, like marketing, operations, accounting, and economics, that are mandatory. Then, students can fill the rest of their course credits with electives, classes that are designed to cater to their personal interests or chosen career path. Sometimes, if you’re extremely eager to get back into the workforce, you can accelerate your MBA program, and do all of your coursework in a single calendar year. This is a lot of work and should not be undertaken lightly.

If you’re mid-career and are not able or willing to leave your job, there are many MBA programs that offer classes at night and on weekends. These programs are often referred to as evening or part-time MBAs. They’ll often take longer than two years to complete, but in the end, students graduate with the exact same qualifications as students undertaking regular MBAs.

If you’re further into your career, Executive MBA programs — also called EMBAs — are part-time programs that have recently been established to cater to people with more managerial experience, who are looking for a smaller weekly time commitment but are still interested in targeted educational courses. Whatever your work experience, schedule, or even budget, there’s an MBA program out there for you.

Depending on your chosen school, you’ll pay anywhere from $40,000 to upwards of $100,000 in tuition alone. Taking the accelerated route often costs the same in tuition as the full, two-year degree. After all, you’re paying per credit, not per year, and you’ll need to take the same amount of credits regardless of how long you’re actively studying.

What is the application process like?

In order to enroll in an MBA program, you’ll need to start by researching potential schools and checking to make sure you qualify as an applicant. Many schools require applicants to have a verifiable undergraduate degree from an accredited university or college, as well as certain years of relevant work experience. Most schools require at least two years of work experience in a relevant field, but there are a few, like Stanford, who don’t have a minimum requirement listed on their application page. Even if a school doesn’t list relevant work experience as a requirement for application, you can be sure that it will factor into their decision.

Once you’ve established that you meet all the requirements for work experience and undergraduate education, you’ll need to take a standardized test to prove your knowledge. The GRE or GMAT are accepted by most American schools, and most require test scores from within the last five years. The GRE stands for Graduate Record Examination and is typically associated with both graduate and business school programs. The GMAT stands for graduation management admission test. Both the GRE and GMAT test your analytical writing and verbal reasoning, take around the same amount of time to prepare for and write, and cost between $200-250.

When the time comes to apply for your MBA, you’ll need to assemble your GMAT or GRE scores, your official undergraduate transcript, letters of recommendation from mentors or industry leaders, your personal application essay, and your resume. Most schools allow you to submit your application online for a small fee.

Are there any options for financial assistance?

MBAs are extremely expensive to undertake, especially if you’ll need to leave work in order to take courses. Most schools offer merit-based or needs-based scholarships, so you should start by looking at your school’s website for more information.

If you’re working for a large corporation like one of the Fortune 100 companies, you should inquire with your HR department about whether they offer MBA tuition assistance for staff. Many of these Fortune 100 companies will pay for part, or even the entirety of your MBA degree.

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