What is an MBA?

What is an MBA? You might be embarrassed to ask, but you’ll be surprised at how many people have this exact same question. Thus, we thought we’d give you the lowdown on what an MBA is, how you can apply to an MBA, and how you can go about choosing the MBA that’s right for you.

In short


Let’s start with the obvious: MBA stands for Master of Business Administration. As the name suggests, it is a degree that gives you the all-around business knowledge, acumen, and skills you need to succeed in business.

The value of an MBA: Applicable and practical

The MBA degree carries the title Master, yet it is not a master’s in the traditional sense. While “regular” master’s degrees tend to be theoretical and academic, the MBA is a degree that prides itself on being applicable and practical.

In an MBA program, academic content is research-based and research-led, but the theory is always anchored in real-life scenarios. In an MBA, you will seldomly (if ever) come across a professor teaching content at the class. Instead, content is taught in the form of case studies, simulations, group discussions, and class participation, where the professor merely acts as the facilitator. 

Content is also often taught by industry professionals. This ensures that what you learn in an MBA resonates in the business environment that you are currently, or will one day be working, in.

MBA formats

If you feel a bit overwhelmed with all the MBA options out there, you are forgiven! It can make it difficult to answer the question, “What is an MBA?” However, once you understand the different types of MBAs, it will soon become clear which one is best for you.

The full-time MBA is offered as an on-campus experience where you need to relocate to where the MBA is based, since you would be required to be in class every day. In most causes, you need to quit your current job and take a year or two out of your career to complete the MBA.

The part-time MBA typically takes place in the evenings and/or weekends, outside of regular working hours. This type of MBA allows you to continue working while obtaining your MBA. Due to the timing and frequency of classes, you normally need to live within a few hours’ travel distance from the campus.

The hybrid MBA (also called blended MBA) program is, unsurprisingly, a mixed format. In a hybrid MBA, you follow some classes online and convene with the MBA cohort at sporadic intervals, usually for a block of classes (e.g. a week of full classes every three months). This MBA format allows you to be based anywhere, granted that you can make it to the campus for the on-site teaching modules.

The online MBA, as the title indicates, is offered fully online. This means that you can follow the MBA classes and all associated components of the program from anywhere in the world, as long as you have access to the internet and a learning device. One example is Goizueta Business School, Emory University, which launched a new suite of classrooms to more effectively cater to online learning. As digital becomes a deciding factor when choosing an MBA, business schools around the world are re-examining and boosting their digital capabilities.

MBA work experience

The work experience requirements to be eligible to do an MBA differs between programs. However, most programs require some work experience when you apply.

The full-time MBA has traditionally been a program where the amount of work experience you need is less than if you were to apply to an Executive MBA. The average years of work experience reflected in a full-time MBA program thus also tend to be lower than in an Executive MBA program. It is interesting to note that very few Executive MBA programs are offered in an on-campus format. 

Some MBA programs do not require any work experience, which means they are similar to the Master in Management (MIM) program.

MBA admission requirements

Once you have decided to apply to an MBA program, it is important to check the requirements for the MBA. Start looking at the various application requirements for specific MBA programs.

MBA work experience

Different MBA programs have different requirements related to work experience. Most MBA programs require a certain amount of work experience (e.g. minimum 2-4 years to apply). Some students find it beneficial to pursue an MBA at a younger age, while others wait a bit longer and prefer to gain more experience first.

It is important to note that the minimum requirements do not indicate a “cap” on the number of years. Often, the average years of work experience in a class will be higher.

Entry tests

You will need to orient yourself about the different entry tests required by MBA programs:

A lot of schools require the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT). The GMAT is a computer-adaptive test with a verbal and quantitative section. It requires preparation to familiarize yourself with the test-taking environment and, of course, the content being tested. There are numerous resources available to help you prepare and get a good GMAT score, including online resources, preparation books, and test preparation centers. It’s also important to note that some schools offer GMAT test waivers in an effort to provide a more holistic admissions assessment.

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) test is American by origin, but is now accepted across the globe. In some cases, MBA programs accept the GRE in lieu of the GMAT.

The Executive Assessment (EA) test is similar to the GMAT and is typically used for applicants to an Executive MBA program. As with the GMAT, several resources are available to help you prepare.

English proficiency tests

The Master of Business Administration programs have varying methods to test your English skills.

Some MBA programs do not require any English tests and will assess your English proficiency through other means, such as your performance in the admissions interview, written components of your application, or the verbal section of your GMAT score.

Other programs will require an English proficiency test, with the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) being the most widely used. It is important to note that there are other English-language tests available, so you need to check the requirements per institution. As with the GMAT/GRE, it’s important to prepare and improve your English language skills using the wealth of readily available resources.

How to apply for an MBA

The MBA application process might seem daunting, but this does not need to be the case. With thorough preparation – and by simply being yourself – you’ll be sure to submit an application that is a true reflection of what you can bring to the program. The basic application process tends to be similar across MBA programs with a few variations per institution.

Application form

Almost all programs have an online portal where you need to create an account to access the application form. You will be able to view all requirements and steps of the application in this portal. The application form normally requires some information about yourself and your academic and employment history. Some applications allow you to upload your CV and/or LinkedIn profile with the information, which will then auto-fill some sections of the application form.

Application fee

Usually an application fee is required to cover their administration and processing costs. The range of fees varies across programs.

Application essay(s)

The application essay is a fairly standard part of any MBA application. Sometimes multiple essays are required, with some programs requesting up to five essays. 

An essay on the topic of your career aspirations and how that particular MBA will aid you in attaining those is often required, as is a statement on who you are and how you will add value to the MBA program. MBA programs will use the essay requirements to add a distinctive element to their specific application, with interesting topics as a result. A lot of MBA programs have now added a video essay to their application process.

Admissions interview

Ofttimes you are required to attend an admissions interview as part of the application process. These interviews take place either in-person or online. The interviews are conducted by staff, faculty members, and/or alumni from the MBA programs. 

The interview is similar to a job interview where you need to share more about yourself and your profile, the value you would bring to the MBA program, and answer a few other questions that might be non-MBA related. 

Degree certificates

You need to provide your degree certificates. In some cases, copies of certificates are fine for the purpose of application, but if you get accepted to a program, you’ll need to provide them with original copies or officially certified copies. Sometimes programs will not accept an application without the originals or certified copies. You need to check per program what their requirements are and check per country which exact certifications are accepted. 

Test results

You have to provide the programs you apply to with the official test results of any entry test they require (eg. GMAT, TOEFL, etc.) With most of the tests, there is an option to have your test results sent to a program directly. 

Reference letters

Reference letters, also called letters of recommendation, are often required too. In some applications, you only need to provide details of your referees and the program will contact them directly. Other programs have set reference forms that need to be completed by your referee and returned to the program, often through an online portal. In other applications, referees can write a reference letter as they see fit and send it to the school. 

The number of reference letters varies between programs. The type of referees can also vary, but it should mostly be of a professional nature from people who worked closely with you.

Supporting documents

In your MBA application, you need to provide supporting documents as references to the information in your application.

Choosing an MBA program

There is an overwhelming array of MBA programs to choose from. This means that you have amazing choices, but it also means that you need to find a way to narrow down your options. There are various factors to consider when familiarizing yourself with these programs and, ultimately, choosing a program that fits you. 


A starting point to choosing the right MBA program for you could be your eligibility. Check whether you have all the requirements to apply to the programs you are considering. (Protip: there are even MBA admissions calculators to help you calculate your odds of success!)


As mentioned earlier, you need to decide which format best suits your personal and professional situation.


There are a lot of MBA rankings out there, such as the Financial Times and QS. It is important to mention that rankings should not be followed blindly. While they are useful in giving you a sense of where the MBA is positioned in terms of competitors in the market, it is still key that you ensure that there is a fit between what you want and what the MBA program offers. It is also important to note that rankings differ greatly in terms of what they measure and how they measure.


Accreditations are important when you want to get a sense of how and where your MBA is recognized. There are various industry-wide accreditations for MBA programs, including the:

  • Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AASCB)
  • Association of MBAs (AMBA)
  • EFMD Quality Improvement System (EQUIS)

It is important to look at local accreditations specific to the region in which the MBA is located. This might have an impact on the recognizability of the MBA which could impact your job opportunities in the region post-MBA.


Where the MBA is based could influence your decision. If you are choosing a part-time option that requires in-class attendance, you obviously want to ensure that it is within a feasible distance to travel. If you are choosing a full-time MBA program to which you would need to relocate, you want to ensure that the location also fits into your future plans. If, for example, you are choosing an MBA in a non-English speaking environment, it is good to check if you will be able to work in English post-MBA. Even though the program might be taught in English, you want to make sure that there are non-native employment options available. 

If you are relocating with a family, it is good to look at factors such as access to childcare and schooling, access to employment for an accompanying spouse, and accommodation options for families.

Look and feel

To find out not only what is an MBA, but also what is the right program for you, the most important factor when making a choice is that you need to be comfortable with the “look and feel” of the program. These are the non-tangible aspects of the program such as the campus culture, the classroom “vibe,” and the type of people you will be surrounded with. Though the most important, this is often also the most difficult factor to gather information about. 


One way to get a sense of your prospective MBA program is to ask to speak to alumni from the program. Former students are one of the best sources to tell you what it is really like to be on the program. They will also be able to tell you if they think you’d enjoy being a student there and whether your career aspirations will benefit from the particular program. Not sure where to start? Reach out to MBA student ambassadors on MBAGRADSCHOOLS.com!


Visiting the MBA program can prove invaluable in getting a sense of the program. Either in-person or virtually, most programs offer you the option to visit with some even offering class visits where you can sit in on an actual class. Whether it’s visiting the physical campus or reaching out to alumni, it’s important to think about how to engage with your dream MBA program.

How do I pay for an MBA?

MBA programs certainly pose a major financial investment. While the investment is set to pay off, you still need to plan well in advance to ensure that you can afford to attend your program. It is important to not only take the tuition fees into consideration, but also living and other associated costs, when drawing up your MBA budget. Many MBA programs will offer an overview of the total cost breakdown for the duration of the program.

So, how can you go about financing your MBA? Most MBA students use a combination of their own funds, savings and/or loans, and scholarships. There are numerous loan agencies that offer loans for the purpose of tuition, with some even specifically aimed at MBA tuition.

When it comes to MBA scholarships, programs tend to have scholarships specific to their programs, which are either based on merit or need. A quick search on the “Financial Aid” pages of a school’s website should tell you all you need to know. It is also useful to check out other scholarship options, as there might be some scholarships for which you are eligible because of your ethnicity, industry, or affiliations to certain organizations.

Hopefully, we have answered your question to “What is an MBA?” You can now make some sense of what the degree is, what you need to apply, how to apply for an MBA, and most importantly, which MBA programs to apply to.

Written by: Maryke Luijendijk-Steenkamp

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