What Does an MBA Teach You?

Offering innovative specializations, real-world experience, and collaboration with peers, an MBA teaches you a broad range of skills you can apply to your career.
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Bennett Leckrone is a news writer for BestColleges. Before joining BestColleges, Leckrone reported on state politics with the nonprofit news outlet Maryland Matters as a Report for America fellow. He previously interned for The Chronicle of Higher Ed...
Updated on December 20, 2023
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  • Master of business administration (MBA) degree programs cover the fundamentals of business leadership with core courses in finance, marketing, leadership, and more.
  • Many programs also include innovative specializations in high-demand fields, including cybersecurity, business analytics, and digital marketing.
  • MBA programs often feature real-world learning experiences for students.
  • They teach students more than just classwork, with programs also serving as networking opportunities with peers and professionals.

A master of business administration (MBA) degree has long been seen as an avenue for career advancement — but the gold standard of graduate business education does more than just cover the fundamentals.

Traditionally, MBAs prepare students to step into leadership roles, but the business world is rapidly changing. While classes like ethics and leadership remain core aspects of MBA programs, business school students will have to grapple with emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and growing challenges like sustainability and climate change when they finish their degrees.

Whether it's through adopting innovative curricula or providing students with relevant, real-world experiences, business schools have kept the MBA relevant in recent years by staying in touch with the business world and the challenges their students face.

Core Courses in an MBA Curriculum

MBA degrees typically include a host of core courses that cover a wide range of business fundamentals, from ethics to accounting and finance.

  • Minus


    Marketing courses focus on branding and promotion in business, often with a focus on the internet and social media. Students learn about brand reputation, target audience, promotion, and other marketing fundamentals.
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    Finance and Accounting

    These courses teach students about the financial health of their organization and prepare students to stay aware of their organization's financial situation. Financial planning, organizational accounting, and managing money are all typical topics for core courses focused on a business's finances.
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    Whereas finance drills down to organizational financial health, economics classes put businesses in perspective as part of the larger economic ecosystem. Students learn how to navigate the economy and respond to market pressures.
  • Minus

    Business Ethics

    These classes often include case studies and real-world applications for making ethical business decisions across multiple sectors.
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    Leadership and Management

    Leadership and management courses can cover everything from leadership communication to building a team effectively. Some schools, including the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, include simulations and team exercises as part of these courses.
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    Strategy courses focus on how to make decisions and what factors to weigh when strategizing for a business. Strategy classes break down what goes into high-level decision making, as well as how to implement tough business decisions.
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    If strategy focuses on high-level decision making, analytics nails down how to gather data to make a decision. These courses often focus on how to gather and analyze organizational data, how to draw conclusions based on that data, and best practices for keeping tabs on a business.

Sources: University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, BestColleges, GMAC, INSEAD

Core courses are changing at some business schools. Some schools, including Tulane University and the international business school INSEAD, have revamped their core courses to include topics such as data fluency and climate change.

Ashish Bhardwaj, senior vice president for market development at the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), told BestColleges that schools are increasingly focused on sustainability and other relevant topics in their core curriculum.

"It's a priority for virtually every business school in the world at this point in time to integrate sustainability into their curriculum," Bhardwaj said.

Bhardwaj noted that curriculum isn't the only area where business schools are embracing sustainability: Many are committing to zero admissions goals and creating real-world examples of sustainable operations for students.

Data fluency is another key area for business schools, Bhardwaj said, adding that data is now a "ubiquitous" skill in demand across industries.

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Dive Deeper With MBA Specializations and Concentrations

Starting this fall, MBA students at the University of New Orleans will have a new specialization to pursue: sports business.

The concentration will focus on marketing, leadership, and sponsorships in the sports world, allowing students to gain vital industry knowledge in a city with a host of professional sports teams.

An MBA is far from a monolithic business leadership degree. In addition to the wide range of core courses with an increasing emphasis on sustainability, data, and other relevant topics, students can typically pick a concentration or specialization to further bolster their skills.

Traditional MBA Concentrations

  • Accounting
  • Finance
  • Marketing
  • Consulting
  • Business analytics
  • Entrepreneurship

In-Demand MBA Concentrations

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Sustainability
  • Data analytics
  • Cybersecurity and information technology
  • Supply chain management
  • Digital marketing

Source: BestColleges

Concentrations come in many forms — from focusing on entire industries like the new University of New Orleans sports management concentration to honing in on a specific technology like the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management's MBAi degree, which teaches students about machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Many MBA concentrations are focused on high-demand jobs, like cybersecurity and data analysis, and prepare students to step into specialized, higher-paying positions.

Gain Real-World Experience While Earning an MBA

At New York University's Stern School of Business, students in a specialized tech MBA program don't have to wait until they graduate to jump into the business world.

Students in the Andre Koo Technology & Entrepreneurship MBA at Stern interact with New York City's tech startups, venture capital firms, and other industry professionals as part of hands-on projects during an experiential learning course in their first semester. That course includes a "deep dive into a project with an industry partner," providing students with real-world experience out of the gate.

Immersion learning is common at full-time MBA programs, whether through capstone projects, internships, or as part of courses. At Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management, for example, students have access to career-focused short courses that immerse them in an industry.

Schools also offer students the change to flex their skills with real-world implications. Vanderbilt's Owen Graduate School of Management also features a student-run investment fund that sponsors a student through their first year at the university, allowing students who manage the fund a chance to get hands-on experience with investing and research.

Full-time, in-person MBA programs aren't the only degrees offering robust, real-world experience. When the University of Texas at El Paso launched its own online MBA program in June, school officials underscored the importance of networking and professional development.

"This dynamic learning environment fosters peer-to-peer engagement, networking opportunities, and collaborative problem-solving, mirroring the on-campus classroom experience," James Payne, dean of the Woody L. Hunt College of Business, said in a release at the time.

Learn From Peers and Network With MBA Professionals

While an MBA can lead to a good return on investment via increased earnings, one of the degree's most valuable factors is hard to track on paper: networking.

Working on projects with fellow students and getting to know members of your cohort can lead to a slew of valuable networking opportunities that benefit students for years to come. Bhardwaj said students not only get to know their own cohort, but also the cohorts ahead and behind them, leading to a host of opportunities to learn from peers.

"You get to know a lot of people," Bhardwaj said. "You get to know a cohort ahead of you, you get to know a cohort behind you, and that actually gives you an extremely important and ripe network."

Bhardwaj added that many flexible, hybrid, and online MBA programs have added in-person networking opportunities for their students.

MBA students come from all walks of life and experience levels, from students pursuing a degree directly after graduation to working professionals heading back to school to hone their skills, leading to diverse and vast opportunities for students to network and learn from their peers.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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