What MBA Programs Want: Do I Need a Bachelor's Degree in Business?
The world of business is diverse, and so are the people who join it. But diversity doesn’t just mean diversity of skin color, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. It means diversity of background, too. A lack of an undergraduate degree in business isn’t necessarily a hindrance to pursuing an MBA—and in some cases, it’s an asset.
If you’re thinking of applying to an MBA program without a background in business, you’re not alone. According to the 2017 Prospective Students Survey Report by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), MBA candidates with a non-business background are actually the majority group: 54 percent of full-time MBA students had a non-business undergraduate major. Further data from 2019 indicates that over a quarter (27 percent) of those who pursue their MBA do so in order to help them switch industries.
While each MBA program has its own specific admissions requirements, most hew close to some combination of the following: a solid undergraduate GPA (3.0 or greater); letter(s) of recommendation; a personal statement; GMAT and/or GRE scores; and some amount of relevant work experience. The admissions process is often weighted by the individual characteristics valued in a particular program, so connecting with a program’s admissions counselor can be an important step in identifying what steps a candidate will need to take in order to succeed.
Those without a business background may wish to take some prerequisite courses ahead of time, and many MBA programs offer pre-MBA prep courses that allow students to brush up on their statistical, mathematical, and accounting skills.
Studying for the GMAT and/or GRE can also provide some background knowledge that will come in handy during an MBA program. Taking these first steps to prepare oneself can make the transition to an MBA setting easier for candidates with a non-business background.
What Non-Business Students Bring to an MBA Cohort
MBA programs understand the power of the cross-fertilization of ideas. Business touches practically every knowledge area, and expertise in one field can often translate back to expertise in business. To this end, some schools, such as Virginia Tech, encourage dual-degree programs that pair an MBA with other graduate degrees, such as a master’s of information technology (MIT). Pairing different fields together allows degree programs to feed off of each other, and prepares graduates to work in the merged worlds of business, engineering, medicine, and law.
Another common pairing is military veterans and MBA programs. While veterans may not have the same business background as those who graduated from an undergraduate program in business, they will have expertise in key knowledge areas like leadership, management, and strategy. Data suggests that veterans who have undergraduate degrees in STEM fields tend to perform slightly better than average, but no matter their background, veterans often make for good MBA candidates, and better employees.
Experience matters, and outside-the-box thinking is a force multiplier in business administration. Alumni of the startup world, artist journeymen, and thrill-seeking athletes like Olympic alpine skier Emily Brydon have all gone on to get their MBAs, and their non-traditional background has been an asset both to themselves and to their programs.
Some MBA programs don’t require an undergraduate degree at all, though they’re less likely to publicize that fact. Candidates without an undergraduate degree can be seen as a risky bet by MBA admissions boards: accepting students without previous qualifications can lower a business school’s overall rankings by some measurement formulas. Still, MBA programs seeking a diverse cohort of MBA candidates will consider applicants who don’t have an undergraduate degree, especially if an applicant has other relevant credentials or experience.
The University of Edinburgh’s MBA program, ranked 25th in the world by Financial Times, is one of the few MBA programs that openly advertises its acceptance of non-degree-holding candidates. Those without a bachelor’s degree need only to pass a verbal and numerical reasoning test and the GMAT. This practical approach has gotten skilled entrepreneurs, public service veterans, and women re-entering the workforce into Edinburgh’s MBA program. Some American MBA programs are quietly following suit.
The Future of MBA Program Admissions
Power is shifting from the school to the student, as American MBA programs have seen a drop in admissions for four consecutive years. It started in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, when 36 percent of top international MBA applicants said they were then less likely to study in the US, a figure which rose to 43 percent four months later. Rising costs have also played a factor in reducing interest in American MBA programs from both international and domestic students.
Fewer international students also means fewer applicants with higher-than-average qualifications: US residents applying to MBA programs are far less likely (16 percent) to already have a master’s degree than residents of Europe, Australia, or the Pacific Islands (40 percent). And, considering the prolonged pandemic in the US, American MBA programs are likely to be more willing to relax their admissions requirements in the interest of filling virtual seats.
While it might take a little more work and some serious dedication, those with a background in an area other than business can absolutely pursue an MBA. If they do, the business world will be richer for it.