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EAC / Study in the US / Admission Process / Choosing Fields of Study / Business

In schools of Commerce, Business, Business Administration, and Management there are undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Undergraduate business majors study liberal arts and receive technical business training, earning a Bachelor's degree after 4 years. Many schools with an undergraduate business program also have graduate degree programs.

Nearly 1200 colleges and universities in the United States offer degree-granting graduate management education programs. Many different types of management programs are available. Business schools can prepare not only those entering the corporate world but also managers going into nonprofit agencies, government, the arts, and more -- specialized education exists for almost any enterprise that might require a manager. There are not only general management programs, but also programs that provide more in-depth study of a particular management function, allowing students to specialize in anything from finance to manufacturing. Students may prepare themselves for consulting or entrepreneurship, or for a career in teaching and research. There are programs for those with little business experience, programs for experienced executives, even a few programs especially designed for international students.

Those who wish to pursue advanced study for management need to look carefully at the many different types of programs available and at their own backgrounds and interests in order to choose the programs most appropriate to their needs.

Types of Programs

The best-known management degree title is the Master of Business Administration (MBA), and MBA is often used as a short way to refer to all master's level management education programs. However, the Official Guide to MBA Programs lists over eighty other management degree abbreviations, each reflecting a different approach to management study.


The MBA is a professional degree program, designed to prepare students not for academic or research careers but for the practice of management, the effective organization and direction of resources including people, money, materials, and technology to achieve business and organizational goals (Official Guide to MBA Programs). No particular field of undergraduate study is required. Prospective applicants should, however, have had training in calculus (integral and differential), economic principles, and sometimes computer programming. Deficiencies in these areas may be overcome with crash courses often offered by business schools the summer before the program starts.

The MBA is a degree program for general management. Students first cover core areas, gaining a basic knowledge of each function necessary for the operation of a business, the context in which business operates, and techniques that can be used to evaluate business operations. Since 1992, the four core areas are: financial reporting, analysis, and markets; domestic and global economic environments of organizations; creation and distribution of goods and services; and human behavior in organizations.

At least 18 semester hours (approximately one and one-half semesters) must be spent studying these core areas, though students who have studied business at the undergraduate level may receive credit for part or all of the core area requirement. Students will also be expected to acquire basic skills in oral and written communication, quantitative analysis, and computer usage either through their previous experience and education or as part of the MBA curriculum.

Business schools are also required to expose MBA students to certain broader perspectives that form a context for business operations. The curriculum must include information on ethical and global issues; the influence of political, social, legal and regulatory, environmental, and technological factors; and the impact of demographic diversity on organizations. No specific number of semester hours is set aside for this instruction, and schools may fulfill the requirement either through specific course requirements or through an integration of such perspectives into their general coursework.

Most MBA programs can be expected to continue to require study in traditional foundation subjects: accounting, business statistics, marketing, finance, management information systems (computer technology as it relates to management), management and organization sciences, production, and study of the business environment (including economic systems, legal and ethical considerations, and international and multicultural issues).

Toward the second half of what is most often a two-year program, students can generally choose elective courses and have the option of pursuing an area of concentration, which provides them with more advanced knowledge in a particular area of management. However, the MBA is designed for flexibility rather than for intensive specialization. Students wishing to focus very closely on a particular management area should consider specialized master's degree programs.

Other General Management Degrees

Some schools choose a different degree title for their general management program. For instance, they might offer a Master of Public and Private Management (MPPM). Another degree is a Master of Science in Business Administration (MSBA) which is designed to provide a high level of competence in a specialized field. These degrees often reflect differing philosophies about management study. Generally, one must refer to program descriptions to determine the meaning of degree titles -- their meaning differs from one institution to another.

Some master's degree titles do indicate that management is being studied in a particular way. Programs in such areas as operations research, management science, econometrics, managerial economics, business statistics, and quantitative analysis emphasize building theoretical models to try to capture the essence of management problems and their solutions. (Students in such programs need to have strong quantitative skills). The field of organizational behavior attempts to understand, predict, and influence the behavior of individuals and groups in organizations (Peterson's Annual Guides to Graduate Study, Book 6: Graduate Programs in Business, Education, Health, and Law).

Such approaches may be especially useful for certain career paths. For instance, quantitative analysis might be most useful for someone who plans to be involved in production or finance, while a background in organizational behavior could be of use to someone working in human resources management. However, these degrees are usually intended to be appropriate for individuals involved in any management area or in general management.

Functional Master's Degrees

One of the most common types of options offered by business schools in addition to the MBA are master's degree programs in such functional areas as accounting, marketing, management information systems, or finance. Most often these programs lead to a Master of Science (MS) degree, though schools may choose another degree title (Master of Accountancy, Master of Arts in a particular business area, etc.) -- again, the exact degree awarded is up to the particular institution and the meaning of a degree title can vary from institution to institution.

These programs do not provide the breadth of an MBA but allow more intensive study in one particular area. Because there is not as wide a range of core areas to be covered as is usually required by an MBA program, students may have greater flexibility in choosing courses. These programs can also often be completed in a slightly shorter period than the MBA can. Like the MS in general management areas, these programs are often more research-oriented than the MBA and in some cases are designed to prepare students for doctoral-level study.

An MS or other master's degree in a particular functional area also prepares graduates for specialized roles in business and management. For example, the graduate of a human resources management program might work towards a position as director of human resources. Because functional master's programs allow greater depth in the student's chosen area of study, they are likely to be the most appropriate option for students seeking such roles.

Accreditation rules require that specialized master's programs be at least 30 semester hours in length. At least 12 of these semester hours must be in the area of specialization.

Master's Degrees for Particular Environments

A slightly less common option within schools of business involves preparation for a specific type of organization or environment. Some programs provide relatively broad orientations that are likely to offer valuable perspectives to almost any business today. These would include programs in industrial management or the management of technology (which usually train individuals with an engineering or scientific background to work in positions that combine management and technology) and programs in international business.

Other programs are more specialized, preparing students to work in a particular kind of organization. Some common options include preparation for careers in government, nonprofit organizations, insurance companies, hospitality industries, telecommunications companies, the construction industry, and health care organizations.

Programs within the school of business that are geared towards particular working environments generally are somewhat interdisciplinary, including material from different graduate and undergraduate departments. An international business major might study foreign languages, political science, anthropology, and other fields. An individual studying hospitality administration might take courses in a home economics department focusing on nutrition and food sciences, or study social sciences relevant to tourism, such as sociology, anthropology, and economics.

Students interested in managing particular types of organizations should also look beyond the schools of business. Institutions will frequently have separate schools or departments of health services administration, public administration, and hospitality management, for example. An education department may offer a master's degree in educational administration, an art school may offer a degree in arts administration, and so on.

Joint Degree Programs

Another option for students with specialized, interdisciplinary interests is a joint degree program. Such programs allow students to earn an MBA or other management master's degree plus an additional degree in less time than it would take to earn the two degrees separately. The shorter program is possible because some courses are used to fill requirements for both degrees at the same time.

Joint degree programs generally last three to four years and commonly include such combinations as business administration and engineering, business administration and international affairs, and business administration and law (it should be noted that the US first professional law degree, the Juris Doctor (JD) -- generally the degree offered in combined law-business administration programs -- is not very useful to international students because of its focus on detailed study of the US legal system). More unusual combinations are also possible -- some schools offer programs that combine business administration with journalism, architecture, library sciences, or even forestry.

The Official Guide to MBA Programs indicates whether listed business schools offer joint degree programs. Peterson's Graduate and Professional Programs: An Overview gives a more complete list of specific options available at various institutions in its index of Combined Degree Programs. It also may be possible for students to arrange a joint degree program that is not formally offered by the institution.

The joint degree program gives graduates knowledge and credentials in two areas at once. However, there are also disadvantages to such programs. Usually students must fill out applications and meet admissions standards for both schools offering the program. Also, because they must complete requirements for two degrees, they generally cannot study either area in the depth possible for students pursuing only one degree.

Doctoral Degree Programs

Doctoral management programs usually lead to either the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) or the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree. Historically, the DBA provided a more general perspective on management, while the PhD emphasized research in a specialized area of management. However, the difference between the two degrees is no longer so precise and varies from institution to institution. The PhD is the more commonly offered degree. A third possible doctoral degree is the Doctor of Commercial Sciences (DCS).

A doctoral degree provides preparation for an academic or research career. Graduates often move on to faculty positions in colleges and universities, though some may fill specialized staff positions in government and industry.

Students may enter a doctoral program after they have completed their master's degree or from undergraduate study. Doctoral programs generally take three to five years of full-time study to complete. Instruction develops advanced research skills and advanced knowledge of the student's area of specialization. To complete their program, students must design, research, write, and defend a dissertation based on original research.

Admission Factors

MBA admissions factors include previous study, test scores (TOEFL and GMAT), professional experience, letters of recommendation, and the application form.

All the business schools require candidates to hold a Bachelor's degree or its equivalent. Academic results as an undergraduate are also taken into consideration.

Communication skills are vital in any business program and will be subject to particularly close examination in the case of a student whose native language is not English. Graduate business students need a high level of English proficiency so they can read difficult material; research and write well-structured, original papers; and take an active part in the presentations, debates, and discussions that are central to most American MBA programs. Doctoral candidates and some master's degree students may also be expected to teach other students during their program.

In general, a student should score 550 or better on the TOEFL exam and above 25 on the verbal section of the GMAT exam. For the more competitive schools, a 600 or higher on the TOEFL and a 30 or better on the verbal section of the GMAT are desirable. Some exceptions to the above may be made by individual schools. These guidelines are merely an attempt to give an applicant a rough idea of the level of English proficiency that is expected. Schools will also evaluate written essays to determine writing ability and will look for evidence of formal preparation in English (years studied, etc.).

The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is a three-hour test measuring verbal, quantitative, and analytical ability. Scores range from 200 to 800, and the minimum acceptable score is likely to be about 500 (although the average score of students accepted by the most competitive schools is often much higher). The GMAT math score should be above the 70th percentile. For the most competitive schools, GMAT math section scores of 35 and better are desirable.

In addition to test scores, work experience is a very important factor in admission to US management programs. Many programs expect at least two years of full-time work experience. Summer jobs and other temporary or part-time employment is generally not counted towards that total (though these experiences are also valuable for the school to know about). The average American MBA student is 25-29 years old.

Professors expect that their students have a minimum knowledge of how organizations are structured and how they operate. Students who have had responsible jobs have a much better intellectual and practical framework within which to file away the new information they learn. They can also contribute more to classroom discussions by drawing from their own experiences. This is desirable since a portion of the education at American business schools results from experienced students sharing their knowledge with one another.

The type of work experience an applicant has had is not as important as the quality of the experience. Any industry and any functional area are fine, as long as the candidate has had a responsible job where he or she has demonstrated competence. It is essential for candidates to be able to describe clearly, and in relative terms, how successful they have been at work. In addition, their supervisor's recommendation must be strong.

It is possible for students to enter a program directly from undergraduate school; some business programs enroll mainly this type of student. However, it would not be realistic for such a student to apply to, for example, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, where 99 percent of a recent entering class had at least one year of full-time work experience. Students with experience in the business world are not only likely to gain more from the MBA curriculum than are inexperienced participants, but are also able to contribute more to class discussions and projects. They are also likely to be more attractive to potential employers than are MBA graduates with no first-hand experience of business.

American business schools are looking for people with excellent interpersonal skills, demonstrated leadership ability, good communication skills (oral and written), open-mindedness (foreign study or travel is a plus), and participation in non-academic activities -- athletics, music, art, volunteerism, etc.


Most business students rely on a combination of loans, savings, and partial scholarships to finance their studies. Business schools rarely, if ever, award scholarships covering more than tuition, or even half-tuition, and assistantships are rare at the MBA level. The program is intensive, and students are expected to devote their full time to their studies. Business schools rarely award financial aid to foreign students.


Graduate management programs differ widely in their flexibility, in their overall teaching methods, and in program pace and requirements. No one type of program is superior to another, but every student will have particular preferences. Students need to understand what programs they are considering emphasize while evaluating their own strengths and needs.

Most programs include specific required courses, electives chosen from specified areas, and electives chosen freely. Programs vary in the balance among these areas. Some programs offer many electives and allow students to design programs for themselves. Others have strict requirements. In one type of program, called a cohort program, study groups of students proceed together through a specified selection of courses. This approach, and similar programs that allow few or no electives, are intended to create general managers who have a well-rounded understanding of the different areas of management.

Teaching methodology is another area in which programs differ widely. US business schools generally combine a variety of teaching methods, which can be divided into practice-based and theoretical types. All programs use both types of teaching, but they differ widely in the balance between practice and theory.

The case study method is a practice-based approach widely used in US business schools. It is designed to inspire teamwork and to create an atmosphere similar to that of working in business. Students are given descriptions of specific business situations. They analyze the situation (often in small groups where each student plays a particular management role), choose a course of action, and defend their decision in informal class debate.

This approach often involves the business community in many ways, for example drawing guest speakers and instructors from among business leaders. Business programs may involve students in actual management projects, from developing ideas for small student enterprises to investing school funds. Such programs will emphasize teamwork among students. Practice-based programs are also likely to encourage or require students to participate in internships. Schools which use this method extensively are Harvard, Stanford, Wharton (University of Pennsylvania), Dartmouth, University of Virginia, and University of Michigan.

Theoretical learning involves the teaching of general concepts based on research models that can be applied to many different management situations. Of necessity, much theoretical instruction involves faculty lectures. Students may also play management decision games, often using computer simulations. Programs that emphasize theory often employ a good deal of mathematical modeling and so require students to have strong quantitative skills. Business schools with a heavy theoretical emphasis are the University of Chicago, MIT, Carnegie-Mellon, and Indiana University. Other schools compromise in a balance between the two methods.

Programs also vary in length, in the pace of instruction, and in requirements for graduation. Beyond specifying particular courses students must take, some programs may have such requirements as a thesis, oral or written comprehensive examinations, internships, or knowledge of foreign languages that other programs do not. Opportunities for internships, additional study abroad, and honors or other special course work also are more available at some programs than others.

Program length is a factor of particular concern to many students. It is possible for a well-prepared student to finish some US master's degree programs in twelve or even nine months. The Official Guide to MBA Programs provides information on program length in its key facts chart. However, students should remember that the figures provide the minimum number of months. It may be difficult to finish the program in the listed time. Foundation courses (which are waived for those with undergraduate course credit judged by the school to be equivalent) are not included in calculating minimum completion time, and may add a year to the program. If students lack excellent English language proficiency or a strong academic background in business, they should count on taking considerably longer than the minimum time to complete their graduate program.

One more element international students need to look at is whether the curriculum may be too focused on American systems to suit their purposes. For example a particular accounting program might require a large amount of study on the US tax system, or a hospital administration program might focus on problems specific to running a hospital in the United States. It may be possible to determine how US-geared a program is by examining course descriptions closely, or by corresponding with the program.

When choosing a business school, international students should make sure that the program is accredited by the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). This is the only professional accrediting body for business administration fields recognized by the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation (COPA).

Executive Education

Many US institutions offer executive MBA programs. These programs are not generally appropriate for international participants because of their scheduling. Designed for working US professionals, the executive MBA may meet on weekends, a day or two out of each week, or a week out of each month. A better option for international professionals with limited time is short-term executive training, which provides intensive, full-time study for periods ranging from a few days to a year (with most programs lasting between one and six weeks).

Executive training can usually be expected to focus on current issues affecting business, on management strategy, and on developing ideas to benefit the participants' organizations rather than on the theoretical framework that is the basis for many degree programs. Executive training also provides a particularly good opportunity to develop contacts with business people from across the United States and the world. These courses are meant for those who have occupied a position of executive responsibility for a number of years and who wish/need to update their knowledge and skills. The age limit is usually at least 35 years of age. Participants are usually sponsored by their companies to attend the program.

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