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Are you thinking of applying for an MBA programme? Is it worth the expense? Where should you study? Should you apply for a one-year or a two-year degree? When should you start the applications process? What does the process involve?

On December 2, our panel of global experts, from three of the world’s top business schools, answered your questions on this page:


The panel were:

David Simmons, deputy director of MBA programmes at Cranfield School of Management in the UK;

Melissa Terrio, associate director of admissions at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington DC in the US;

Chris Tsang, associate director of the MBA programme at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, in Hong Kong.

My question is simple and I hope you respond honestly. Is it worth the knowledge? Or is it worth it for the contacts?

Most people I know who have done MBAs have done it to take a career break so not to leave a gap in their CV. I am at a point where I see MBA students living the party life and taking endless “breaks”. Granted the schools provide them with the recruitment contacts to get the top jobs. I doubt the individuals going to MBA schools have learnt something in addition to what they already knew. Most of them would probably have got the jobs they wanted had those contacts been provided earlier on.

I am craving knowledge, will an MBA provide this? What do you think?
Gabriela Andino, London

David Simmons: I would certainly challenge your assertion that MBA students are “living the party life”! There are lots of cheaper ways of having an extended party! All the students I know undertake an MBA after a lot of careful consideration and with a full awareness of the seriousness of what they are committing to. An MBA should be probably one of the most intensive and demanding programmes you can undertake, certainly as far as the leading schools are concerned. Nobody should undertake an MBA simply to get the letters after their name and good students do an MBA because they know they want to extend their education and make a difference in some way – in many cases it can be literally a life-changing experience.

Yes, the network you form is very important and the social life and collegiality of your cohort are key elements but the experience should stretch you in lots of other ways too. So an MBA will develop more than just knowledge as knowledge by itself will not ensure that you become a successful manager or leader. Besides enriching and challenging you intellectually, an MBA should also help you achieve a new level of self-awareness as you develop a whole range of skills and competencies that help you APPLY what you have learned. In other words it’s not just what you know that counts; it’s what you can DO with what you know.

Chris Tsang: The MBA experience is a total experience. It includes learning the business knowledge, sharpening the soft skills, building the connection among classmates and developing contacts for employment opportunities.

Students may feel overwhelmed when they join an MBA program and noticed that there are so many things available. Time management and knowing what one needs are essential. On the contrary, people sometimes have placed too much emphasis on only limited aspects of the MBA experience. Of course, with so many MBA programs available in the market, candidates need to find the right program for themselves.

Melissa Terrio: When and why you get an MBA is a very personal decision and will differ for each person. Like in all things in life you get as much out of the experience as you put into it. I cannot speak about other institutions but at the Georgetown McDonough School of Business MBA program, our students cite a number of factors in helping them succeed in their professional lives including a global mindset, strong financial and strategic knowledge and a business foundation that allows them to succeed in a variety of industries. In addition to the recruitment contacts you will make you will also build a strong network of successful alumni from the program (and university) you attend as well as your network of classmates and faculty.

Is competition increasing due to the increase in the number of applicants as a result of the financial crisis? Also, based on your experience which is the most essential element for a successful application in one of the top business schools worldwide (LBS/Columbia/Insead etc)?

David Simmons: It may well be that more people are looking to differentiate themselves in the marketplace and that the MBA becomes an embodiment of that wish for some. It is also possible that some people are using redundancy packages to gain the MBA experience they had always wanted to have but which they had never pursued when they were in work. So there may be a slight change in the MBA demographic but the picture is far from clear.

What is true is that there always has been competition for places in good schools but now, more than ever, students have access to much more information before drawing up their short list and so there is no excuse for not doing one’s “homework”. The important thing is for candidates to do their research carefully and conscientiously and to focus on those areas that matter most for them. Programmes are not identical and prospective applicants should really take time to decide which school’s culture provides the right “fit” for them.

What does this mean in practice? Well, there are some fundamental decisions you have to make – for example…. Do you want a one year programme or two? Does the school appear to meet your age, career and professional experience profile? Are you looking for a programme which is international, not just in terms of its faculty but also in terms of its student intake? Do you want to do your MBA “at home” or abroad? Is there a particular “specialist track” that interests you? Does the school’s career services department have good links and a good placement record – are there any particular industries that they specialise in? Are you looking to start your own business so is entrepreneurship an important factor? And so on…

There is no single element that guarantees your place at a “top” business school. What you have to do is to see how your priorities align with the ethos of particular schools and then make those your top schools. (You would still source your schools from those that appear in the leading rankings and that have multiple, recognised accreditations to their name.)

GMAT scores do count but only as one element in a whole range of factors which might differ from one school to another. I would say that the deeper you get into the process the more your career experience (and I don’t just mean what you earn your living doing but the whole spectrum of you as a person) comes into play. Remember, good schools recruit PEOPLE not numbers or grades – we want to explore you as a person (E.g., what will you bring to our programme? What can we give you?) It’s a reciprocal engagement – and each school will have its own particular set of “must haves”.

In the case of Cranfield we want people with substantial experience, we want a diverse student body (both in terms of career experience and cultural backgrounds) and we want people who have the potential to work closely together in teams and develop real leadership expertise.

Chris Tsang: In Asia, we did experience an increase in the number of applicants as a result of the financial crisis, and applicants with very strong profile. As a result, it becomes more competitive.

I can’t speak for any particular program but in general MBA programs are looking for candidates with leadership potential; candidates who can be business leaders in future. Of course, different programs have different emphases, some focus more on intellectual capability, some on team work, some on soft skills ... It is difficult to generalise the requirements.

To prepare for a successful application, it is important for the candidate to know his/her strengths and weaknesses, what he/she wants to achieve through the MBA training and find the right match with the school.

Does a poor performance as an undergraduate student impair your overall application to the top b-schools or would a good performance in your professional life (with significant progression in responsibilities and skills) successfully offset it?
Rishad Sadikot

David Simmons: Categorically schools should be interested in what you have done alongside the grades that you did – or did not – achieve. But each school will give different aspects different weight. By and large it should be true that your post-undergraduate experience should be taken into consideration – after all, the world is full of people who either didn’t go to university (Richard Branson) or didn’t finish their degrees (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates) who have gone on to be phenomenal success stories. I would like to think that Admissions Officers value people’s achievements alongside their responsibilities and you are right to stress the importance of what you call “significant progression”. That said, most schools will look for a good GMAT as an indication of your intellectual calibre – if nothing else it is a kind of safety net providing evidence that you will be able to complete the programme.

Chris Tsang: A poor academic performance in undergraduate studies will certainly affect the opportunity to join a top b-school. It is important the candidate can demonstrate his/ her strengths in other areas, say an outstanding GMAT to demonstrate his/ her academic potential; a good performance in his/her professional life; a very strong statement why he/she fits for the program ... I think the candidate should also explain why the poor performance and what has been done to ensure that he/she can perform well in the MBA and make a contribution to the program.

I’m an asset manager/financial advisor working full time in Seattle and would like to pursue an MBA. I have an interest in studying in Brazil, Rio, Coppead - UFRJ as they rank high on FT.com. Someone said to me that I should study where I work (i.e., Seattle Uni) in order to network, find more clients, and build a name for myself. I have an opposing view. I feel global experience is a priority as it maybe possible to work one-day from an office abroad. Your thoughts?
Matt Davis, Seattle, WA

Chris Tsang: I agree with you that global experience is an important factor that one should consider when looking for an MBA. This can be done in different ways. Doing a full-time MBA program outside your home country is one way. Other possibilities include joining an exchange program, getting an overseas summer intern, joining an overseas study trip ... Back to the basic question, how it fits into your career objectives. In this particular case, are you seeing opportunities to work in Brazil or the Latin Americas in future; are companies in US interested in hiring people with experience and exposure in Brazil.

David Simmons: I think it depends on your career objectives and aspirations. If you want to pursue a career that gives you international exposure, then it’s certainly no bad thing if you have done an MBA abroad. You might indeed be a more attractive proposition to some Latin American companies as an American with a close knowledge of Brazil and an ability to speak Portuguese - it’s not for me to judge. But you say you work as an advisor so it is likely to be the case that you will find new clients in your own backyard if you decided to study locally – but of course improving your client base should never be a primary motivation for doing an MBA. I think you should do as you want, once you have done the research and weighed the risks and opportunities. It might be worth your while contacting your Brazilian school of choice to see if they can put you in touch with an alumnus who made a similar journey to the one that you are contemplating. Learning from others’ experience is always enlightening.

Do you see US universities eventually offering 1-year programs similar to the offerings in Europe?
Vanessa Cheong

David Simmons: Some already do, of course, though the majority favour two-year programmes. But please note that a one-year programme is not a two year programme squeezed into one! Accelerated programmes, as they are referred to in the US, are more the norm in Europe where students tend to take an MBA at a slightly later stage in their career when they have more experience. Their needs - and often their objectives - are not the same as for someone starting on an MBA at a much earlier point in their career.

At Cranfield, for example, students have, on average, more than six years’ experience – they come to us with a lot of practical business knowledge and with stories and experiences to share. In other words, even if they don’t have a methodology or a particular vocabulary, they are often doing some of the things that will form part of any MBA programme. They are therefore entering at a different point in the career cycle, looking for a way of making sense of the “big picture” and looking to develop skills that will take their career to a new (strategic) level. The MBA helps them acquire new knowledge and deepen and formalise some knowledge they may already have at the same time as getting them to look at themselves in a new way. There is therefore more of an emphasis on enhancing management skills alongside developing business knowledge.

My profile:

1) Bachelor Of Commerce

2) Executive Programme in Applied Finance from IIM Calcutta

3) 4 Years of international experience as Financial Controller based in Bangkok with assignments in UK, China, Germany etc

4) Currently running my own firm

My questions are:

A) I want to get more into general management rather than solely concentrating on a financial function in future. What sort of positions can I expect after completion of my degree?

B) Which would be a better programme for me, 1-year or two-year?
Ankit , India

Chris Tsang: I would frame your questions differently. What you would be passionate about doing after your MBA program? Where do you want to work in future? There are many opportunities out there. It is important for you to know what you want to do, what is the gap, and find a program that can help you close the gap and provide the career network to help you to get into the career that you would like to work on.

David Simmons: An MBA can be a good route to a change of career – not just in terms of industry sector but also function or country. I would suggest that you choose a general management programme that will give you the breadth you are looking for and which gives you access to a wide range of colleagues from different industries and different cultural backgrounds. The majority of good MBAs – while they may have different points of emphases – are fundamentally concerned with developing a managerial mindset – in other words they are not preparing individuals for a particular industry or a particular role. You might think of it as a “toolbox” of skills which provides you with the knowledge, confidence and agility to face a range of challenges. When you look at different organisations, you often find that the people at the helm are not necessarily specialists in that particular industry. What they have is the ability to leverage their own and others’ knowledge and skills and to provide leadership by working with and through others.

As regards the positions you might expect, that is harder to predict. Certainly it is always more difficult to make the kind of step change you are talking about and the difficulties increase the more you try to change at any one time, so to try to change function, industry and country all at once would be a real challenge. It’s hard to give specific advice – much will depend on the attitudes and policies of the companies to which you are applying but it is worth talking to the Career Development services in the schools you are shortlisting to see if they have a particular expertise as regards career changers.

I would say that the more experience you have the more you would be likely to consider a shorter programme – for two reasons:

1) You are already likely to have more of the background knowledge you need

2) other factors come into play. There are “opportunity costs” in doing an MBA, not just in terms of the length of time you are out of the job market and not earning, but also because your life may be at a different stage with family commitments/responsibilities etc. These should have an influence on your calculations.

I feel that the MBA has no recognition in the UK market. Can you please shed some truth on this, because as I job hunt I have rarely seen job descriptions asking for an MBA qualification. There seems to be more recognition and high demand for the ACCA or CIMA accountancy qualifications especially for jobs which focus on strategy and management in the financial sector.

What kind of competitive edge would an MBA provide and which kind of industry is the typical employer of MBA graduates? I need to understand this because an MBA is a huge investment financially and I need to be convinced that I can get the high level of returns that I am seeking. Thank you.
Mohsin, Glasgow

Chris Tsang: I am not in the position to comment on the UK market but would like to comment from a general MBA education perspective.

When someone considers an MBA program, it is not only the MBA brand they should look at, they should consider that overall learning experience. It is perfect if the job market they are in is very receptive to the MBA qualification. They should also consider how the MBA experience would enhance their management skills and widen their perspective when making a business decision. This will pay off in the long run.

David Simmons: An MBA does have recognition in the UK – you need only look at the attention MBAs receive in the supplements of leading newspapers to confirm that. Remember too that leading companies come to top MBA schools’ Careers Fairs specifically to recruit MBA graduates. But I agree that job adverts usually do not feature an MBA as a requirement. This has probably more to do with the fact that an MBA is a professional and general management qualification, in other words you are not specialising in a particular industry or function. Having an MBA says more about the breadth of an individual’s skills and their managerial competence rather than about specialist knowledge in one domain.

An MBA is a big investment – that is undoubtedly true. But it is an investment you make in yourself. It is generally the case that MBA graduates achieve a good return on their investment since they are likely to occupy more senior roles and attract higher remuneration after their MBA. But an MBA is more about developing your career rather than just finding the next (better paid) job; in other words you are taking a long-term view of how you would like your future to develop. A good school will give you a lot of important advice and guidance in this respect. No school can guarantee you the top job you crave but good schools prepare you to meet the challenges involved in undertaking a senior role. And of course your ability to build a strong personal and professional network is underpinned by the classmates and alumni that you meet throughout your programme.

As an applicant investigating various Executive MBA programs, what do you believe are the differentiating factors an applicant should consider when comparing programs of similar renown ones? Additionally, does the governance and curriculum of the school’s traditional MBA program influence or guide the Executive MBA program?
Andrew Stanley, Virgina, USA

David Simmons: It may come down to your personal circumstances. Most executive MBAs attract students within a certain radius of where that school is located. City-based schools may prioritise classes in the evening, other schools with more rural campuses may favour programmes that take place over weekends.

By and large Executive MBA students tend to be more mature and more senior than Full-time students. Not only are they continuing to work while they study but they may have additional family responsibilities that are an important element in their decision.

And then of course there are some Executive programmes which consist of a consortia of schools and which are designed to attract senior executives who want to have a “global” experience as they mix and meet with executives at a similar level from other partner schools in other countries.

What growth industries/ professions should MBA graduates focus on now?

Melissa Terrio: As a MBA graduate you should seek to pursue the industry/position that is going to make you professionally happy. This year MBA graduates from the Georgetown McDonough School of Business have been successful in finding jobs in a variety of industries including finance, consulting and marketing. Our students are also finding that a MBA is helpful in succeeding in other industries such as operations, non-profit and government.

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