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Like practitioners of extreme sports, MBA students go to great lengths to persuade friends, family and future employers what a punishing experience they are undergoing. Business school is – we all find ourselves saying – “intense”. This incantation obscures the fact that some MBA courses, including almost all those taught in the US, take two years, while most in Europe take one.

Apart from length, what is the difference? Neither format dominates the business school rankings. Employers do not seem to discriminate. Course syllabuses look similar. Nonetheless, all courses are definitely not the same.

There are, for a start, degrees of intensity. It would be unwise to expect class-free Fridays and work-life balance on a one-year course. The compression of the programme leaves little fat and no chance to catch up if you fall behind. At Insead, the school that pioneered the one-year MBA format 50 years ago, classes start at 8.30am, often finish at 7pm and go on regardless of public holidays.

In this format, core courses are largely dispatched in a four-month sprint at the start of the year. Engineers and business graduates may be able to treat subjects such as statistics or accounting as refreshers, but those without either a quantitative background or business education face a mountain to climb.

The composition of the classes may be different too. One-year courses may have more sponsored students and may be older. Average ages for some European one-year courses are distinctly higher – often about 29 or 30 – meaning participants have more workplace experience. More experienced students may find discussions of leadership frustrating in classes where few have ever managed other workers.

In terms of what happens in the classroom, the differences are clear. A one-year programme might squeeze a course of 10 three-hour sessions into 16 90-minute slots. Two-year MBAs, such as that at Iese Business School in Spain, thus have time to stick to the Harvard model where every class revolves around a discussion of a business case. This means shorter MBAs do not waste time rehearsing material students can find in textbooks.

The critical difference between the two modes of study is off campus. At the heart of the two-year programme, in the long summer break between first and second years, is an internship. This summer job on steroids allows students to subsidise their study and try a different career for 12 weeks.

Some manage to cram in more than one, according to David Simpson from London Business School.

“These days we are seeing an increasing number of people taking more than one internship, working for a month or more for two completely different companies.” In addition, LBS students must complete a two- to four-month paid consulting project with an external company in their second year. These opportunities to experiment and interact with outside organisations – while not absent – are reduced on a one-year course by sheer timetable pressure.

Another important differentiator must be the motives of those studying. Those who have a definite goal and do not need time to ruminate and explore will find little to complain about on a one-year course. Anyone who wants time to think and feel their way into a career, might want the extra flexibility of a two-year programme and the extra opportunities to work with companies in different sectors.

For those who do not want to choose, there are à la carte options. Since 2005, LBS has offered students the chance to front-load their study, complete fewer electives and finish the course in 15 months. This option is popular for would-be entrepreneurs who have found a promising project.

Columbia Business School in the US offers a 16-month variation, whereby those who do not want an internship can begin the course in January and study through the summer, beginning the second year in sync with the September intake.

The biggest difference of all is geographic. For most, the choice is two-year study in the US versus a year in Europe. US classes tend to be slightly younger than those in Europe and they are almost all less international. Almost all US schools are at least two-thirds North American. But for anyone wanting to work in the US, this offers an excellent insight into US business culture.

Comparison is tricky because nobody takes both paths. A two-year programme offers room for manoeuvre and more time to network. A one-year course strips study down to a frenzied 10-month sprint, where friendships are bound by shared adversity. At the very least, you learn good time management.

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