7 types of MBA programs—and how to choose the right one for you

BY Jordan FriedmanApril 28, 2021, 3:00 AM
Getty Images

You want to pursue an MBA. That seems like a pretty straightforward plan until you consider just how many different paths could lead you to that destination.

Navigating the world of MBAs isn’t easy for prospective students. Programs vary in cost, where (and when) you will be taking classes, who your classmates will be, how long you will be in school, and how the degree will help you achieve your career goals.

For Lance Skiles, a Los Angeles resident, the appeal of frequent face-to-face networking opportunities—and the prospect of a career change—drew him to pursue a traditional full-time MBA a few years ago, as opposed to an online or part-time option. At the time, he was mobilizing volunteers at a nonprofit organization but wanted to move into a consulting role.

“I knew the power of the MBA was the power of getting connected to people who otherwise would have never responded to an email or picked up a phone call from me, and had no reason to do so, quite frankly,” says Skiles, who earned his MBA from the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business in spring 2020 when he was 28 years old. Upon graduating, he landed a job as a consultant at Boston Consulting Group.

Skiles knew what type of program he was looking for from the outset of his search, but the decision isn’t always so simple. There are seven main types of MBA programs, highlighted below, and that number doesn’t even include less common options (such as early career, professional, and modular programs) or hybrid alternatives that blend in-person and online aspects. Here are the factors to consider when deciding which is best for you. 

Full-time MBA 

A full-time MBA is typically considered a university’s flagship MBA program, says Caroline Diarte Edwards, cofounder and director at MBA admissions consulting firm Fortuna Admissions. These programs generally attract the highest-quality applicants, she says, with diverse professional backgrounds and life experiences.

What to expect: School will be your full-time endeavor. You’ll be taking classes during the day (or possibly at night) and most likely in a classroom. The program typically takes two years to complete, and it’s best suited for people seeking a big career change. 

The emphasis on networking in full-time programs allows students to build lifelong relationships with classmates from around the world, says Diarte Edwards, who was previously the director of admissions, marketing, and financial aid for the INSEAD MBA program. 

“You’ll be studying alongside people who were at the top of their game in whichever sector they were working in beforehand,” she says.

Part-time MBA (in person or online)

Those who want to continue working while earning their degree may pursue a part-time MBA either online or in person.

What to expect: This type of program typically attracts more career climbers than career changers, though this varies. In a face-to-face part-time program, you’ll take classes on nights and weekends with students who live locally. If you’re an online student, you’ll complete coursework remotely, but you may still have to attend live lectures through videoconferencing. 

You may have several years to finish your MBA, but juggling work and school can be a challenge—and may give you less time for networking.

“This particular group, I think, is really seeking flexibility,” says Liesl Riddle, associate dean for graduate programs at the George Washington University School of Business. For instance, part-time students can pursue the MBA at their own pace by varying how many classes they take each term.

In these MBA programs, the emphasis may be more on academics than networking, though both can play a role in the student experience, says Jeremy Shinewald, founder and president of MBA admissions consulting firm MBAMission.

“In the part-time environment, [relationships are] going to be important, but the bonds will be less enduring,” says Shinewald, who wrote The Complete Start-to-Finish MBA Admissions Guide.

Executive MBA

There’s still room to learn something new, even with several years of experience under your belt, and executive MBAs allow you to do just that.

What to expect: Classes are usually held every other weekend or twice a month (or online) over the course of about two years. These programs are designed for working adults looking to increase their managerial knowledge—and possibly their job standing. You’ll hear from members of your cohort with established careers and vast knowledge spanning industries.

Given that many executive MBA students have established careers by the time they enroll, time management will be key to success.

“The quality of the education and the faculty is superior, but it is possible that because of the limitations on time, the program is going to probably be more core-based than elective-based,” says Judith Hodara, cofounder and director of Fortuna Admissions, where coaches help prospective students narrow their target school list and navigate the MBA application process.

Specialized MBA 

MBA applicants who already know which industry they want to enter postgraduation—whether it’s tech, health care, marketing, finance, or something else—may be well suited for a specialized MBA.

What to expect: You’ll study business and choose an area of concentration or a major, and you’ll take courses alongside classmates with similar interests or career ambitions. These programs may be either part-time or full-time, online or on campus, so program length varies, as do the types of networking opportunities available. You should be confident in your career plans before committing to the specialized MBA.

Well-known examples of MBAs tailored to specific industries include the MBA in Health Care Management at Wharton and the Johnson Cornell Tech MBA. The Kelley School of Business at Indiana University offers several MBA majors, including business analytics, finance, and management.

“[Students] realize that what they need to learn is going to be in addition to the standard MBA curriculum,” says Hodara, who once led MBA admissions at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “It basically gives them almost a whole other set of curricula to dive into, with people who are also thinking about the same kinds of questions.”

Global MBA 

You may dream of one day working for a business overseas or leading a company with offices worldwide. Global MBAs allow students to study business through an international lens.

What to expect: These degrees, sometimes referred to as International MBAs, with other variations, attract a larger proportion of students from overseas and are usually full-time. They may also have study abroad requirements or offer travel opportunities. 

“The idea of taking each one of the functional areas and going deeper in terms of how those functional areas are different in different institutional contexts is key to their core course experience,” says Riddle of the program at GWU.

There’s a heavier emphasis on global programs at European business schools compared with those in U.S., Diarte Edwards says.

Accelerated MBA 

Looking to earn your degree as soon as possible? Some MBA programs condense their course of study into just one year for quicker career advancement.

What to expect: Accelerated full-time program structures vary, but students may take classes during a summer or complete coursework in shorter, more intense academic terms. Many of these offerings are geared toward working adults. Overall costs may also be lower than in two-year programs, and these one-year programs are more likely to be full-time, Diarte Edwards says. 

The downside to an accelerated MBA: less time to absorb what you learn and to network with your classmates.

At the USC Marshall School of Business, the accelerated, general management MBA lasts 12 months and is geared toward mid-career professionals. “The higher your opportunity costs, the more accelerated an experience you may like for your program,” Suh-Pyng Ku, vice dean for graduate programs at Marshall, wrote in an email. 

MBA dual and joint degrees

Broadly speaking, dual MBAs typically allow you to study business and also earn a second degree, and the coursework is separate for the two programs. In joint degree programs, you can usually apply some course credits to both degrees.

What to expect: Joint and dual MBA programs vary in structure, admissions requirements, and time to completion. But dual degrees usually take longer than your stand-alone MBA, at around three years, Diarte Edwards says. Dual and joint MBAs are a great way to combine skills where the intersection of business and another field is valuable in a career.

Columbia Business School has 11 dual MBA programs, including public affairs, nursing, social work, and journalism. Meanwhile, the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh offers joint degree programs such as the MBA/Juris Doctor and the MBA/Master of Social Work. 

If you want a less time-consuming and costly credential to supplement your MBA, you may also consider enhancing the degree with a graduate certificate, which serves as a minor of sorts, experts say. 

Where do I start?

The first step to figuring out what type of MBA to pursue: Sit down and reflect on your long-term professional goals and how you envision an MBA program fitting into your daily life. Where do you see yourself in five years or a decade from now? What have you accomplished so far, and where do you want to go next? Pick a program that aligns with your aspirations.

Assess the options above and the pros and cons of each. In the process, get feedback from colleagues, family, and friends and evaluate your own strengths and weaknesses.

“People sometimes feel like they should follow a certain path because that’s what their colleagues have done or that’s what their boss has done or that’s what their parents expect,” Diarte Edwards says. “But it’s very individual.”