Is getting an MBA hard? What to consider before you apply

BY Kara DriscollMarch 10, 2022, 2:05 PM
A student after an MBA class at the George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C., as seen in September 2021.(Photographer: Stefani Reynolds—Bloomberg/Getty Images)

If you want to pursue an MBA but you have been out of academia since you graduated with your undergraduate degree, you may be wondering just how difficult it is to go back to school. While an MBA will expand your network of valuable business connections and likely lead to a salary increase or job promotion in the future, earning your degree won’t be a walk in the park. 

Still, those couple of years in school can really pay off: Newly-minted MBA grads have a median starting salary of $115,000—77% higher than the $65,000 median for people who have only a bachelor’s degree, according to the 2021 corporate recruiters survey conducted by the Graduate Management Admission Council. And 90% of corporate recruiters expect the demand for business school graduates to increase or remain stable in the next five years, the same survey showed. 

Among the main challenges that can make getting an MBA difficult is transitioning back to life as a student, finding the right balance between the personal, professional, and academic areas of your life, and ensuring you’re going back to school for the right reasons. 

Earn an MBA for the right reasons

While it may seem basic, you can make even the most rigorous MBA program easier if you enroll with a clear purpose and for the right reasons. Successful students don’t earn an MBA degree because someone told them to or their parents have offered to pay for it—rather, you should have a genuine desire to further your education, network with like-minded professionals, and gain new career opportunities.

“Sometimes students have to really kind-of be honest with themselves as to what they’re interested in, what they want to do, and really think about what’s best for them,” says Jim Holmen, director of admissions and financial aid for Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business MBA program.

Holmen encourages students to get to know a program and check in with the admissions team before committing to any one school. Many MBA programs, like Kelley, have student ambassadors—or current students who have volunteered to be contacts for prospective students.

These ambassadors can help prospective students understand the unique opportunities that exist in a particular program, and offer “great” advice about how to ease that transition back into academia, Holmen says. “They can give them a better sense of the kind of resources and support the school offers their students through both the academic program and their career search.”

Transition back into academic life

Once you’ve accepted an offer from your dream business school, you’ll need to shift your mindset and transition back into academic life. And depending on the program you choose, you may need to keep up that mindset for several years.

While credit hour requirements vary among schools, most full-time MBA programs take two years to complete, though there are some one-year options. Similarly, executive MBA programs can take roughly two years to complete. Meanwhile, the length of part-time programs varies depending on the number of courses you take each semester or quarter—and some programs may allow students several years to complete the requirements. 

Regardless of the type of MBA program, you’ll need to come in with an academic mindset, a commitment to completing required coursework, an ability to juggle your schedule, and a general desire to take advantage of networking opportunities.  

“You truly have to earn your degree,” says Greg Beaver, executive director of the masters and PhD programs at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management. “MBA programs are designed to be challenging and prepare students to be outstanding business leaders.”

Krannert, for example, grew out of Purdue’s College of Engineering to bridge a gap between engineering and business. Some of the quantitative methods and critical thinking curriculum that date back to the engineering days remain, and Beaver says that Krannert students typically look at business problems differently than other MBA programs. Because of that, students need to be prepared to shift from a career mindset to an academic mindset in order to manage qualitative and quantitative coursework.

Find ‘work-life compromise’

If you plan to add school on top of an already busy life, you’ll need to seriously consider how an MBA program will fit in—and add more stress. Part-time, online and executive MBA programs cater to people who want to continue working full-time while pursuing the degree. For those people looking to network more aggressively and focus on coursework, a full-time program may be a better fit.

“The working professional may face a greater challenge than a full-time graduate student because life gets more complicated,” Beaver says. “But working professionals make great students because they bring real work experience into the classroom and that enriches the experience for all.” 

What makes an MBA program difficult for many students is finding the right balance between school, work, friends, and family obligations, Beaver says. “It is important that each student evaluate the amount of free time they have and set clear expectations with managers, friends, and family to gain their support,” he adds. “It is important to recognize there is seldom work-life balance, but rather work-life compromise.”

Students should be realistic and have those discussions before starting a program. Earning your MBA will be difficult; however, it should be an experience that challenges you to take risks in pursuit of higher learning, Beaver says. “Grad school is a collaborative setting where both faculty and students help you to be successful throughout the journey.”

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best business analytics programs, data science programs, and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.