Myth busted: It’s easier to get into an executive MBA program than a two-year, traditional MBA

BY Sydney LakeSeptember 01, 2021, 2:00 AM
University of Massachusetts graduates file down the aisle during a commencement ceremony at Boston’s TD Garden in August 2021. (Photo by Craig F. Walker—The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Looking only at acceptance rates for prestigious MBA programs, it can feel nearly impossible to gain admission to one of the best business schools in the U.S. Northwestern University (Kellogg) and University of Pennsylvania (Wharton), both of which appear in Fortune’s top 10 ranking of full-time MBA programs, accept only 27% of applicants, while Harvard University admits 11.5%, and Stanford University just 8.9%. 

These acceptance rates can nearly double or triple for some top-ranked executive MBA programs, making it appear easier to get into an EMBA program. Still, these numbers don’t paint the full picture of EMBA admissions. For example, Wharton’s EMBA program reportedly has about a 44% acceptance rate (the school doesn’t release the data)—but experts say this is a reflection of having fewer candidates in the first place and a product of prescreening candidates.

It’s just different to get into an EMBA program, and fewer people apply, explains Juli Bennett, Vanderbilt University’s executive director for EMBA programs.

“We’re not soliciting lots and lots of applications in order to narrow,” she says of applicants to the school’s EMBA program. “We’re looking for the right applications.”

How the EMBA admissions processes differ

Top full-time MBA programs receive thousands of applications each year, but many EMBA programs actually prescreen candidates to be sure they’re a good fit for the program. 

Prospective EMBA applicants are often asked to send in a résumé and test scores, and a member of the admissions committee will either encourage or discourage them to apply, says Natalie Grinblatt Epstein, an MBA admissions consultant with Accepted. Admissions committee members confirm that a candidate is mid-career and is trending toward a role more focused on strategy or general management, she adds. 

Ideal EMBA applicants are “in a position where all eyes are on them,” Bennett says. “If they’re too low to have visibility within the organization, they won’t get the return on investment in the program.”

During the prescreen process, it’s not uncommon for admissions committee members to encourage candidates to instead apply for a full-time or part-time MBA program at the school—or to hold their EMBA application for another two or three years, Epstein adds. 

This consultation approach really allows applicants to evaluate what they’re looking for in a program, says Mary Banks, an admissions consultant with Inspira Futures. Banks previously served as the associate director of admissions and assistant dean of student affairs and executive education at Columbia Business School

“Student satisfaction is a very important factor,” she says. “You don’t want to create a situation where the student feels that their needs and interests have not been served.”

Bennett also evaluates the type of influence that prospective candidates have in their organization. If someone is flying “under the radar” and not speaking with their employer about the fact that they want to take on more and pursue an EMBA, this can be a sign that they’re not the right fit. “You can’t be in a position of visibility if you’re not having the conversation,” she notes.

How to evaluate the quality of an EMBA program

School brand also matters in EMBA programs, says Arush Chandna, cofounder of Inspira Futures. Top programs such as Wharton, Booth, Kellogg, and Columbia are still going to be competitive, he says, owing to the brand-name attachment.

“The MBA is usually what the school’s brand is built on,” he explains. “An EMBA program is a great complement.”

Bennett also suggests evaluating a program’s curriculum to ensure you’ll get the quantitative education necessary to take on fiscal responsibility as well as a strategic component.

…but still, not everyone gets in

There are fewer applicants to EMBA programs—and many are prescreened—but that still doesn’t mean that everyone ends up being admitted. Applicants need to be clear about their reasons for pursuing an EMBA, experts agree. A full-time MBA program can serve as a good stepping-stone or an opportunity to make a complete career switch, but an EMBA is really aimed toward leaders who want to bring their learnings back to their current organization.

Top schools are looking for proven and up-and-coming C-suite leaders, Banks says. “They don’t want your run-of-the-mill student.” 

For example, Bennett looks for applicants with at least eight years of experience and who are “really managing something pretty significant.” This could be shown in how they supervise others, the scale or scope of a project they’re working on, or the amount of fiscal or budgetary responsibility they hold. 

Less important to the EMBA application are test scores and undergraduate transcripts, although they’re still a good indicator of how candidates will perform academically, experts agree. Essay responses and recommendation letters carry much more weight, they say. EMBA admissions committees are more conscious of putting together a class of very experienced, proven leaders who operate at a higher level of management, Banks says.

“What I like to see in EMBA applicants is the ability to visualize the future and connect the dots,” Epstein says. “Think like a CEO,” she suggests. 

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.