One-year versus two-year MBA programs

BY Sydney LakeJuly 15, 2021, 2:00 AM
Martin Laksman

Candidates applying to MBA programs today have not only a vast number of business school options but also an array of program lengths and formats. For those people who are keen on maximizing their return on investment (both in terms of time and money), they may eventually ponder this question: Why not try to squeeze a two-year full-time MBA program into half the time? 

While a one-year full-time MBA program can be a great fit for some business professionals, it can leave others yearning for more time to pursue internships and networking opportunities, and a chance take special electives. A one-year program, however, can be most lucrative to professionals who are seeking a promotion rather than a full career switch, or for candidates whose current employer is sponsoring their MBA.

That’s true at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business, which launched the first U.S.-based one-year full-time MBA program in 1963. “You tend to see more career enhancers as opposed to someone who is going back for their MBA to make a career pivot,” says Tom Keller, director of graduate programs at the university.

Can you earn an MBA in one year?

Not all business schools offer a one-year MBA program, but there are plenty of options for students who want to complete their business education more quickly. Most one-year MBA programs either offer core classes (think accounting, finance, marketing, critical thinking, and other essential courses) at an accelerated pace or allow students to place out of certain classes.

One-year MBA students at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University skip some core courses and dive into electives during four semesters instead of six, says Jennifer Hayes, senior associate director of admissions for the one-year program.

While the program is truncated, “Kellogg’s one-year students are not siloed” from students in the regular full-time MBA program. Hayes says. “They share classes, clubs, events, and the alumni network with students in other Kellogg programs.”

At Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, one-year MBA students must meet certain prerequisites to be admitted in order to keep up with the faster program pace. Candidates must hold a professional certification or advanced degree (like a CFA, CPA, JD, Ph.D., or MS) to apply, and the school offers an eligibility check to applicants.

Some MBA core courses at Cornell must be completed in a matter of only three weeks, so “we want to make sure that you’ll be able to hit the ground running,” says Eddie Asbie, Cornell Johnson’s admissions director. 

One-year MBA candidates also tend to have more professional experience when entering their respective program. At the University of Pittsburgh, the average one-year MBA student has six to eight years of work experience, while an average two-year MBA student has four to five, Keller says.

Is it more difficult to be admitted to a one-year MBA program?

Again, it depends. However, most programs say that they look at their one-year applicants and two-year applicants with the same level of scrutiny. The University of Pittsburgh tends to be a bit more selective when choosing its one-year candidates, Keller says

Either way, as a part of the admissions process, applicants must be extremely clear about their professional goals both during and after the MBA program.

“One of the most important things is that candidates really need to articulate what their goals are,” Asbie says. “If we see someone who is applying to a one-year program and they’re making a career switch into an area like investment banking, that one-year program is probably not the best option.”

Is a one-year MBA program worth it?

One of the major differences between a one-year and two-year MBA program is the internship component. Usually, a two-year MBA student would pursue an internship the summer following the first year of study. One-year MBA students, however, dive right into the hunt for a full-time job.

“One of the big tradeoffs between doing the one-year and two-year programs is that internship in the summer,” Keller says. “That internship, more often than not, becomes a job offer.” 

This is especially true for competitive industries like investment banking and private equity that tend to recruit directly from their intern pool, admissions officials at several one-year MBA programs agree. Skipping an internship can work, though, for MBA candidates who plan to return to their current employer or family business post-grad.

Because internships can be a valuable component of career development, a one-year MBA program may not be for everyone.

“If students are looking to make a major career shift, they may benefit from a formal internship and more time to network,” Hayes says, “meaning that the one-year program is not for them.” One-year MBA students also must prioritize their interests and involvements because of their limited time on campus, she adds.

One-year programs can also be challenging for international students, as they have less time to acclimate to a new country, focus on their academics, and job hunt all at the same time, Keller adds. 

What is the advantage of a one-year MBA?

Time is money. Since most one-year MBA programs require fewer semesters’ worth of tuition, the return on investment for a one-year program can be enticing. Bypassing courses at Kellogg’s one-year MBA program “means a cost savings in terms of tuition” and less time out of the workforce, Hayes says.

To weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the one-year versus the two-year MBA program, Mark Nelson, Cornell Johnson’s dean, says he emphasizes the importance of connecting with admissions officials, current students, and alumni.

“We want to make sure they’re in the right program for them,” he says. “Our goal is to help them realize their goal.”

Check out all of Fortune’rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.