What do recruiters think about online MBAs?

BY Anna-Louise JacksonApril 27, 2021, 3:00 AM

An online MBA may tick all of the boxes for some students, but does it do the same for potential employers? Recruiters say what matters most is why you pursued an MBA, not how you earned the degree.

That may come as good news to students who worry about a lingering stigma associated with online education. Thankfully, there’s been an evolution of sorts more recently as the number of online-only MBA programs has risen, and the COVID-19 pandemic pushed much of life onto screens big and small. 

“A lot of schools now are only an online platform, so there’s not necessarily a need to put an indicator on your résumé of online versus in-person,” says Dionna Johnson Sallis, global talent acquisition consultant with Korn Ferry. What’s more, Sallis says many recruiters may avoid altogether the question of how the degree was obtained—since what matters more is how the potential job candidate will leverage that experience.

As important? How an MBA grad will fit in with a company’s culture. Amazon, the world’s largest retailer, has hired candidates from more than 100 different MBA programs, according to a spokesperson for the company. “We value MBA students as they tend to fit well within our corporate culture—they are customer obsessed, risk-oriented, scrappy, and analytical,” the company said in a statement to Fortune. “Amazon firmly believes great talent is everywhere and considers students from all schools and formats during the recruitment process.”

Even if recruiters aren’t focusing on whether you completed your MBA online or in a classroom, they may have some questions for you about why you obtained the degree in the first place. Here’s what recruiters really care about:

How does an online MBA fit into your career map?

Before applying to an MBA or any other advanced degree, Paul McDonald recommends potential applicants ask a pretty simple question: Why? Nailing down the reason in advance will help you with this immediate decision and others down the road, says McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half, a professional recruiting company.

“Are you proactively mapping out a career that requires an MBA, or are you running away from something and think it’s nice to have?” McDonald asks. If you don’t have a solid reason for pursuing an MBA, he says it’s important to research how the degree will advance your career—especially so you don’t risk incurring student-loan debt that will take years to pay off for a degree you don’t end up using.

This type of research and introspection will be important once it comes time to be recruited, according to McDonald. That’s because he, like other hiring managers, is likely to ask a mix of questions to measure a candidate’s critical skills. For example, a simple question like “Why did you choose that university?” can be very revealing, he says.

According to McDonald, a “bad” response might be, “It was close to the house.” Whereas a “good” response may be more along the lines of, “I have a mentor and I met people at XYZ organization that went before me, and they helped work with me to decide this was a good way to go.” 

These types of questions during the recruitment process will help a manager to assess your thought process for obtaining an MBA, your critical thinking skills—and ultimately your potential for advancement in a role, McDonald says. So it’s good to have your “why” thought out even before you press “submit” on your application, he adds.

How will the skills obtained in an MBA program advance your career?

There are, of course, differences between online and in-person MBA programs, but when it comes to the skills and experience obtained? “I don’t see a strong distinction, especially if we’re talking apples-to-apples in terms of programs,” Sallis says.

Prior to pursuing an MBA, Sallis recommends outlining the skills you want to develop in the program—and how that experience will advance your career. And remember: The degree alone may not increase your value in the job market. “It’s important to have a thought-out plan to ensure the value proposition of that goal pays out for you,” she adds.

And MBA degrees aren’t exactly rare; between 2000 and 2018, the number of Americans who have a master’s degree of any type more than doubled. And Sallis says that because the pool of job candidates who have an MBA has grown, she’ll really dig into someone’s skill set during the recruiting process. “There are definitely ways to leverage the experience.”

What recruiters want to know about your MBA

Even before MBA classes begin, you will make a series of decisions that may matter less to a recruiter than you realize. For example, Sallis doesn’t ask candidates whether they attended school online versus in-person or full-time versus part-time because someone’s life situation (like having kids) might have been the reason—and it’s illegal to ask about your family status in a job interview, she notes. “As recruiters, it’s important to be cautious of how we ask certain questions around the ‘why’ for attending school,” she adds.

For McDonald, his primary focus when it comes to candidates with an MBA is whether they attended an accredited institution. From there, he’ll consider the program itself—how it adds dimension to a candidate’s qualifications and his own experience recruiting people from there. Finally, he’ll want to match a candidate’s skills and breadth of experience with what a company values, he adds.

But it’s equally important to have realistic expectations before pursuing an MBA and how it fits into your broader career goals. “Graduate degrees are important, but I don’t think they’re make-or-break, depending on the industry,” Sallis says. 

And because an MBA represents a significant investment of both time and money, you don’t want to take the decision lightly, McDonald says. “If you’re running to an MBA program because you have time right now, be careful and proactive with doing your research.”