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What Business School Applicants Should Know About Typical MBA Courses

Ilana Kowarski

Just as a captain must know how a ship operates in order to stay afloat, a C-suite business executive must understand how a business functions to guarantee it doesn't go bankrupt. One of the goals of an MBA program is to teach aspiring business leaders essential management skills so they can run a complex company successfully, MBA professors and alumni say.

"The typical core classes in an MBA program provide exposure to the various cross-functional disciplines in business and give students a strong foundation in business fundamentals," wrote Shaifali Aggarwal, founder and CEO of the admissions consulting firm Ivy Groupe, in an email.

Carlos Castelán, managing director of The Navio Group, a management consulting firm, says elective courses in MBA programs often delve into subjects that fascinate students. "As an example, at Harvard Business School, one of the most popular elective courses is one called 'The Business of Entertainment, Media, & Sports' despite the fact that a small fraction of students go into related industries after school," he wrote in an email.

MBA programs typically offer classes in the following topics:

-- Accounting

-- Marketing

-- Finance

-- Negotiation

-- Strategy

-- Decision-making

-- Business ethics

-- Innovation and entrepreneurship

-- Operations management

-- Leadership

-- Organizational behavior

-- Business analytics

An MBA curriculum offers students a "comprehensive business education," which includes training in every major business discipline, says Christina D. Warner, an MBA alumna of Duke University's Fuqua School of Business who now works as a health care marketer for a Fortune 500 firm. Warner says it is difficult to gain a similar breadth of business knowledge through work experience as one can with an MBA, since many business jobs only focus on a single aspect of business, such as marketing.

[Read: What an MBA Degree Is and What You Need to Know.]

Warner advises prospective students to compare the MBA courses offered by various business schools to figure out which offer the strongest courses in disciplines where they lack skills and experience. One way for MBA hopefuls to discover any gaps in their resume is to ask a professional mentor for guidance, Warner says. Then, students can look for schools that will help them address those concerns, so they are more likely to achieve their career goals, she adds.

MBA programs vary widely in the extent to which their courses emphasize quantitative versus qualitative business skills, Warner says. Another important distinction among business schools is whether MBA students typically work on their assignments by themselves or usually complete group projects, she says. MBA hopefuls should consider their learning styles and academic preferences in order to determine what type of curriculum is most suitable.

[Read: Ask These Questions About How MBA Programs Are Taught.]

Stephanie Shayne, director of graduate programs at Husson University's College of Business in Maine, says required core classes in an MBA curriculum typically include courses on business fundamentals, such as economics and communications.

"Electives often include courses that delve deeper into these key areas," she wrote in an email. "For example, these could include investment analysis or social media marketing. In addition, programs often offer industry-specific courses like nonprofit management or health care management, as well as courses in other functional areas of business such as human resource management and operations management."

Shayne says MBA hopefuls who have a clear vision of the type of career they'd like to pursue upon graduation should identify a business school that offers a compelling array of courses that would be relevant to that career. She says two key indicators of the quality of an MBA curriculum are the job placement rates among a school's recent grads and the accomplishments of the school's faculty.

[Read: See Which MBA Programs Lead to the Best Return on Investment.]

Another factor to consider is whether a school's MBA courses are only offered in person during the week through a full-time program or if they're also available via online weekend or evening MBA programs, Shayne says.

B-schools vary in their policies on MBA concentrations or specializations, Shayne explains. Some schools mandate that students develop expertise within a particular aspect of business, while others give MBA students the freedom to decide whether they want to focus on a specific discipline.

"In our program here at Husson University, the majority of our MBA students pursue a general MBA and do not declare a concentration or specialization," she wrote. "We do, however, offer several concentration options for those students who are interested."

David White, a founding partner at Menlo Coaching, an MBA admissions consulting firm, says the best courses are not necessarily the ones that emphasize hard skills. "MBA students tell us that the most valuable courses are the ones focused on soft skill development, which prepare them to lead teams, negotiate with partners, manage upward, and become confident public speakers," he wrote in an email.

One selling point for a university's business school curriculum, White says, is when it allows for MBA students to take cross-listed courses, or classes that are available to students within multiple departments of a university. Access to courses based in the university's nonbusiness graduate programs gives students the flexibility to explore other academic interests, he says.

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