If you've already got some business experience and want to take the next step towards a promotion, pay rise or even a career change, studying for an MBA could make all the difference

What does MBA stand for?

The Master of Business Administration (MBA) is a prestigious postgraduate qualification that provides an overview of key business practices and is highly valued by top employers.

While MBAs are at the same level of education as other Masters courses, they are usually studied once you've gained a few years of professional experience rather than carrying straight on from your undergraduate degree.

Successfully completing an MBA can lead to a better salary, improved professional reputation and a massively expanded network of business contacts. So, if you're a graduate with ambitions for a high-flying executive career, an MBA could be just what you need.

Be warned though: MBAs are expensive and academically challenging. You need to be certain that it's the right option for you before taking the plunge.

Search for MBA courses.

Types of MBA

First, you'll need to decide which type of MBA suits your current level of experience, life circumstances and career goals. Courses fall under these main categories:

  • General MBA (or just 'MBA') - the best option if you have some business experience (around three years is usually expected) and you want to fast-track your career by breaking into a management role, the finance industry, or corporate strategy.
  • Executive (EMBA) - usually studied on a part-time basis, this is appropriate if you're already in a corporate management position and have ambitions to enter the boardroom.
  • Specialist MBA - perfect if you have some managerial experience and are looking to enter or gain promotion into a particular industry or sector.
  • Distance learning MBA - often referred to as an online MBA, this is ideal if you can't attend university full time and prefer to manage your studies around other personal and professional commitments.

Read course descriptions carefully though, as universities sometimes use these terms to mean slightly different things. Find out more about which MBA you should choose and discover the best MBA programmes in the UK.

What does an MBA involve?

At UK universities you can find MBAs in full time, part time and distance learning/online formats. Full-time MBAs tend to last 12 or 15 months, starting in September, although some courses are longer and January starts are also available. However, part time study is more popular, as MBA students are usually already in employment and want to carry on working throughout the course.

Programmes are generally intense and consist of core and optional modules and a dissertation or work-based project. You'll be assessed through exams, essays and group activities. You'll learn how to carry out operational management, develop a marketing strategy, do strategic planning, lead a team, and read and assess financial reports.

Many courses also offer opportunities for work placements and studying abroad.

An MBA is an advanced programme that differs from other postgraduate courses in that it develops the skills you've gained through professional experience, as opposed to building on your academic knowledge as most Masters degrees do.

While other postgraduate programmes are far more heavily dependant on classroom and/or laboratory-based activities such as lectures, tutorials and seminars, MBAs are dominated by case studies, group work and real-world projects.

When should I take an MBA?

An MBA is not an entry-level business qualification. It is usually taken by professionals who have gained at least three years of business and management experience since graduating from undergraduate study. The average age of students on top-ranking MBA courses is typically between 27 and 30. This means you'll be studying alongside fellow business people who can share their insights.

Consider taking an MBA when you feel you're ready to take the next step in your career, whether that means progressing with your current employer or moving elsewhere.

Executive MBAs are generally studied by more senior managers and the minimum required level of experience can be up to ten years.

How much does it cost?

Tuition fees for MBA courses in the UK vary significantly between institutions. Most fall between £15,000 and £40,000, but you'll find some on either side of that range. Here are some examples of current MBA course fees to give you an idea of what to expect:

  • University of Bolton - £8,500.
  • Northumbria University - £14,995.
  • The University of Sheffield - £22,950.
  • University of Oxford - £57,200.
  • London Business School (LBS) - £78,500.

Fees for home and international students are often the same, though sometimes overseas (non-European Union) students will have to pay more.

Don't automatically go for the cheapest option to save money, or for the most expensive on the assumption it must be the best. You need to think about several factors to find the right MBA for you, such as location, course content and staff expertise. Different MBA courses will have strengths in different areas of business and management.

According to research by the Association of MBAs (AMBA), most students self-fund their MBA. The next most popular method is employer sponsorship, followed by loans and finally scholarships. Get more information on funding an MBA.

Will an MBA help my career?

With the high cost of courses, it's important to see a return on your investment. An MBA can often lead to a promotion, increased earnings or a career change. Nothing is guaranteed but, for example, graduates from business schools in the Financial Times (FT) Global MBA Ranking 2018 gained salary increases of between 44% and 182% after completing the course.

For a detailed breakdown of employment outcomes for Masters graduates in the UK, read What do Masters graduates do? - MBA.

MBAs are known and respected globally, so if you're interested in working abroad then the qualification will be beneficial - particularly as UK business schools are so well regarded. An MBA can also help you to specialise in your current sector or a new industry you want to move into.

Often, the majority of students on MBA courses will be international, giving you a unique chance to network with business people from diverse backgrounds - opening up an array of potential career opportunities.

However, given the cost and the requirement to have a number of years' work experience before taking an MBA, the decision to apply shouldn't be taken lightly. Think hard about whether you could achieve your goals without taking the course, or by opting for a different postgraduate course. It may be helpful to ask your employer what advantage an MBA might give you on your current career trajectory.

What are the entry requirements?

For a general MBA, you'll typically need at least a 2:1 undergraduate degree, although a 2:2 is sometimes accepted. If you don't have a degree, you may be able to get a place if you have extensive and exceptional professional experience.

Business schools will often expect you to have three years of relevant post-graduation work experience as a minimum, increasing to between five and ten years for executive MBAs. For many general MBAs, you'll also be required to take an entrance exam, usually the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT).

Most top-ranking MBAs, in the UK and abroad, are taught in English. If this isn't your first language, you'll need to show your proficiency by taking a recognised test such as the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

How do I apply for an MBA?

Winning a place on an MBA is a competitive process as class sizes are kept relatively small, especially at the top business schools. The strength of your application is therefore vital if you want to succeed. You must set out your reasons for taking the course, what you hope to gain and your career plans, as these will all be considered.

Most applications are completed online through the university's website. You'll be required to provide details of your academic qualifications and professional experience, as well as contact information for two referees (one academic and one professional). You may also need to submit the score you've achieved in an admissions test such as the GMAT. Find out how to succeed in your GMAT.

Specific requirements vary between institutions, but in addition to the online form most applications involve writing an essay and, if shortlisted, attending an interview. Interviews can be individual or group sessions.

Check application deadlines on the institution's website. Try to apply as early as possible, as it will show your enthusiasm and give you the best opportunity to access available funding. The leading courses can fill up a year in advance.

Where can I get more advice?

  • Alumni - ask them what it was like to study at a particular business school and how their career benefited.
  • Careers services - advisers can help you to decide which course is best for you and assist with your application.
  • Current students - they can tell you how much work is involved and recommend books and other resources.
  • Business fairs - meet representatives from various universities and MBA employers at open days and events.
  • Tutors - find out more about the course content, assessment methods and how your career goals match up.