Best Practices for Business Majors: How to Specialize With Your Versatile Degree

Business degrees are among the most versatile around.

At the undergraduate level, a business student will likely study anything from personnel management to budgeting to business communications to negotiation tactics. All of these skill sets are transferable across almost all industries and a wide variety of functional roles.

As the freelance economy continues to grow in the U.S., even if you work for yourself — as, say, a photographer — understanding how to run a business can make the difference between earning enough money to keep doing what you love and needing to find a job working for someone else so you can pay the bills.

As an undergraduate business student, you may have a general goal of making money, but you may also want to keep your options open. Fortunately, almost every industry — from healthcare to tech to media to retail — has a need for people with business knowledge. That's because companies need to make money to be truly self-sustaining, and many lessons learned in business classes can be boiled down to how to help a company make money. The flexibility that comes with a business degree also extends to the size of the company you ultimately work for; startups and Fortune 500 companies alike find value in people who have business savvy.

Giving Focus to a Versatile Major

The versatility of your degree is an asset — provided that you channel your newly-acquired skills productively. Here are four ways you can lend focus to your undergraduate business degree.

1. Pick an academic supplement.

There is some risk in being a jack of all trades but master of none. In order to demonstrate your ability to focus, you can pair your business major with a specific minor, concentration, or even a second major. These potential pairings are almost limitless — and they can help you position yourself well for the field you would like to enter.

If you’re completely undecided — as is natural, I’d like to add — then stick with the theme of keeping your options open. Along these lines, some of the more promising fields of concentration are accounting, data science/analysis (which is becoming increasingly important in today’s business world), management, entrepreneurship, marketing, and other disciplines that almost every company has a need for, regardless of the industry.

If you have an ideal job in mind, however, pairing a business degree with your specific field interest is typically recommended. For instance, if your goal is to start your own Internet business, then I would strongly suggest pairing your business degree with computer science classes.

2. Gain work experience.

Because business career paths can be less well-defined, it is very important for you to get work experience while still in school — and, if possible, to make sure that your experience covers a range of industries and functional roles. Internships and project-based work for businesses provide great ways to do this. The faster you can find a profession that “grabs” you, the earlier you can start preparing yourself for it through your additional coursework.

If you are looking for help finding a project you can gain experience from, check out HelpU, which connects talented business students to successful companies, as well as Noodle’s internship search.

3. Think about your personality.

In addition to asking yourself what type of job/industry you are drawn to, or what skill set you are looking to hone, you should also take your personality into account when choosing which specialized classes to take. Are you an analytical thinker? A salesperson? A leader? A visionary? A people manager? Do you love crunching numbers? At most companies around the world, there is a need for people who do each of these things — it's just a matter of deciding what's right for you and then starting down the path of building that skill set atop your business foundation.

4. Consider your interest in an MBA.

The question of combining an undergraduate business degree with an MBA comes up often. For context, three of the most popular reasons for getting an MBA are:

To increase your knowledge base and make you better at your job, or to speed up your pace of promotion, To expand your professional network (often at a different school than where you got your undergrad degree), and To make a career change once you have already started down a path and determined it's one you're not passionate about.

In my opinion, having your undergraduate business degree doesn't preclude you from getting your MBA, but it doesn't really help, either, because it’s not a prerequisite for any of the three items listed above. How much it helps or hurts depends largely on the school(s) to which you’re applying, so to the extent that you can think ahead, research MBA programs and see if they have an admissions position on undergraduate business degrees.

Above all, however, work experience tends to be much more important to top-tier MBA programs than undergraduate majors, so my advice is to get out in the real world before choosing to pursue your MBA. You'll improve your chances of getting into a top MBA program, and you'll keep your career switch option alive.

Summing It All Up

Studying business is not a critical step in a business-related career path the way that undertaking a pre-med curriculum is for doctors. Many people who end up in business will have arrived there from different areas of study, and there is a lot of learning by experience when in the field.

Some people just “get” it. When Jay Z sings, "I'm not a businessman. I'm a business, man," he is highlighting the fact that he has figured out how to make money, or in his case, multiple ways to make lots of money.

Having a solid grounding in various aspects of business can help you make an impact from the early days of your business career, but it is not a prerequisite for being a business(wo)man or a business, (wo)man.

You can use Noodle to learn more about the best colleges with undergraduate business programs or graduate business schools. Admissions and career experts are also available to answer your questions about business school careers.