What’s Different Between MBA and Undergraduate Experiences?

Ideally, your undergraduate experience was a positive one: four years of growth, development, learning, and enjoyment that resulted in valued friendships, fond memories — and a good job.

Today, as you consider whether to attend an MBA program, it's helpful to compare and contrast your college years with what you can expect at business school. Here are a few key differences:

1. Admission

The process for gaining acceptance to a business school has some similarities to the undergraduate process. There's a formal application that asks about your prior experience and credentials, and you can expect at least one essay question. There's a required standardized test — the GMAT or GRE — which provides a "common denominator" for the admissions staff to compare applicants. You’ll also need to submit transcripts detailing your previous education.

On your b-school applications, you will typically be required to submit two recommendations, one ideally provided by your work supervisor. Recommenders are asked to provide specific examples of the relevant strengths they have seen you demonstrate.

Business schools require a one-on-one interview during which an admissions officer, a current student, or an alum poses questions intended to validate and supplement the information that you provided in your application. Finally, there is often a "background verification" process introduced shortly after you're offered admission to the program. Professional fact-checkers may request explanation or documentation of information and claims related to your career or education.

2. Curriculum

MBA programs have greater depth and less breadth in their curricula than colleges. Typically, the first year at business school focuses on core courses in the basic business disciplines of marketing, finance, accounting, operations, and technology. In the second year, you’ll choose highly-focused electives relating to the career path you envision for yourself. There are a few opportunities to explore and experiment with classes on different topics — if allowed, you can even take some outside of the business school by cross-registering at non-business schools within the same university. But most of the second year of an MBA education is a deep-dive into the industry or function that you see as your direction following business school.

3. Teaching Methodology

While colleges tend to emphasize lectures and lab assignments, most of the top-tier business schools feature classes taught via "case studies." At Harvard Business School, there is 100 percent reliance on cases. These real-world scenarios feature protagonists (e.g., CEOs) who face complex issues that each require a decision and quick course of action, despite limited data and extreme deadlines. Each student in the class is expected, on the spot, to provide analysis or propose tactics that he or she believes will offer a solution. Participants are graded based on the value of their comments and contributions to the class. High stress? You bet. But case studies are also an amazing way to learn through simulation.

4. Relationships

You’ll develop casual friendships at business school — based on common interests and through social interaction — just like you did in college. MBA students also see in their classmates a powerful, global network that spans industries, functions, and markets. MBA peers are individuals who will make both a near- and long-term impact on your career. So, the bonding that takes place on the MBA campus and through your program’s alumni organization has a more purposeful side. Connecting with individuals who will help provide job opportunities, advice, investments, and introductions is one of the major reasons why MBA students enroll in the first place.

A unique aspect of b-school culture is the “study group.” Whether membership is assigned by the administration or formed voluntarily by students, the study group brings together diverse individuals who help each other learn and grow through intensive interaction.

Don't think for a moment that there's a shortage of "fun" at b-school. On the contrary, parties, outings, and road trips are integral to the MBA experience. These gatherings always have an additional purpose and value for b-school students, who become masterful at networking.

5. Financial Aid

Both undergraduate colleges and business schools award “need-based” financial aid for their students. The institutions use formal, published criteria to qualify recipients and determine how much aid will be available. For most MBA programs, such funding is provided through loans; many undergraduate institutions provide partial or even full funding through grants.

In terms of “merit-based” financial aid, however, there’s a big difference for undergrads vis-à-vis MBAs. For college students, there are literally thousands of scholarships, grants, fellowships, awards, etc., provided by schools and third parties (e.g., foundations) to applicants regardless of their — or their family’s — income and assets. For business school students, there are far fewer sources of merit-based aid. In most cases, this aid is offered unilaterally by the b-school at the time of admission as an incentive to enroll.

6. Career Development

Most colleges attract corporate recruiters who visit to interview seniors about potential jobs, and have career services staff available to students to provide information about various industries and companies. At business schools, however, the recruitment process is more robust. Not only is there formal recruiting of second-year students, but there is also an immediate and heavy focus on summer internships for first-years. These two- to three- month positions provide both the intern and the employer with an opportunity to evaluate the fit and the potential for a full-time job after graduation. The competition for plum positions with high-profile companies can be fierce.

After comparing your college experience to this projected view of MBA life, what do you think? Can you envision yourself surviving — and thriving — at a top business school? If so, the next step is get an expert evaluation of your MBA candidacy to determine how the admissions committees will assess you. Then, you can make a fully-informed decision about taking the next step — applying!