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How hard is an MBA?

Is doing an MBA tough? Of course it is, or everyone would be scrambling for that coveted degree. But how hard is it to complete a program at a top school? Obviously, the level of difficulty would depend on your intellectual caliber, your academic background, and your interests and career goals.

How hard is an MBA?

There are major hurdles, certainly. The first among them that you, as a new MBA student at a top b-school, are likely to encounter is a feeling of inadequacy, says a Ross student quoted in a Poets and Quants article. A tempest of searching questions rocks your boat for at least a few weeks into your program: Do I deserve to be here? Did the admissions officials make a mistake and let me in? What I am doing among these super-bright folks? Will I be able to graduate without embarrassing myself?

You are probably employed as a professional already, and may have last attended a school six to eight years ago. Because of this gap in your academic career, you will have to rediscover yourself as a student, points out a Purdue graduate. You will have to summon your merits that made you a good student in your undergraduate days.

And you better do this fast, if you don’t want to find yourself on the back foot right at the start. Classes are fast-paced, and there is a lot of material to handle that makes you feel you are “drinking from a fire hose,” says a student from Jesse Jones GSB.

The hardest part of an MBA program – Prioritizing

A troublesome task you will have on hand as a new MBA student is prioritizing your activities and striking a balance between studies, job search, and social activities, says a student from Rochester’s Simon Business School. Your plate will be full with all kinds of interesting activities, and you will need to choose. The much-feared phobia among MBA students — the fear of missing out — will haunt you, and you will feel pressured to attend all the events. But you can’t, obviously, and the sooner you learn to say no to some of them, the better.

When problems leave you perplexed, it is a good idea to seek help from your classmates. Asking for help also creates bonds between you and your mates and builds trust, feels a Haas student.

Handling recruitment blues at the end of the program can also be a major source of stress. But you should see it as an opportunity to introspect and learn more about yourself. The pressure at a b-school can seem to go on endlessly, and you will have to draw deep from your strengths to stay afloat.

Getting out of your comfort zone should be an essential item on an MBA student’s must-do list, feels a Tuck student. If you are an introvert, you will have to seek out your peers to resolve basic doubts. Mix, mingle, and talk to clear your mind. Read Can introverts succeed in business schools?

Some MBA courses can look like they are designed to cause headaches. For example, the Finance course can give sleepless nights to liberal arts students. But hard work and a collaborative spirit can see you through, says a Rotman graduate.

How hard is an MBA? MBA Crystal Ball asked Alison Knight (General Director, International School of Management) about the top 3 things that students of their International MBA program struggle with and what they can do to be better prepared. Here’s what she had to share.

1. Time management

Learn to use different tools to organize your time. Find what works for you, using a paper agenda, setting reminders in an online calendar, employing a specific organization app.

The goal is to have a system in place to manage your various classes, appointments, assignments, as well as prioritize the most important tasks during your day. It is important to schedule your time, not just for study and work, but also for personal time to maintain a balanced agenda

On top of this, many of our IMBA students are also working full-time while taking their courses part-time. This, as well as maintaining a healthy balance in your personal life sometimes tends to be difficult for our students;

2. Business course preparation

The International MBA curriculum is meant to challenge you to learn new skills and expertise. While you should not be intimidated by business courses, if you do not have a background in business you will want to prepare yourself as much as possible. Start reading business news and journals, or books on business subjects you are less familiar with.

For out IMBA students that do not come from a business background, or that have been out of academia for a longer period of time, we offer them levelling courses to make sure that they are adequately prepared to be successful in the IMBA program

3. Career connections

Many students make the mistake of waiting until the end of their IMBA program to start thinking about their careers. However, this should be a priority throughout the program. Networking is one of the most powerful ways to make career connections, so utilize your class time to engage with your colleagues and professors.

Have an up-to-date LinkedIn profile to stay in touch with the contacts you will make during your MBA. Reach out to the Alumni network, and attend any events where you can meet other students or alumni. It is also a good time to join any professional organizations in your area of interest and attend local events to start networking within the community.


How hard is an MBA compared to engineering

How difficult is an MBA for engineers? An electrical engineering graduate who went to “one of the toughest engineering schools” says on an Internet forum that his average school day used to be 20 hours. Compared with his engineering course, his MBA program “was a joke,” he says.

Giving an example, he recalls that he used to write 40-100-page lab reports as a weekly exercise during his engineering days. During his MBA program, the assignments were much smaller, around 10-30 pages. The homework was also much simpler. But he warns that MBA isn’t easy, despite the apparent lighter load.

Graduate programs are obviously more demanding than undergrad programs. In graduate school, you may feel that you’re learning from colleagues at your workplace, thanks to an egalitarian atmosphere. You may not find the traditional teacher-student relationship that is common in undergrad schools.

A participant in an online forum says exams are grey areas for an MBA student. There may not a right answer and a wrong answer to every question. But exams are not insurmountable if you are attentive in class, take notes, and review them before an exam, this person feels.

Engineering is certainly the more challenging of the two, says another forum-participant. She says that you only need to compare the level of complexity of classes under each major to find that out. Sample assignments from each class, such as Thermodynamics or Solid Mechanics, are also pointers to the difficulty level of engineering programs.

One person who obviously sees the big picture points out that the answer to the question whether engineering or MBA is harder depends on the particular person’s interests. Someone who finds engineering interesting and business a dry subject is likely to find an MBA program tricky, and vice versa.

Comparing a graduate program in civil engineering and an MBA program, a former student points out that this branch of engineering requires Linear Algebra, three semesters of Calculus, Differential Equations, two semesters of Physics, two semesters of Chemistry, and higher-level engineering topics. A business program demands none of these, except two semesters of Calculus, “which some MBA students make a big fuss about.”

Besides, engineers have to constantly keep pace with the fast-changing technologies. Finance professionals also be in constant touch with developments, though not nearly at the same pace as engineers, according to another perspective. But an MBA program constantly forces you to think out of the box for solutions.

A mergers and acquisitions (M&A) analyst says that engineering is more science than art compared with finance. “Things have to work or they break,” he says. “Overall, engineering filters out far more people than finance does, especially at universities.”

A Goldman Sachs executive who has studied both science and finance says finance is extremely intuitive. “You will have no problems understanding the math as well as the concepts. On the other hand, physics almost doesn’t make sense.” Quantum Theory, Relativity, and Fluid Mechanics are taxing even for professors, he says.

Most challenging MBA courses

Now, what are the hardest MBA courses? One of the most daunting courses that Booth students hold in awe is Nobel Laureate Eugene Fama’s “Theory of Financial Decisions.” One online-forum participant says that even top students struggle to complete the course. Accounting and Financial Analysis are also demanding, which, with “Theory of Financial Decisions,” are “worth the full quarter’s tuition,” a student remarks.

Of course, the level of complexity of a course also depends on the student’s academic background. Those with highly developed quant skills are likely to find the technical courses easier. But they may find courses that require soft skills quite a struggle. Conversely, those blessed with good soft skills will find some courses hard to crack and some others right up their alley.

Some students find Advanced Statistics “exceptionally difficult.” The core Business Statistics class “really kills a lot of people because of all its applications,” says one student. But students with an engineering background may find it a little easier. It also depends on the professor’s teaching methods: at one top school, the Statistics professor made things easier for students by breaking down the complex course into “digestible” modules.

Core Finance can also be a tough nut for many students. So also Corporate Finance Theory. Non-quant students might find themselves on a particularly sticky wicket. At one school, a student with a liberal arts background found the ground beneath her feet slipping away as she had to grasp the entire Black-Scholes model in a half-an-hour lecture.

Managerial Accounting and Financial Accounting are often mentioned as courses MBA students look upon as big, rocky mountains. Some find the analyses part of Managerial Accounting fun but the memorization of concepts a dreary chore. Understanding the balance sheet lines is key to mastering Managerial Accounting, one student feels.

Students who do well at Financial Accounting usually have no trouble with Managerial Accounting, according to a student. Financial Accounting deals mainly with the mechanics of reporting, and Managerial Accounting, which is more conceptual, with making decisions.

MBA finance/math tough for engineers?

An education counsellor, sharing his views on Quora, says that engineering graduates don’t find many business subjects tricky, after their challenging encounters with such technical subjects as Electronics and Thermodynamics. But engineering graduates may have some trouble with presentations, project work, and the long essays that are part of MBA programs.

A degree holder in mechanical engineering and business (MBA in Finance) says he feels engineering is “definitely the harder of the two.” While both degree programs use similar math in some instances, “finance is more—here is the formula, use it,” and “engineering is more—this is where the formula came from, and why it’s important to use it.”

Is an MBA difficult for an average student?

In a class full of bright people, you may find yourself at sea if you’re an average student, particularly in a top b-school (see our blog post – Problems an average student can face in an elite MBA classroom). Even if you score above-par grades, you would still have a few others on the same level of academic competence, which will keep your competitiveness low.

Average students may also find class participation problematic, as they will have to make themselves heard among professionals with work experience, who will be putting forward their learned views. Similarly, you may be the odd one out in study groups and, as someone says, be looked upon as the “ugly duckling.” Your “average student” tag will continue to haunt you at placement interviews, where, too, your brighter classmates will outshine you.

All this shouldn’t get you down. And this doesn’t mean that you should decide against going to a top school because you are “only average.” This is because enrolling at an average school is not a choice for an average student or anyone else. Schools that lack quality cannot offer courses or an environment where you can acquire the sharp skills necessary for a career boost. What you need to do is this: identify a good school that is the “right fit” for you.

Also read:
6 Benefits of getting an international MBA degree
Is an MBA necessary to succeed in life?
References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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Sameer Kamat
About Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Follow me on: Instagram | Linkedin | Youtube

6 thoughts on “How hard is an MBA?”

  1. Hello Sameer,
    Well presented and great guide for people thinking about the next leap on their career.

    My profile:
    Age : 32

    UG – Chemical Engineering (Top 4 Institute from Tamil Nadu)
    GPA – 7.9/10

    Work Experience Total – 11 Years – India 3 years, USA – 8 Years
    8 Years with TCS(technical and managerial role)
    3 Year with Deutsche Bank(Lead business Analyst)
    All my 11 years was with Banking and Financial Industry
    PMP Certificate holder

    GMAT – Not yet, still researching to see if in need to take GMAT for my MBA

    Volunteer/Champion – Community of Practice Head at my location, Adopt-A-Highway programme in USA for Department of Transport, Fund raiser for Movember and Children Society

    Please let me know your thoughts and suggestion,

    Appreciate your help

  2. Hi Sameer,

    It is nice and informative article you have written. I am also willing to give GRE exam but my concern is tuition fees of the good universities.
    i am graduated in 2016 and done engineering in IT and currently working in IT industry as software engineer. as of now i have one year experience in software development and also i have keen interest in Machine Learning programs.

    I wanted to know how can i manage the tuition fees and other expenses during the course?? and are there any opportunities to manage my own expenses by doing side by side part time job ?? and the major concern is that is there any possibility to get the scholarship for the course i wish to opt ??

    Please reply i am in a great dilemma.


  3. Hi Sameer,

    I have work experience of around 3 months and I am aware of the Early Entry Option being offered by ISB. What are the things to be done to crack it , my profile is as follows

    10th – 94% (State Board)
    12th – 96.7% (State Board)
    Dual degree – IIT KGP (CGPA – 8.61/10)

    I want to pursue PGP and any help is highly appreciated


  4. Hi Sameer,
    I Theophilus, a medical doctor with a keen interest in the business world. i would like to hold a managerial role related to health in the near future as i feel i would be able to have more impact on the healthcare in my country.
    With no business background at all, which MBA specialisation would you recommend- one specifically on health management or one that offers a broader knowledge in business like accounting and finance? Thanks in advance..

  5. @Dharmesh: That’s a lot of good experience. However, it also means that the US style 2 year MBA programs will not be a good fit. Europe is still open, and also programs like IIMA PGPX if you want to stay back in india.

    @Raman: There sure are options such as scholarships and assistantships which can help you lessen the financial burden. Check out what this applicant managed to get:

    @Ramu: Read more about how the ISB admissions process works:

    @Theophilus: We’ve written about how to select a specialisation here:

  6. Hey,
    I am Parabjot Singh from India
    I acknowledge you for such a great piece of work, it is sophisticated arrayed article, I have completed my Graduation with majors in Finance & Accounting, however, math has always been my phobia, the advance level statistics that would be in the core curriculum of MBA is haunting my mind.

    thank you.


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