Posted by: Gillian | June 25, 2009

Which MBA?

Choosing an MBA is not easy – particularly if you are aware that there is literally a world-wide selection in English and some seem to get all the praise while your colleague did perfectly well at the place down the road.  Here is a starter set of thoughts for those who want a hand through the maze – and this version (05 Oct 11) takes into account the University of Wales scandal.

Types of MBA

MBAs can be roughly sorted into the following categories:

  1. Pre-experience and post-experience MBAs
  2. Taught MBAs and personal development MBAs
  3. Awful MBAs, useful content MBAs and fantastic-networking MBAs (and combinations of these three)

No matter how brilliant you are, if you try and sign up for a post-experience MBA (often called an Executive MBA or e-MBA) at the age of 21, you will be rejected.  For you, a taught MBA (or work experience)  is the route.  Taught MBAs nearly always include academic-style dissertations so people with lots of experience and no recent ‘essay writing’ need to take a look at whether or not the programme offers practice writing assignments or writing boot-camps.

Academic brilliance may, however, not really be what you want.  There is no denying that the networking of the best-ranked MBAs is superb.  The very best of these are good at sorting out those who may well go on to be industry/government leaders as opposed to those who just write that their aim is to be the head of a stock exchange top-rated company.  Can you demonstrate drive and aptitude as well as vision?  If you know in your heart that what you really want is to work locally in a business that is never likely to go bust and you just want some business knowledge, why not search for the very best local MBA?  ROI equations are not just about money.

Teaching method

You can then refine the search with:

  1. No need to attend in person
  2. Can attend a campus if you want
  3. Must attend a campus

There is a lot of online verbiage about whether or not distance/online is any good.  In my experience, some campus-based MBAs provide almost no student interaction and some distance MBAs (e.g Heriot-Watt) have thriving social networks.  If your aim is Wall Street, you probably need one of the key on-campus programmes but, if your aspirations are different, choose the style and content that suits you.

Practical basics

Quite apart from academic results and career aspirations, three key questions need to be addressed:

  1. Do you need a visa and is one likely to be granted/refused?
  2. Do you have excellent command of the  language in which the programme is delivered?
  3. Are you paying for it from cash, from your employer or (most likely) looking for funds?

If you know where you want to go but do not have the funds lined up then the best thing to do is speak to your chosen institution’s finance department.  They will have links to banks that understand the programme.  They may have access to scholarships.

Assessment methods

These are linked to accreditation (see below) but are not foolproof. As an individual doing an exam, you probably have no idea how many potential questions are in an online quiz or, perhaps, you really do and know exactly whom to ask for the answers. Online exams ‘can’ be great – objective, fair and honestly delivered.  Online exams can also be corrupted.  So, of course, can written exams be corrupted – but written exams tend to leave trails direct to individual bank accounts. If your possible course requires essays/papers rather than an online quiz, perhaps it is a good idea to include it in the options rather than dismiss it; diploma mills will look for the inexpensive options and proper grading of essays is a very expensive option.


No matter how simple various authorities attempt to make it, finding out if an MBA is ‘legit’ can be hard.  The following links may help: (this is the Shanghai global list of leading universities)

You can also look for AACSB, EQUIS, AMBA and IACBE certifications but be aware that while all of those carry out worthwhile inspections, they are also professional membership institutions and some perfectly good MBA programmes – even highly-regarded ones – just choose not to belong.  Google and LinkedIn should give you more background and the universities themselves should be willing to put you in contact with searchable alumni networks (not just individuals) so that you can find out more.

International experience

For many people it is tempting to look at MBAs that offer international study.  That comes with a price tag.  If you want the experience but just cannot see the standard routes ever applying to you, why not have a look at budget airlines, loyalty cards and pre-booking of flights (even with the cost of insurance)?  Long-haul MBAs may not be quite as hideously expensive as you think. You still have to convince the MBA-provider that you are serious but that, if you are serious enough to do the financial research, is within reach.  The biggest caveat is that your language skills absolutely must be up to the level of the taught-language attendees.  It is not fair to others for discussions to be limited because you cannot contribute adequately and most MBA schools have some language proficiency requirement.


This is only an attempt to start people thinking.  If anyone from industry or education or past experience wants to add constructive, open, ideas, please do.


  1. Hi Gillian,

    Great post, I found it very helpful indeed.

    I had a question for you and I am very interested in your thoughts on this. I am currently considering doing the online MBA offered by Edinburgh Business School (Heriot-Watt) as it meets most of my most important requirements: it’s respected, is flexible, academically rigorous and affordable. However I do have one main concern in enrolling in this MBA.

    Their current assessment is an all or nothing 3 hour final examination which I hear from various posts/blogs from past and current students is extremely grueling. The main issue I have with this is that it doesn’t test other modes of learning or develop other skills that come from other forms of assessment such as report writing, researching and structuring assignments, collaborating with other students (via online) on projects etc. Do you believe this is a major drawback in this online MBA?

    Performing well on a 3 hour final exam is great if exams are your strong point and can perform well under pressure. However if you are not great at that but have strong research skills and are adept at presentations or report writing, these strengths will never really get measured and you are at a disadvantaged.

    So whilst I like everything else on offer at EBS, I am having reservations because of this all or nothing approach to exams. Would love to get your feedback on the above.

    Many thanks

    • Brad, I sympathise. Without commenting directly on any university’s assessment system as I’ve not yet found one that everyone agrees is perfect, I make two observations: 1) It’s a rare business that is able to let people work unpressured and in their own comfort zones 2) Employers often have their own view on skills and whether or not what you do now fits with what an MBA course expects or whether the MBA uses the same criteria as a future employer is anybody’s guess. For a broader view on the world of assessment and learning see today’s post:
      Good luck and let me know what you do.

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