Is an MBA Right for Someone Without a Business Degree?

When it comes to applying for an MBA program, there is no single path that determines acceptance, and each school has different ideas about appropriate academic preparation. Minimum qualifications for students applying to MBA programs can vary, but a bachelor’s degree is always a requirement for acceptance.

More students enter MBA programs than any other type of graduate program. As one of the most versatile graduate degrees, an MBA prepares students for advanced careers in any industry. They allow graduates to move into management, start their own business, change careers, or shift their career focus. Many MBA programs train students to become specialists in business fields such as finance, marketing, international business, and executive management.

But what about students without an undergraduate major in business? Surprisingly, these students constitute more than half of all MBA applicants.

Can I Get an MBA Without a Business Degree?

Many people without business backgrounds pursue an MBA in order to advance their careers or move into management. In 2017, more than half of all MBA applicants had non-business undergraduate degrees. This estimate comes from the Graduate Management Admission Council, which designs and administers the Graduate Management Assessment Test (GMAT), the most important exam for MBA admissions.

In 2017, more than half of all MBA applicants had non-business undergraduate degrees.

As a professional degree, the program focuses on practical, real-world knowledge rather than theoretical or research-based material. Many MBA programs include an internship or practicum as part of their graduation requirements. The degree strengthens a graduate’s resume and provides on-the-job training.

Unlike an academic graduate degree, which emphasizes research and knowledge in a specialized field, the MBA covers a broad range of general business subjects. The degree’s interdisciplinary approach caters to students with diverse undergraduate majors, including degrees in engineering, the social sciences, the hard sciences, and the humanities. In many ways, MBA programs prioritize working professionals. Many MBA programs require a minimum amount of work experience, and the degree allows current professionals to build management skills in order to advance their careers.

However, in spite of the fact that most MBA applicants are not business majors, incoming MBA students typically possess foundational business skills. MBA coursework emphasizes business and management, and students generally waste little time learning basic knowledge, focusing instead on advanced business classes. Many programs require students to take core classes in statistics, accounting, finance, and other fields before taking MBA classes. Without these basic business skills, students struggle to develop managerial abilities. Prospective MBA students without a bachelor’s degree in business need to familiarize themselves with basic business knowledge.

Diversity in MBA Programs

Business schools try to enroll a diverse cohort of incoming MBA students. Because students come from a variety of undergraduate and professional backgrounds, the MBA admissions process prioritizes student diversity that engenders growth through a variety of perspectives.

These programs emphasize practical skills, and diversity in the student body improves learning outcomes. Students with different backgrounds and outlooks learn from each others’ strengths, working together toward a common goal. Additionally, MBA programs emphasize management skills, and a diverse cohort more closely replicates real-world management situations.

Prospective students also bring a range of professional experiences that contributes to the diversity of ideas, plans, strategies, and business ventures in a program. This work-experience diversity strengthens an MBA program’s primary goal of conferring business and management skills. As long as non-business majors meet the program’s course prerequisites and understand the basic concepts behind business, they can excel in an MBA program.

Why is an MBA Advantageous for Non-Business Majors?

Students with a bachelor’s degree in a field other than business enjoy a number of benefits from pursuing an MBA degree. Many companies prefer to hire non-business majors who earn advanced degrees in business, including in specialized fields like medical research, technology, and recruitment. Some industries seek employees who specialize in business and in another field. Pursuing an MBA prepares graduates for a career change to business or for career advancement within their current industry.

An MBA provides corporate-level business management training, which allows graduates to pursue upper management positions, analyst jobs, or positions as directors or program managers. MBA programs emphasize management skills, such as understanding corporate organization. Coursework builds skills like evaluating business decisions, managing people, and managing financial resources. MBA students receive training in management, delegation, and task completion, which are critical to many industries.

In-depth Interview with an Enrollment Manager

Kohl Friery

Enrollment Management,
Lenoir-Rhyne University

Kohl Friery has served in enrollment management at Lenoir-Rhyne University since 2014. In December 2016, Friery earned his master of arts in university leadership from Lenoir-Rhyne University. Friery holds a bachelor of science in education with a minor in English and telecommunications from Bowling Green State University. He grew up in rural northwest Ohio and currently resides in Asheville, North Carolina, with his fiancé Shelby.

Q: How much weight does the undergraduate degree have in the MBA application process?

A: A background in business is certainly helpful, but according to our faculty, the MBA was intended to develop business skills and philosophies that students weren’t earning in their undergraduate degree. I would say that a business education would be helpful in meeting the prerequisites like accounting, finance, econ, and statistics. Without having a foundation in those areas, some students can be frustrated as they start the related courses in the MBA program. However, there are plenty of ways to obtain that knowledge without having to enroll in a whole business program. There are companies that offer remedial education in business. One that we use is called IvySoftware. There is a larger company called StraighterLine that offers prerequisite courses as well. I am sure with a quick internet search, an applicant could find many ways to obtain the core knowledge to feel confident when entering an MBA program.

Q: How can a student without a business degree best approach the application process?

A: Speak with the faculty and the admissions contact. They can give you an idea of how many people in their program have a background in business and how many do not. Ask them if the people without a background struggle without that background. Faculty members are usually very helpful. Also, if an applicant or prospective student doesn’t have a business education, that doesn’t always mean they haven’t had experience in business. Their family may own a business or they may have landed an entry-level position at a corporation right out of college. Business schools really do care about your background. If you studied something in the realm of liberal arts to become a well-rounded member of society, then went into business, I think most business schools would value that diverse background and experience.

Q: What are the most important aspects of the application process for non-business applicants?

A: I may have gotten ahead of myself on this answer, but you’re explaining your related experience and also explaining why you want to hold an MBA. I would be very clear in your personal statement/essay on why you think the MBA would benefit you and why you think you would be a good fit for the program. Also, it depends on the graduate school you’re applying to. If you’re applying to a school that has 1200 applicants a year but only 200 spots, then you should also have the GMAT scores and relevant work experience to support your endeavors.

Q: Would you suggest a GMAT or MBA prep course for non-business undergraduate applicants?

A: I would suggest both! The prep course offers the knowledge that you may not already have (accounting, finance, etc). The GMAT serves as a signal of aptitude and readiness to the graduate school. The GMAT and the prep course aren’t exactly connected. You could have multiple years of business experience, but no prerequisites. I would then suggest the formal prep courses and see if the GMAT is even needed for your application. Some schools will waive the test score requirement with experience.

Q: What benefits does an MBA offer to someone who doesn't have a business bachelor's degree?

A: It offers students the opportunity to go to college and grow, take a chance, be creative, etc.; all those things that college is supposed to be. To have a well-rounded undergraduate education, you’re learning so much about yourself as a person and a professional so you know what your talents are. The MBA then allows those students to earn the business knowledge needed to be successful in the corporate/business landscape. If you wanted to study anthropology, philosophy, any of the humanities, but find that you have a desire to work in business and find your meaning of success, then the MBA allows for both.

Pursuing an MBA as a Non-Business Applicant

Unlike more specialized graduate degrees, an MBA provides a range of career opportunities to graduates, including management of private or nonprofit corporations, pursuing director or analyst positions, and becoming a financial manager. However, prospective MBA students without a background in business need to carefully consider whether an MBA would help them reach their professional goals.

Prospective MBA students should research what careers certain programs will prepare them for, particularly those with degrees in a specific undergraduate major. Before going through the admission process, carefully consider whether an MBA serves your career interests. For example, research whether an MBA enables you to move into upper management positions at companies that specialize in your undergraduate area of expertise. Working professionals researching an MBA also should speak with mentors or colleagues about career advancement opportunities with an MBA.

While certain career paths require an MBA, a certification provides similar advancement opportunities in some fields.

Applicants need to consider whether graduate certificates, specialized training programs, or advanced certifications make more sense than an MBA degree, which may require substantially more time and a greater financial investment. While certain career paths require an MBA, a certification provides similar advancement opportunities in some fields.

Search Programs by Concentration

If a student decides to pursue an MBA, they need to research the prerequisites for MBA programs, which vary by school. Applicants without a business undergraduate degree often need to complete MBA core classes before taking graduate coursework, and competitive GMAT scores help demonstrate a prospective student’s business acumen. Because MBA programs value diversity in incoming classes, the lack of an undergraduate business degree should not stop prospective students from considering this degree.

Prerequisites for an MBA Program

Bachelor’s Degree

Nearly all MBA programs require that incoming students hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, and applicants typically submit official transcripts to prove it. However, although rare, some earn an MBA without an undergraduate degree. The Graduate Management Admission Council, for example, admits students without a bachelor’s degree if they demonstrate exceptional capabilities.

In general, though, MBA programs require a bachelor’s degree for admission. This degree demonstrates a candidate’s academic abilities, regardless of their major. Undergrads who majored in literature, biology, or a business-related field possess skills that they can apply towards an MBA, including critical thinking, analysis, and writing. Completing a four-year degree also shows schools that a prospective student knows how to meet degree requirements and finish a program, which can improve their chances of succeeding at the graduate level.

MBA Core Classes

Students interested in pursuing an MBA without a business degree may need to complete a few prerequisite courses before enrolling. These core courses differ from MBA prep courses, which often focus on preparing for the GMAT. Core classes emphasize the basic knowledge required to succeed in an MBA program. Incoming MBA students should have foundational knowledge in statistics, accounting, economics, finance, and data analysis.

MBA programs set core prerequisites, and MBA coursework builds on these classes. Prospective MBA students need to closely research a program’s core requirements and consider completing post-baccalaureate coursework to meet the prerequisites. For example, students with a background in liberal arts typically need to complete mathematics or accounting courses, and even applicants with business-related degrees may need to take an economics or finance course. These requirements vary by program, and some offer specialized core classes for students who are already enrolled.

  • Statistics

    MBA students must excel at statistics and statistical analysis. MBA programs expect all incoming students, including those without a business degree, to demonstrate proficiency in statistics. Statistics courses provide foundational knowledge in statistical methods, probability, business statistics, and quantitative analytical methods. An undergraduate statistics prerequisite prepares incoming MBA students for advanced graduate coursework.

  • Accounting

    Because accounting plays a foundational role in business, incoming MBA students need to familiarize themselves with accounting methods, including analyzing and preparing financial statements, international accounting, and business accounting. Undergraduate accounting courses provide these key skills.

  • Economics

    Economics courses introduce students to micro and macroeconomics, including economic analysis, economic policy, and the theoretical basis for economics. MBA programs often expect incoming students, particularly those without an undergraduate degree in business, to possess foundational skills in economics before beginning their MBA coursework.

Work Experience

Some students earn an MBA without work experience; in fact, 25% of prospective MBA students have no professional experience. However, prior work experience lets prospective students demonstrate their business abilities, even if their college transcripts fail to include business classes. Many MBA programs prefer to enroll students with a history of working in a business-related field, and 75% of 2017 MBA applicants boast at least one year of professional experience. Hands-on business experience provides students with relevant skills and abilities that are commonly learned outside of the classroom, and business schools know that this experience helps MBA students succeed.

Work experience requirements vary by program: most require between one and three years. These programs prefer students with a track record of business success who are looking to move into management.

However, even MBA programs with no minimum work requirement tend to evaluate professional experience favorably, particularly for applicants who want to earn an MBA without a business undergraduate degree. Students without a strong academic background in business must demonstrate applicable skills and knowledge through their work experience.

Minimum GPA

GPA requirements vary by program, but on average, students must have at least a 3.0 GPA. Applicants can make up for a low GPA in several ways, including post-baccalaureate coursework or a high GMAT score.

Business school admissions specialists consider an applicant’s undergraduate GPA a key part of the their academic history. This process determines a candidate’s likelihood of success. Still, the GPA is only one part of the admissions assessment, and test scores are nearly as important.

Test Scores

Most MBA programs require applicants to submit their GMAT score, though some schools may accept GRE scores instead. Admissions offices consider the GMAT the most important measure for future success in business school, and they use the test as a predictor of academic success.

The GMAT tests students on several key business skills, including problem solving, analytical writing, logic, and critical reasoning skills. The test also incorporates a reasoning section that requires test takers to critically evaluate multiple sources of information. Even without a bachelor’s degree in business, test takers can earn a good score by honing their verbal, quantitative, and reasoning abilities. In 2013, over half of all GMAT test takers spent more than 50 hours preparing for the exam. MBA applicants should plan to spend two to three months and approximately 100 hours studying for the GMAT.

Prospective MBA students prepare for the GMAT with test prep books, practice tests, and GMAT prep courses. Multiple companies provide test preparation materials or offer preparation courses. The GMAT Exam provides prep materials, including test prep books, practice exam collections, and free GMAT prep software with practice tests. Kaplan and The Princeton Review also offer online and in-person GMAT test prep courses, as well as private tutoring options. Students should devote significant time to preparing for the GMAT test.