How Executive MBA Programs Work

By: Dave Roos
Executive MBA programs are designed for already experienced workers.
Executive MBA programs are designed for already experienced workers.
Tyler Edwards/Getty Images

Successful executives aren't your typical business students. Far from inexperienced, they already command salaries in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. They have years of on-the-job experience and a deep working knowledge of their field. They understand the day-to-day rigors and realities of managing people and leading an organization. Students like these aren't looking for textbook explanations of business concepts. They want an education that is directly applicable to their daily responsibilities.

Executive masters of business administration (EMBA) programs are custom-designed masters of business administration (MBA) programs for high-level managers and experienced professionals. Designed for full-time workers, the program can be completed in two years or less through a "weekend residential" class schedule. Classes meet Fridays and Saturdays every other weekend and students are provided housing on Friday nights. Students at the top programs fly in from across the country to participate.


Executive MBA programs put an emphasis on practical working knowledge geared toward high-level management positions. Students are trained in all key areas of business management -- marketing, finance, accounting, operations, global strategy and more -- and how to be effective and ethical organizational leaders.

There are more than 200 executive MBA programs around the world [source: Executive MBA Council]. Most of the top-ranked programs are in the United States, but there are also top schools in Spain, France, Singapore and Switzerland [source: BusinessWeek].

Keep reading to learn more about the type of student who attends an executive MBA program and what it takes to get in.


Who Attends EMBA Programs?

Executive MBA programs are designed to serve a particular kind of student. This student is experienced, successful and looking for an education that will broaden his or her knowledge base in order to manage more effectively. Executive MBA programs are not for students fresh out of college or even for young professionals with only a couple of years of work experience.

Executive MBA programs are tailored for full-time executives -- not business managers who have been laid off or people looking to transition to business from another career. Those students would be better served by a traditional MBA or part-time MBA program. Some of the top executive MBA programs, including Kellogg, require that students have full-time employment before applying.


How experienced is the typical EMBA student? The average age of an executive MBA student is 36.3 years old with an average of 12.7 years of professional work experience [source: Executive MBA Council]. At the UCLA Anderson School of Management, for example, the age range of executive MBA students runs from the late 20s to late 40s.

In their admissions criteria, many of the top executive MBA programs require at least five to eight years of professional business experience and several years of managerial experience.

According to current enrollment statistics, the students enrolled at executive MBA programs are roughly 80 percent men and 20 percent women; students of color make up 10 to 20 percent of the students. In some of the top programs, 40 percent of students already hold an advanced degree in addition to their undergraduate diploma.

Executive MBA students choose to enroll for many reasons, starting with career advancement and salary increase. According to the Executive MBA Council, the mean salary of entering executive MBA students in 2007 was $107,097. Upon graduation, the mean salary rose 21 percent to $130,056 [source: Executive MBA Council].

An MBA degree eases the transition from middle management to a general manager position. As a middle manager, you rely heavily on your job experience to manage people with similar responsibilities. To rise to a general manager position, you need to acquire a breadth of business knowledge outside your core job experience [source: Hang]. Executive MBA programs provide that breadth.

Students also enroll in executive MBA programs to build a strong network of successful professionals from diverse business backgrounds. After completing the program, students can tap into these networks for resources and potential partners.

Now let's look at the typical curriculum of an executive MBA program.


Executive MBA Program Academics

Executive MBA students study a variety of core business concepts.
Executive MBA students study a variety of core business concepts.
David Lees/Getty Images

Executive MBA programs divide their curriculum into core classes and electives. The first year of an executive MBA program is composed almost entirely of core business concepts and skills that include:

  • accounting and financial reporting
  • ethics
  • organizational leadership
  • corporate strategy
  • marketing management
  • operations management
  • managerial economics
  • managerial finance
  • global management and global strategy

By the second year, students are free to choose from a broad range of electives that address important modern business concepts. The following are a sample of electives from some of the top executive MBA programs:


  • product development
  • negotiation and conflict resolution
  • risk and crisis management
  • geopolitics
  • venture capital
  • advertising strategy
  • game theory

Many programs have an optional study abroad component or global business unit. At Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, it's called Global Initiatives in Management (GIM). Students who choose the GIM elective receive five weeks of classroom instruction on the "culture, economic climate and business conditions" of a selected country, followed by a 10-day trip to meet with government and business leaders. Recent destinations include cities in China, Chile and Argentina.

Duke University's Fuqua School of Business has a separate Global Executive MBA program with residential sessions in the United Kingdom, Russia, Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, India and China.

The workload is heavy at most executive MBA programs and weekend class schedules are intensive. On Fridays, students begin their first class at eight or nine in the morning, take a lunch break around noon, then continue with more classes until as late as six or seven in the evening. Saturday classes usually end around 4pm to allow commuter students time to fly back home.

In addition to class time, executive MBA students are expected spend 15 to 25 hours every week on assignments, exercises and group work [source: Executive MBA Council].

Group work is crucial to an executive MBA education. At most programs, students are divided into groups of five to seven students called "cohorts," "study groups" or "learning teams" and remain with that group for a whole year. The idea is to replicate the working conditions of a typical business. Most in-class and out-of-class assignments are completed and evaluated as a group. Between weekend classes, students use the phone, email and online collaboration software to complete their projects.

Admission to executive MBA programs is highly competitive. Learn more about the application process on the next page.


Applying to Executive MBA Programs

Applying to an executive MBA program isn't like applying for a job -- or even a typical MBA program. Even though many executive MBA applicants are highly successful in their respective fields, they'll need more than an overstuffed resume to be accepted.

Every executive MBA program has its own admissions requirements, but the following are the most common:


  • complete an application form (most are entirely online)
  • answer an essay question
  • supply two professional letters of recommendation, preferably from a superior and a colleague at your current job
  • supply a "letter of sponsorship"
  • send official transcripts from all undergraduate and graduate institutions
  • send GMAT test scores
  • send TOEFL or IELTS scores (if applying as a non-native English speaker)
  • conduct interview (in-person or on the phone)
  • pay the application fee (between $150 and $200)

Many of these admissions criteria are familiar to anyone applying to a graduate or professional school. The exception is the letter of sponsorship. A letter of sponsorship -- or letter of organizational support -- is a written commitment by the top-level management at the applicant's company that they fully support his or her decision to attend an executive MBA program.

Letters of sponsorship often include details of any financial support that the company is supplying so that the employee can attend the program. Some companies pay for the entire cost of an executive MBA degree, while others cover a portion of the tuition. All companies must demonstrate through the sponsorship level that they understand the time commitment required by an executive MBA program, which can be substantial. At the most basic level, the letter acknowledges that the employee will be taking time away from work every other Friday.

If you're self-employed or if you're the top executive at your company, you can write and sign your own letter of sponsorship.

Foreign applicants have to complete a few extra steps to get their applications in order. If you graduated from a foreign university, all of your transcripts must be translated into English (by an approved translator) and all of your college credits must be verified by a member of the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services (NACES).

Keep in mind that each school has its own specific admissions requirements. Some don't require GMAT scores or interviews, for example, and others do. Most schools also list their minimum admissions criteria, such as the minimum number of years of work and managerial experience.

We forgot to mention one other requirement for admission: money. Executive MBA programs aren't cheap. On the next page, we'll look at ways to pay for your MBA.


Paying for an Executive MBA Program

The majority of executive MBA students receive some sort of financial and moral support from their employers.
The majority of executive MBA students receive some sort of financial and moral support from their employers.
Ron Levine/Getty Images

According to the most recent Executive MBA Council survey, the average total program cost for an executive MBA is $57,954, but the tuition at some of the top-ranked programs is much higher:

  • The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University: $148,000
  • The Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago: $134,000
  • The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania: $156,600
  • Columbia University Graduate School of Business: $144,000

In the past, a full or partial financial sponsorship was the most common way to pay for an executive MBA program. Now, because of the economic downturn, fewer employers are willing to foot the bill for executive education [source: Gloeckler]. In some cases, employers promised would-be students a certain level of financial commitment during the application process and then laid them off, leaving students to cover the costs alone (and unemployed).


A decade ago, an average of one in three students entering executive MBA programs was self-funded. Now, that statistic has reversed, with only a third of students receiving full sponsorship [source: Matheson]. Even with the recession, many executive MBA programs strongly recommend obtaining some level of financial sponsorship from your employer. It's not only a money issue, but a commitment and support issue. It shows that your employer believes in the importance of the degree.

Sponsorship is not the only way to fund an executive MBA program. Most programs offer financial aid to both partially sponsored and self-funded students. Graduate student loans are the most common form of financial aid for executive MBA programs. U.S. residents can apply for Federal Stafford Loans, Federal Graduate PLUS Loans or student loans from private lenders.

International applicants don't qualify for federal student loan programs and must go through private lenders in the United States or their home country. Some schools have special relationships with private lenders to offer competitive rates to foreign applicants. Duke's Fuqua Business School, for example, works with the Coastal Federal Credit Union to offer international student loans at five percent above the prime rate. Keep in mind that it's common for international student loans to require a U.S. co-signer.

Executive MBA programs offer a limited amount of merit-based scholarships. You can also search for graduate scholarships offered through third-party organizations. If you need help, contact your undergraduate career services office.

Keep reading for lots more information on how higher education works.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • BusinessWeek. "Top Executive MBA Programs 2009"
  • Executive MBA Council. "Benefits"
  • Executive MBA Council. "Overview"
  • Gloeckler, Geoff. "A Brutal Wake-Up Call for Part-Time B-Schools." BusinessWeek. November 5, 2009
  • Hang, Tran. Wharton. "Wharton Student Profiles: Tran Hang"
  • Matheson, Spencer. "EMBA sponsorship in the current economy." Top Executive. July 19, 2009