Business Administration

What Is an Executive MBA?

What Is an Executive MBA?
Pursuing a graduate business degree can lead to lucrative partnerships and business opportunities. The connections students make in EMBA classes and immersions are valuable for life. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry December 15, 2020

Don't make the mistake of equating EMBAs with weekend or part-time MBAs. Executive MBA programs may deliver classes on roughly the same schedule, but the material covered is more advanced, and the stakes are higher.

MBA/Business and Executive MBA Programs You Should Consider

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The Master of Business Administration (MBA) is the must-have degree for c-suite aspirants, as well as for executives aiming a level or two lower on the corporate org chart. While it’s possible to reach the pinnacle without one, the odds of ascending the heights—and staying there—improve significantly with the knowledge, skills, and business contacts an MBA facilitates.

Earning an MBA makes you a more attractive job candidate, boosts your earning potential (possibly to over $200,000), and potentially helps you break into ultra-competitive industries like tech or finance.

The first step on the Master of Business Administration journey isn’t picking a business school, however. It’s choosing what kind of MBA program meets your needs. What are your options? There are full-time and part-time on-campus MBA programs. Many colleges and universities now offer online MBA programs that replicate the traditional MBA experience for distance learners. Some online and on-campus programs allow students to choose highly focused industry-specific or discipline-specific concentrations or specializations. And nearly all of these programs dive deeper into managerial theories and concepts than the Master of Science in Business Administration.

The Executive MBA (EMBA for short) is yet another option for business professionals looking to advance in their careers. Executive MBA programs are different from traditional MBAs in many ways, starting with their target demographic. Do you have the qualifications and qualities necessary to thrive in an EMBA program? Keep reading to find out.

In this article about Executive MBAs, we cover the following:

  • What is an Executive MBA?
  • Who gets an Executive MBA?
  • Should I get my Executive MBA online?
  • How to choose an Executive MBA program?
  • Executive MBA admissions requirements
  • What can you do with an Executive MBA?
  • How long does it take to earn an Executive MBA?
  • How much does it cost to earn an Executive MBA?
  • Is an Executive MBA for you?

What is an Executive MBA?

Executive MBA programs are designed for mid- to high-level managers with significant supervisory experience. Rigorous application standards ensure that cohorts consist of seasoned business people who are either on the fast track to the corner office or trying to boost their chances at the c-suite shortlist by beefing up their management and leadership skills.

These programs tend to be fast-paced and intensive, with courses year-round and no time off. Many courses in Executive MBA programs are delivered in what appears at first glance to be a part-time format, but that’s because students are expected to keep up with lockstep cohort coursework on their own time. The commitment required may include multiple weekend- or weeks-long immersion experiences and campus residencies.

How is an EMBA different from an MBA?

Many MBA programs welcome early career professionals and career-switchers. Executive MBA programs typically don’t.

The biggest difference between EMBAs and MBAs, however, can be found in how they’re delivered. Traditional MBA programs often involve full-time study. Students take a full course load of on-campus classes and graduate in about two years. Executive MBA students take many of the same advanced business courses, but at a much faster pace in classes typically delivered only on evenings and weekends. More work happens outside the classroom in EMBA programs.

Is an EMBA the same as an MBA?

Yes and no. The Executive MBA and the MBA are advanced business degrees. The coursework in these programs is often quite similar. While there can be substantial differences between them regarding prerequisites, format, program length, and costs, both are respected by employers.

The EMBA is not just a weekend MBA, however. In fact, plenty of b-schools offer both a weekend MBA (the part-time option) and an Executive MBA (the intensive option). You don’t need to worry about your Executive MBA being perceived as a watered-down degree. Employers understand that EMBA programs at top-tier colleges and universities are more competitive and intensive than traditional MBA programs.

Why don’t all schools offer an EMBA?

Some notable colleges and universities don’t offer Executive MBA programs. Harvard Business School, the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College are among the top business schools that don’t have an executive option.

There’s no way to conclusively surmise why these institutions have chosen not to develop EMBA programs, though we can guess at some possible reasons. Business schools known for their two-year, full-time MBA programs might suspect launching a shorter program could dilute the traditional program’s value. Colleges and universities with programs hyper-focused on network building might not see the value in creating a separate program where students may spend less time engaging with each other. Some schools may prefer to focus their efforts at the executive market on short courses and certificate programs.



University and Program Name Learn More

Who gets an Executive MBA?

EMBA programs attract experienced business professionals who want to enhance their leadership skills without dropping out of the workforce. On-campus classes and synchronous classes in online programs typically convene on evenings and weekends. Campus and international residencies occur during summer or mid-year breaks. Consequently, Executive MBA students can balance busy work schedules with relatively heavy course loads.

Why do people get an EMBA?

Business professionals pursue EMBAs for many of the same reasons others pursue MBAs. They’re looking for advanced knowledge, and they know that having a master’s degree in business will allow them to negotiate for higher salaries. Pursuing a graduate business degree can also lead to lucrative partnerships and business opportunities. The connections students make in EMBA classes and immersions are valuable for life.

How are EMBA students different from MBA students?

Admission requirements vary widely among traditional MBA programs. Some require applicants with years of work experience, but many others accept students right out of business bachelor’s degree programs or applicants from other disciplines.

Executive MBA programs often have much more rigorous admissions standards, which is why EMBA cohorts more likely include senior managers, vice presidents, and directors. The average age of Executive MBA students is 38. It’s not unusual for these students to have 15 years of experience, with nine or more years spent in management roles.

Should I get my Executive MBA online?

There are numerous strong online EMBA programs. The list of the top on-campus Executive MBA programs and the top online Executive MBA programs may look different, but that’s to some degree a result of the fact that some business schools don’t offer EMBAs.

What are the benefits of earning an EMBA online?

Howard University‘s college of business (where you’ll find one of the top HBCU MBA programs and one of the best EMBA programs in DC) describes its highly ranked online EMBA program as “ideal for the working professional seeking a flexible option while continuing to maintain a career,” but even on-campus Executive MBA programs are designed to make it easier for students to continue working in their current positions. Classes are usually scheduled outside business hours in both on-campus programs and online programs.

Online EMBA degree programs offer a different kind of flexibility, however. They enable students to attend higher-ranking schools located far away and study with faculty especially well-known in their field.

What are the challenges of earning an EMBA online?

Online Executive MBA programs aren’t easier. Distance-learning coursework is every bit as demanding as on-campus programs. Students work more autonomously in distance-learning programs, which means they need to be self-driven and highly motivated to succeed.

Is an online EMBA the same as an in-person EMBA?

The online Executive MBA programs at highly ranked business schools are very similar to, if not identical to, in-person programs with regard to classes, international immersion requirements, networking opportunities, and career support programs. Distance learners enrolled in Howard University’s EMBA program, for example, have the same opportunities to study abroad and are recruited by the same national and international corporate partners and government agencies as on-campus learners.

How to choose an Executive MBA program

Graduating from a top business school will never hurt your career, but the right EMBA program for you may not be at an M7 university. Location, cost, and program focus will all factor into your decision.

How do EMBA programs vary?

In the past, Executive MBA programs were almost exclusively intense, on-campus programs that included some travel and took about two to three years to complete. About 55 percent of EMBA programs now offer hybrid and full-time distance learning options that require no travel. There are even accelerated Executive MBA programs at some colleges and universities that can be completed in as little as 19 months. EMBA programs also vary in terms of focus. While most have preset curricula, some offer concentrations or specializations (e.g., healthcare and finance) that guide course selection.

Does prestige or school rank matter?

Reputation matters, if only because prestige goes hand in hand with success. Having a big-name business school on your resume will usually lead to a more substantial post-graduation salary increase and more lucrative opportunities down the road.

What are the signs of a good EMBA program?

The best Executive MBA programs tend to have:

  • Active alumni groups and student-led organizations
  • International and domestic immersion opportunities
  • Lockstep cohort workgroups
  • Seminars, courses, webinars, and events open to alumni
  • Small class sizes

Executive MBA admissions requirements

EMBA programs tend to accept fewer students than traditional MBA programs and are more competitive. Most Executive MBA programs prefer to admit professionals with 10+ years of business and management experience. Some won’t accept applicants with less. MANY Executive MBA programs also require applicants to be employed and won’t consider applications that don’t include proof of employer sponsorship.

Are standardized tests required?

This varies by program. Some programs recommend or require that applicants submit GMAT or GRE scores, while others ask for letters of recommendation from past employers plus a letter of support from their current employer. Some programs accept Executive Assessment (EA) results in place of GMAT scores, provided the applicant has sufficient work experience.

Are transcripts required?

You will have to submit transcripts from any undergraduate and graduate programs you’ve attended when applying to EMBA programs. Your past grades will likely be less crucial, however, than your resume. Business schools typically want to see that applicants have the kind of experience they’ll need to succeed in a highly focused advanced business program and contribute to rich in-class discussion.

What amount of work experience is required?

Again, this varies by program, though most require applicants to have about a decade of experience. The Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for example, asks applicants to have “at least ten years of relevant post-undergraduate work experience.” Applicants with less are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Executive MBA program requirements

One of the hallmarks of EMBA degree programs is the focus on the nuances of management. Business schools assume that Executive MBA students already have a deep understanding of business fundamentals. Classes and coursework are designed to teach current leaders how to be more effective.

What courses typically make up an EMBA curriculum?

Students pursuing Executive MBAs take advanced business classes focused on various real-world management challenges. EMBA curricula may consist entirely of required courses (i.e., no elective classes). Each semester, students take core courses like:

  • Accounting for Executives
  • Applied Economics for Executives
  • Creating Value Through Supply Chains
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Financial Management
  • Legal and Ethical Issues in Business
  • Management Consulting
  • Management Statistics and Data Analysis
  • Managing Technology and Innovation
  • Managing the Global Business Environment
  • Marketing Strategy
  • Organizational Behavior and Leadership
  • Strategic Communications

Do students complete a final project, thesis, or practicum? What does it typically entail?

Nearly all EMBA programs require students to complete some form of capstone project to culminate an experiential learning course or immersion experience. Entire cohorts may work together in partnership with local companies to solve real-world business challenges. These projects are a valuable part of the EMBA experience because they help students build broader professional networks.

What can you do with an Executive MBA?

The sky’s the limit, though not every EMBA candidate is after the CEO’s chair. They also become senior managers, vice presidents, COOs, CFOs, and directors. The real question isn’t ‘What can you do with an Executive MBA?’ but rather ‘How will an EMBA help me reach my goals?’

How does an EMBA impact job prospects?

Executives face very stiff competition for jobs. Having an Executive MBA can help you land the positions you really want. Advancement takes time with or without a degree, but Executive MBA students have an advantage over traditional MBA students because they can apply what they learn in their classes immediately in their current roles. Sometimes this leads to internal promotions before graduation.

How does an EMBA impact salary potential?

The average Executive MBA earns about $205,000 before graduation and $233,000 after graduation. That represents a 13.5 percent increase in compensation, including both salary and bonuses. That average is calculated across programs, however. Prestigious programs are associated with the biggest paychecks. A University of Pennsylvania Wharton EMBA, for example, can lead to a 70 percent increase in salary, and a University of Michigan – Ann Arbor Ross EMBA might net you a salary 62 percent higher than your pre-graduation pay.

How long does it take to earn an Executive MBA?

Like traditional MBAs, Executive MBA programs typically take two years to complete. Accelerated EMBA programs at top business schools usually clock in at about 20 months but often require students to complete the same amount of work before graduation. The very fastest programs are typically offered by less notable colleges and universities with less rigorous programs.

How much does it cost to earn an Executive MBA?

The average cost of an Executive MBA falls somewhere between $75,000 and $85,000, but you’ll pay well over six figures for an EMBA from a top business school. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania has the distinction of offering the most expensive Executive MBA in the world at more than $214,000.

Scholarship and grant opportunities

Executive MBA students usually fund their degrees using a mix of scholarships, personal savings, federal and private loans, grants, employee sponsorship, and family support. Many colleges and universities offer scholarships just for EMBA students, and there are also private scholarships available. Eligibility is sometimes based on past academic achievement, but more often on factors like professional achievement, ethnicity, gender, and geographic location.

Will your employer pay for your EMBA?

There was a time when aspiring executives could count on their employers to foot the bill for this degree, but those days are long gone. Nearly half of all EMBA students are self-funded. Only 35 percent receive financial sponsorship from their employers, and that sponsorship seldom covers the full cost of an Executive MBA.

Is an Executive MBA for you?

That answer depends on both your goals and your grit. If you want to climb to the top of the leadership ladder, an EMBA can help you do it. The question is how much work you want to put into accelerating your career advancement.

Earning an Executive MBA isn’t easy. Because you’ll be working while pursuing this degree, you’ll need to make some sacrifices where hobbies, vacations, other personal pursuits, and even relationships are concerned. If you’re not willing to give up some things now to reap bigger rewards later, a more relaxed part-time MBA program might be the better choice. But if you’re willing to put your nose to the grindstone in a big way to get to graduation, you’ll thrive in this kind of business master’s program.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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