What Math Do You Need to Earn an MBA?
March 10, 2021
Most people don't associate Master of Business Administration programs with math, but mathematics and management go hand in hand. Here's what you need to know about how math fits into the MBA curriculum.
Management and math are so thoroughly interconnected that there's a branch of math known as business mathematics. It's integral (no pun intended) to:
- Financial analysis
- Inventory control
- Operations management
- Sales forecasting
- Supply chain management
Luckily, most of the business math you'll encounter in your MBA program should be relatively basic. Business school students and business professionals primarily use high school-level arithmetic, algebra, statistics, and probability. MBA math occasionally involves calculus and linear programming, particularly when you approach rarefied domains like derivatives. However, the mathematics required to do things like calculate interest or perform basic operations research is straightforward and manageable.
In other words, you can be an effective manager without an aptitude for advanced binomial theorems, cohomology, and stochastic modeling. You will need a well-developed number sense to succeed in an MBA program—and your post-graduation career. "Whenever you need to make business decisions, you examine data, figure out trends, and then decide. All this requires math," writes GMAT coach Anish Passi in a Quora thread about MBA math. "When you need to evaluate your team's performance, you evaluate vis-à-vis numbers: revenues, profits, number of customers, etc." Even when you don't need to perform calculations yourself, he adds, you'll need to know what tools and variables are required to solve specific problems or answer specific questions.
MBA math requirements vary by program. Still, there are mathematics skills that you'll have to demonstrate to get into just about any business school and mathematics skills you'll need to master to graduate. Some people enroll in math-focused GMAT prep programs or take math refresher courses before applying to MBA programs. The keyword here is before. You should brush up on your quantitative skills ASAP if what we share below about the math necessary to earn an MBA gives you anxiety.
In this article about the math you need to earn an MBA, we cover:
- How math-intensive are most MBA programs?
- Are there math prerequisites MBA program applicants must meet?
- What are the basic math skills MBA students need?
- What kinds of math classes will I take in an MBA program?
- How can I boost my MBA math skills?
How math-intensive are most MBA programs?
MBA math ranges from simple to advanced; MBA programs vary significantly in their emphasis on quantitative reasoning. A business school at a STEM-based institution like Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management requires more robust math chops than does a school like University of Tulsa's Collins College of Business, with its greater emphasis on energy sector practices.
No matter where you enroll, you'll use your basic analytical and quantitative skills in traditional full-time and part-time MBA programs—plus more advanced math if you're enrolled in a finance, quantitative management, or economics MBA program. Executive MBA programs tend to be less math-intensive because schools assume students already have a strong grasp of business fundamentals.
It's a good idea to be comfortable with simple probability, statistics, and calculus before enrolling in an MBA program because these are the mathematical concepts you'll encounter most. Your classes probably won't delve deep into theoretical mathematics or equations that can't be solved using an Excel spreadsheet, however, unless you choose a school that emphasizes advanced quant skills in its programs (like MIT or the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School).
Are there math prerequisites MBA program applicants must meet?
Business schools differ in their MBA admissions requirements. Some MBA programs set the bar pretty high when it comes to mathematics competencies. New York University's Leonard N. Stern School of Business, for instance, requires applicants to be familiar with basic calculus and:
- Absolute value
- Compound interest and e
- Equalities and inequalities
- Exponential growth
- Linear functions
- Natural logarithms
- Nonlinear functions
- Summation notation
- Systems and equations
Other colleges and universities don't outline specific MBA math requirements other than a minimum GMAT quant score. Some don't even require applicants to submit that. Howard University, for instance, doesn't require MBA applicants to have taken any specific prerequisite math courses or to meet a minimum GMAT score threshold.
While there are still plenty of prestigious quant-heavy MBA programs out there, a growing number of highly ranked programs accept students whose academic backgrounds lack quantitative work. These schools often recommend—or even require—that all incoming students enroll in a summer math camp or pre-MBA math course, however. This ensures those students can handle simple business mathematics when the program begins. Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, for instance, offers an intensive one-week mathematical foundations course designed to give incoming MBA students the math skills and tools they'll need to succeed.
What are the basic math skills MBA students need?
Number sense—understanding number relationships and how operations affect numbers—is a must-have for all MBA candidates. You also need to feel comfortable working with real-world numbers represented in different ways (i.e., fractions, decimals, and percentages) and concepts like the order of operations. As long as you have a strong number sense, you'll be able to pick up all the MBA math skills you'll need, including:
There is a lot of algebra in business math, and you'll use it frequently in your finance, economics, and statistics classes. You may need to:
- Evaluate and expand algebraic expressions
- Simplify and solve binomials and polynomials
- Solve linear equations and quadratics
Calculus isn't a big part of most MBA programs, and the main reason it's included in guides to MBA math is that students need it to calculate derivatives. Many programs include essential calculus skills in the core curriculum and don't require applicants to have taken calculus previously. That said, you'll be ahead of the game if you understand concepts like:
- Definite and indefinite integrals
- Function composition
Knowing how to calculate probabilities isn't an essential part of MBA math, but knowing how to use numerical probabilities to interpret scenarios and make predictions is. Understanding probability lets you forecast sales, evaluate risk, and calculate the statistical likelihood of specific outcomes.
Statistics is a huge part of business mathematics. In fact, most MBA programs have an entire class devoted to it. Businesses use statistics to learn from data. Statistics can be used to analyze past performance, map changes in demand, set prices, and more. You probably won't need to demonstrate a grasp of statistics before enrolling in an MBA program, but it doesn't hurt to walk into your first statistics class with a passing understanding of concepts like:
- Normal distribution
- Sampling distribution
- Standard deviation
- Statistical significance
What kinds of math classes will I take in an MBA program?
The traditional MBA curriculum doesn't look like it includes many math-focused courses, but course names can be deceiving. You'll do a ton of math in classes like:
- Financial Risk Analysis and Management
- Market Analysis and Decision-Making
- Quantitative Analysis for Business Management
- Strategic Cost Analysis and Decision Making
You'll be taught the quantitative skills necessary to do the work in some of your courses. However, in others, you'll be expected to already have the essential skills. You'll do better in a finance course, for example, if you know how to calculate rates of return and interest.
The one caveat is that your MBA specialization can impact how many of your core courses have a mathematical component. You might end up taking more math classes if your MBA concentration is related to finance, business analytics, supply chain management, or other quantitative disciplines.
How can I boost my MBA math skills?
Math anxiety is real. Maybe you're not a 'math person.' That's okay—as mentioned above, you don't have to be super mathematically inclined to succeed in an MBA program or in a business career. You can combat any anxiety you feel before applying to MBA programs by being honest with yourself about your current abilities and addressing whatever skills gaps you have head-on. It's not that difficult to improve your MBA math skills. You can:
Take a GMAT prep course or work with a GMAT tutor
This is especially helpful if it has been a few years since you graduated from an undergrad program. Even if you have great number sense, your basic problem-solving skills might be a little rusty. Prepping for the GMAT kills two birds with one stone. Your GMAT score will go up, and you'll walk into your MBA program having refreshed some of the skills you need to tackle business math.
Enroll in one or more quant classes
Community colleges have classes in basic finance, accounting, and statistics that can help you perfect your quant skills before your MBA program starts. There are also free and low-cost finance, accounting, and statistics courses on open online course platforms like Khan Academy.
Choose mathematics-focused electives
You may be able to use your elective credits to boost your business mathematics skills. This is a smart last-ditch option (when paired with tutoring) for MBA candidates who find themselves out of their depth once their classes start.
The bottom line is that while MBA math is relatively simple, it's not always intuitive. Putting in a little work to gain foundational skills before taking the GMAT and applying to MBA programs can yield significant returns. Business schools prefer candidates with demonstrable quantitative aptitude. Don't panic, however, if you're accepted into a graduate-level business school program, but your math skills are only so-so. Very few colleges and universities expect MBA students to be mathematics virtuosos. Your willingness to acknowledge your weaknesses and do what it takes to overcome them will go a long way.
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