Back to school: How to prepare for an MBA

Elliott Haworth
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An MBA is a rite of passage for career progression (Source: Getty)

For those in the world of business, finance and management looking for a change of career – or even just a change of direction – an MBA can be a necessity.

Data out this week from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) shows that globally, 57 per cent of larger MBA programmes have experienced a year-on-year increase in application volume. And it’s clear to see why so many are taking the opportunity to enrol: figures show that career progression is almost inevitable.

Of the 2015 graduate cohort on Cambridge Judge Business School’s MBA programme, for example, 95 per cent received job offers three months out, with 89 per cent employed in the same period.

Read more: The definitive list of the 25 MBAs with the best-paid graduates

Sionade Robinson, associate dean of MBA programmes at Cass Business School, describes the MBA as “creating business literacy, and an opportunity to build new knowledge and networks, and to demonstrate how your talents can deliver greater value”. Moreover, she adds, they’re the “last opportunity in formal education to accelerate towards increased employability and promotion prospects”.

For those already some way up the career ladder, starting an MBA may be their first time back in the classroom for years. So even if you’re used to fast-paced change in your organisation, what’s the best way to prepare yourself for this different way of working?


If you think you need a refresher, one option is to take an MBA preparation course. Although many are online and free for anyone to access, they are designed for candidates waiting to start their first year. Imperial College London, for instance, offers a free online programme that aims to discern how ready you are to start an MBA course, by identifying and closing gaps in your knowledge.

As Imperial says, “while you’re adjusting to a rigorous new schedule that includes extensive nightly reading and lecture preparation, the last thing you want to have to do is go back to the drawing board on quantitative maths or data analysis.”

Spending your first week sitting in a lecture theatre feeling like everyone else is following something you’re not is hardly ideal.

“People are generally prepared but only a small number of students fully understand the basic issues like finance and statistics”, says Dr David Lefevre, director of the Educational Technology Unit at Imperial College Business School.

“The MBA is an unusual degree – it attracts all kinds of different backgrounds, so these courses are a great way for people to get back into the routine of a study programme: it attempts to level the playing field so students have an understanding of basic concepts before they start their programme”.

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You'll have to read thousands of word a day on your MBA - best get some practice! (Source: Getty)

Stay Ahead

On the MBA at Cass Business School, Robinson finds that students are mostly prepared when they arrive, owing to the significant investment of time and money they or their firm has made. She adds, however, that they “sometimes underestimate the challenge of managing the pace and the need to work on multiple tracks simultaneously – knowledge, careers goals and professional development.”

Robinson believes that an “investment in induction pays dividend in the course experience and outcomes”. Students on the full-time MBA at Cass agree, and emphasise the importance of getting up to speed with current affairs by reading financial periodicals, as well as refresher courses in core MBA subjects.

Read more: Why EMBAs are increasingly important to creative industries

It’s also worth bearing in mind the step change from an undergraduate degree to a specialised masters. The MBA is a “very different learning experience” says Robinson. By comparison, MBAs offer greater depth and less breadth in their curriculums. Most programmes offer highly focused electives you’ll choose, depending on where you’re aiming in your career.


When studying for an MBA, you’ll be presented with some pretty big topics – some will be familiar to those already operating in the world of business – and others, even for the most experienced, will be totally new.

That’s why reading in advance is essential in ensuring you stay ahead of the pack. You’ll be expected to read thousands of words a day, and if that’s something you haven’t done since your uni days, it’s definitely worth getting used to.

And what you choose to read is of equal importance. All business schools will provide a reading list with the latest academic thought in business, finance and leadership before you start. You could also take the intiative to read around subjects yourself – the FT has a succinct list if you’re stuck, ranging from The Opposable Mind by Roger Martin, to The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, by Niall Ferguson. From simple preparation and awareness, to more advanced measures like preliminary courses, countless options exist to ensure you get the most out of your programme – and future