Thursday, August 04, 2016 at 4pm

Down to Business: What is the Best Undergrad Degree for an MBA?

What is the best undergrad degree for an MBA?

Doctors get pre-med degrees, lawyers study pre-law. So it’s simple logic to think that if you’re gunning for an MBA, the best undergrad degree for MBA is a business major - right?

Actually... not so much. This is because, increasingly, MBA programs are looking for diversity in their class ranks. In fact, the US Department of Education lists the MBA as the most diverse post-graduate program when it comes to a proliferation of undergrad majors. Statistics on acceptance rates at the top business schools tell this story loud and clear. And in many cases, you are more likely to get into an elite program with an humanities degree than a business major.

This bears up when you make a quick search into the class profiles of five of the US's most prestigious business schools. Outlined below are the undergraduate backgrounds of those accepted into the MBA programs at these schools, with proportions which may be shocking to business majors:

1. Harvard

  • 41% economics/business
  • 40% science, technology, engineering, math
  • 19% humanities and social sciences
  • 1% other

More than half of Harvard’s class comes from outside of economics/business - particularly, from science and technology. Why is this the case? Many point to the kind of personality that an engineer who is seeking an MBA might have. In many cases, this is a very meticulous person with strong organizational skills. A person who wants to apply their scientific mind to business is pretty attractive to admissions committees.

Also, science majors tend to kill the GMAT. The site Prep4Gmat.com did a comprehensive analysis of scores from different majors and found that physics majors performed best on the exam.

In fact, the top five performers (in terms of their undergrad background) were:

  • Physics (608)
  • Mathematics (605)
  • Engineering (595)
  • Philosophy (588)
  • Other Engineering or Computer Science-related major (586)

Business majors, in areas such as marketing and management, ended up bringing up the rear with some of the lowest average scores by this analysis.

2. Stanford GSB

  • 14% business
  • 38% engineering, mathematics, natural sciences
  • 48% humanities and social sciences

Even with the understanding that economics probably falls under social sciences, this is an astonishing result. A huge percentage of Stanford MBA candidates have a humanities degree, so don’t denigrate the usefulness of that degree in English.

3. Wharton

  • 27% business
  • 23% science, technology, engineering, math
  • 45% humanities and social sciences

Again, business majors make up less than a third of the class, with those in the humanities clocking in at almost 50% - see No. 4 on the GMAT average - philosophy majors for the win!

4. Chicago Booth

  • 34% business
  • 22% economics
  • 17% engineering
  • 16% liberal arts and sciences
  • 11% other

No reason to despair entirely with your business degree. That being said, if you combine the economics and liberal arts students, you get a higher percentage than the business majors.

5. MIT Sloan

  • 31% engineering
  • 19% business
  • 17% humanities and social sciences
  • 17% science and math
  • 16% economics

Of course, it's skewed to engineering (MIT grads!) but still a sobering statistic that demonstrates how much more likely you are to go to Sloan with an engineering degree than one in business.

Choosing your path

The question of which undergraduate major (or degree) is best for you has at least two distinct factors. One of which will be most useful for preparation, and another of which might give you the highest probability for admission. Another reason to consider something other than a business degree is that this might not be the easiest path. Business majors tend to be seeking an MBA track, and with 25% of all master's degrees being MBAs, there are a number of people looking to take the same road. It’s possible that with a humanities degree, not only will you get some preferential treatment, but you’ll also have fewer people in direct competition for the same slot.

The work factor

Truthfully, most of these schools accept very few students who have not been in the workforce for several years. Five years of prior work experience is a solid average for most of those who find themselves in elite MBA programs. Because of this, MBA classes tend to be very diverse - made up of those who entered the workforce (possibly with a tech major under their belt) and found they needed to get some business experience to round out their career. It is leadership in a professional capacity that most attracts MBA admissions committees rather than what you might have accomplished in your academic life. For that reason, your undergraduate major is less of a factor.

All this is to say that choosing what is the most appropriate major to prepare you for an MBA is simple. Start by asking yourself what you would be most excited about pursuing? There is no right path, and no jerry-rigging of class schedules can take the place of genuine enthusiasm. If you follow your passion, the right MBA program will find you.

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Ryan Hickey is the managing editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants.

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