EMBA vs. MBA: Know The Difference

So, you are thinking about getting a master of business administration (MBA) degree but then suddenly realize that you have multiple options for earning such a degree, which raises the question Which one is best for me? In this post, we will compare two different pathways you might take—pursuing a full-time MBA or an executive MBA (EMBA)—to help you understand which one is “right” for you. 

First, let us provide a little background. More than 250,000 people enroll in MBA programs each year, with more than half of them studying in the United States. Full-time MBA students make up approximately one-third of the global MBA market, and EMBA students represent roughly one-quarter. The remainder, according to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, is made up of students in part-time MBA programs and online programs. 

Although what you will learn is similar across the different types of programs, the programs differ with respect to certain characteristics, including the level of experience of the students, the time required to complete the program, and how the program is designed. Most applicants to full-time MBA programs would not be great candidates for an EMBA program and vice versa. In the following sections, we will walk you through the differences between full-time programs and EMBA programs and touch on how applicants vary for each type of program.

Location Fixed Fixed Fluid (relative)
Commitment 2 years 2–6 years 1–2 years
Fixed Cohort Yes No Yes
Employed During Program No Yes Yes
Stage of Career 4–6 years 4–8 years 10–15 years
Management Experience Preferred Preferred Mandatory
Career Changers Yes/No Yes/No No

Full-Time MBA Programs

Generally speaking, full-time MBA programs are best suited for applicants who have four to six years of work experience. The bulk of these students are working professionals who typically fall between the ages of 25 and 30. Younger and older candidates therefore need to make a good case in their applications as to why now is the right time for them to enroll in an MBA program. Most full-time MBA candidates do not have much management experience, if any, which is exactly why they want to attend business school, and many want to leverage the MBA to change careers. 

Most full-time MBA programs span two academic years, beginning in August and continuing through May, when the full-time students begin their summer internships. The second year of the full-time MBA program starts in late summer, with students graduating the following May. In full-time MBA programs, students tend to begin and end their business education with the same cohort. The demands of a full-time MBA program mean that students must leave their jobs so they can dedicate themselves fully to their advanced business courses and extracurriculars within the school’s community. The all-encompassing nature of the traditional MBA program helps students build strong bonds with their classmates, establishing a network that can extend for many years beyond graduation.

Typically, students in full-time MBA programs attend classes in a fixed location for two years. Full-time students at Columbia Business School (CBS) can choose between two intake options for its MBA program: August entry or January term (J-term). In total, CBS welcomes approximately 900 students per class, just under 700 of whom arrive in August, while the other 200 or so arrive in January. The school’s August-entry MBA students follow the traditional timeline of taking classes across two academic years and completing a summer internship in between. January-entry students take spring and summer semester classes and then join the August-entry students to complete the second year of the MBA program. J-term students do not complete a summer internship, so prospective students for this option tend to come from family businesses or have career goals that can be achieved without needing an internship to provide them with experience. 

Some business administration degree programs in the United States and abroad offer accelerated programs, including NYU Stern, Cornell Johnson, Northwestern Kellogg, and INSEAD. Another unique option is Wharton’s San Francisco program, in which 70 second-year MBA students travel to the West Coast for a semester. There, the students’ learning extends beyond the classroom to include networking events, connections with entrepreneurs, and internship opportunities. 

Executive MBA Programs

Most executive MBA candidates are working professionals with advanced levels of experience. Even though they are essentially pursuing the same degree as full-time MBA students do, they already possess notable management skills and leadership skills. Many executive MBA programs specify how many years of work prospective students must have (usually at least ten) and want candidates to have demonstrated management experience. A good number of EMBA candidates have served in some kind of elevated professional role, such as executive director. The average age of EMBA students is higher than for full-time MBA students; most are in their late 30s. EMBA students remain fully employed during their studies and typically want to remain within their current industry. Although earning an executive MBA degree rarely leads to a career change, it typically results in career growth. In fact, in certain industries, attending an executive MBA program might be required for someone to reach the next level of management at their firm.

EMBA programs often use a cohort format, in which all the students in a single class begin and end the program together. However, programs can vary greatly in terms of length, location, and graduation requirements. In some programs, EMBA candidates attend classes in the same location throughout the program. Wharton, for instance, offers a 24-month EMBA program at both its Philadelphia and San Francisco campuses, with students attending alternate Friday and Saturday classes, in addition to several extended sessions. Wharton also recently launched a global MBA program, in which students attend synchronous and virtual classes every other weekend, plus eight in-person residencies in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and locations around the globe. In recent years, globally focused EMBA programs have become increasingly popular, with some offering students the opportunity to study in a foreign city. Since the pandemic, many schools have made virtual learning a part of their programs. UCLA, for instance, has a “blended biweekly” EMBA program, in which executive MBA students take courses for their MBA degree both on campus and via Zoom.

The prospect of being able to continue working as an EMBA student is attractive to many EMBA program applicants. Not only can EMBA students maintain their income while attending school, but they can also put what they learn in the classroom immediately into practice, rather than having to wait until they are EMBA graduates.

Comparing EMBA and MBA Curricula

So what is the difference between MBA and EMBA programs in terms of what students learn? The business education one receives is largely very similar, but a lot depends on what the MBA candidate wants to gain from the experience. Many of the applicants to both types of programs did not major in business as undergrads and are therefore looking for the graduate program to provide them with crucial skills in foundational areas, including marketing, finance, operations, and strategy. Many full-time MBA and EMBA programs offer a “core” curriculum that builds students’ business knowledge base through a roster of required courses. 

The courses students choose to complement the core curriculum largely depend on the students’ post-MBA goals. Full-time MBA students are more likely to be career changers, so they often take elective courses that will enhance their understanding of topics crucial to their new target role or industry. EMBA students focus on classes meant to deepen their grasp of topics related to their current careers. For example, an EMBA student working in brand management at a consumer products company who hopes to oversee a roster of brands after business school might look into marketing offerings and courses on new technologies at play in the space. A full-time MBA student hoping to move into brand management might take more foundational coursework in this study area. At some schools, such as Wharton, full-time students must declare a major, whereas EMBA students do not. Wharton states that its EMBA students can customize their courses based on their “professional interests and goals.”

As you consider the pros and cons of the two programs, be assured that you will have opportunities to enhance your management and leadership skills no matter which path you take. EMBA candidates who already have management experience might want to take on greater team responsibility and oversight post-MBA, while full-time MBA students might need a few more years to gain management experience. The EMBA student might therefore be more focused on opportunities, while the full-time MBA student might be more focused on generalized learning. 

The Communities at EMBA and MBA Programs

At full-time MBA programs, the experience is often all-encompassing. Much of your time is spent on campus, either taking classes or participating in extracurricular activities related to professional associations and personal interest clubs. You have a constant stream of social events to choose from, including happy hours and volunteering opportunities within the MBA program and wide-ranging opportunities within the city or town in which the MBA program is based. At some schools, students tend to all live in generally the same apartment buildings and socialize together on weekends. The goal of cultivating such a close-knit MBA community is to facilitate the formation of deep connections among students so that they have a strong network once they graduate and reenter the “real world.”

EMBA programs have the same networking goals for their students, but achieving them takes a bit more effort. Since EMBA students are not on campus day in and day out, and most do not live near the school they are attending—let alone in the same building—their bonding opportunities tend to be much more intense. For instance, many students who attend Wharton’s EMBA program on its San Francisco campus stay in the same hotel when they have classes, which makes meeting up with classmates easy, whether that is to work on group projects or simply grab dinner or drinks. And because EMBA students do not have the kind of access to clubs and associations that full-time MBA students do, they must make an independent effort to seek out classmates with similar backgrounds and interests. An advantage that students in EMBA programs enjoy is that they have a greater likelihood of truly getting to know their classmates well, because the executive MBA class size is typically smaller. 

Cost Considerations

Attending business school is expensive any way you look at it, but when comparing the costs of these two types of graduate programs, you will quickly learn that EMBA programs tend to be a bit pricier. One reason for this is that EMBA programs run year-round, with no break during the summer months. An academic year in the UCLA Anderson full-time MBA program costs approximately $125,639, whereas a year in the school’s EMBA program costs roughly $183,552. Also worth noting is that some EMBA students have their business education sponsored by their company. In those cases, the cost pressures are far less for the sponsored candidates. 

If you would like to discuss your profile in more detail or receive targeted guidance on your EMBA plans or application, sign up for a free 30-minute consultation with an experienced mbaMission consultant.

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