For college students who plan to get an MBA degree one day, what’s the best undergraduate major? The answer depends on where you would like to get that advanced degree.
New analysis of the educational paths of more than 80,000 Earnest loan applicants shows that nearly half (48%) of all MBA graduates previously completed a degree in business. While this is the most common path overall, it’s not the only one nor the one most preferred by the top MBA programs.
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Based on our data, we created a typical (and hypothetical) MBA class of 500 students and looked at the previous degrees earned by each member. Nearly half—or 245—majored in business, with the most common specialties being finance, accounting, or marketing.
Arts majors made up the next largest cohort, with 120 students in the class of 500 having a background in the social sciences, humanities, or fine arts. The most common arts majors were economics and political science; the class also included a wide range of majors in the humanities. Engineering and science majors made up a smaller share of this typical MBA class, with fewer than 100 students coming from these backgrounds.
Over the years, business has become a more popular major overall, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 1971, the business major accounted for approximately 14% of bachelor’s degrees earned, but the percentage has risen since then. Since 2000, business majors have made up more than 20% of bachelor’s degrees earned in the United States. One reason for the increase is that it’s viewed as a practical major for job readiness—and has increasingly become the default choice for many students.
However, as MBA admissions officers seek to build classes with diverse skill sets, applicants with backgrounds other than business are often more in demand. As reported in a 2012 story by Bloomberg, “The fastest-growing segment of bachelor’s degree holders applying to MBA programs is anathema to some top admissions officers: former business majors.”
Current class profiles of the nation’s top business schools show that the most selective programs tend to admit relatively fewer business majors.
For example, 38% of Harvard’s top-ranked MBA class of 2018 has a background in sciences, technology, or engineering (STEM), as compared with 20% for MBAs overall.
In Stanford’s second-ranked program, only 13% of the class of 2017 has a business major. Unsurprisingly, given the Palo Alto university’s ties to the technology industry, Stanford’s MBA class is also heavy on STEM majors, who comprise 39% of the class. A robust 48% hail from majors in the social sciences, humanities, and other areas of study.
Among other top 10 programs, MIT had the strongest representation of STEM majors in its MBA class, at 38%. The University of Chicago is the only top 10 school with more business majors than Earnest found among MBA graduates overall: 55% of its class of 2017 already has a business degree.
For undergraduates who are considering a top MBA degree in the future, you might want to resist the urge to major in business as a default. If a STEM or arts field fascinates and challenges you, consider choosing it as a major. In addition to broadening your horizons, you just might improve your chances at getting into a top MBA program.
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