MBA coursework is the reason why you want to get into an MBA program. Within these programs, you’ll learn about business fundamentals and how to be a more effective manager and business leader. To cover these areas, MBA coursework is split up between core or required courses and electives or specializations. All the best MBA programs in the US, and all the best MBA programs in Canada have different core courses, credit requirements, and unique specializations that you can take to customize your MBA education. This article will look at what makes up typical MBA coursework, what kind of electives and specializations are available and how you can excel in any type of MBA coursework. 

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Article Contents
10 min read

MBA Coursework: What is MBA Coursework? MBA Coursework: What Does a Typical MBA Program Look Like? MBA Coursework: MBA Core Courses MBA Coursework: MBA Electives MBA Coursework: MBA Concentrations FAQs

MBA Coursework: What is MBA Coursework?

MBA coursework incorporates a diverse range of subjects designed to provide a comprehensive understanding of business principles and prepare you for leadership roles in current business environments. Similar to the way curricula are structured in other professional schools (medicine, law, nursing), MBA coursework is usually divided between core and elective courses that let you build foundational knowledge in various business disciplines. Some core courses include:

  • Marketing
  • Accounting
  • Human Resources
  • Business Analytics and Data Science
  • Operations Management

These initial core courses are intended to give you the knowledge and skills to be able to design and create your own educational program in the later years of your MBA. They are similar to preparatory courses aimed at recent undergraduates or people who only have a few years of professional experience. During your core MBA coursework, you’ll learn more about financial statements, market dynamics, leadership theories, and strategic management principles (to name only a few, as every MBA curriculum is different), which are all key to developing a broad understanding of a business landscape.

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As you progress through your MBA coursework, you’ll then get to choose elective courses, which you can choose based on your career goals and interests. All of the best MBA programs in the world, and even online MBA programs or the easiest MBA programs to get into let you specialize in a particular area of business or business-related fields, such as:

  • MBA law
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Healthcare management
  • International business
  • Technology management

Another essential aspect of MBA coursework involves case studies, group projects, and real-world applications that give you the opportunity to apply the theory and knowledge you learned in the first year to practical scenarios. Case studies, in particular, challenge you to analyze business problems, make decisions, and understand the consequences of business-decisions; examining case studies was the original teaching method of many of the first MBA programs.

But now, many business schools have embraced problem-based learning that tries to anticipate problems associated with business decisions or developing solutions around a particular business problem, such as inflation or economic downturn, supply chain problems and compliance issues. MBA coursework exists outside the classroom too.

Some MBA programs incorporate experiential learning components such as MBA internships, consulting projects, or global immersions programs into MBA coursework. These experiences offer hands-on exposure to the business world, further allowing you to apply classroom theories in real-world settings. A lot of MBA coursework also encompasses extracurricular activities that are not required, but can, nevertheless, expand your knowledge or understanding via on-campus or online seminars, workshops, and guest lectures featuring industry professionals.

MBA Coursework: What Does a Typical MBA Program Look Like?

A typical MBA program lasts only two-years, but there are some variations between an Executive MBA or MBA, the former being an MBA program geared toward established business leaders and professionals, and the latter for people who’ve only begun their careers. For this article, we’ll look at the regular MBA that is geared toward undergraduates with at least a few years of work experience, but we’ll also highlight elements of an Executive MBA that stand out.

As a majority of full-time MBA program last only two years, business schools have created their curriculum to cover two main areas:

  1. Business essentials – MBA coursework related to the essential aspects of large businesses (finance, accounting, human resources, budgeting, investment)
  2. Business non-essentials – MBA coursework related to non-essential aspects of a business, such as leadership best practices, business ethics, corporate responsibility and organizational behavior

But there are variations of these two pillars. You’ll find that some MBA programs emphasize leadership and social responsibility over traditional business fundamental courses or vice-versa; some programs emphasize the technical knowledge that comes from studying statistics or macroeconomics and make them core courses. Still others try to combine the two strands in their core curriculum, such as Harvard Business School.

But whatever values or concepts that your business school emphasizes, one objective way to determine how much freedom you have to choose your MBA coursework is the credit requirements that each MBA program requires.

Every MBA program has a set number of credits for how to get an MBA and those credits are divided, again, between core courses, major requirements, and electives. If you choose a full-time MBA schedule, you usually have to complete a certain number of credit hours to earn your degree in only two-years, which is the typical length of most MBA programs. The credit requirements of each school vary but they usually try to offer an equal balance of required courses and electives.

MBA Coursework: MBA Core Courses

At the regular, full-time MBA program at HBS, you have six core, or required, courses to begin your studies, which are:

  • Data Science for Managers
  • Finance
  • Financial Reporting and Control
  • Leadership & Organizational Behavior
  • Marketing
  • Technology & Operations Management

So here we see that the core courses cover both of the pillars we talked about – business essentials (Finance; Marketing) and business non-essentials (Leadership & Organizational Behavior). But other programs skew toward more technical aspects, such as the Chicago Booth MBA program that has only three science-based courses as its three required MBA courses:

  • Financial Accounting
  • Microeconomics
  • Statistics

While these are the core courses, Chicago Booth also allows you to add up to seven more core courses spanning subjects such as:

  • Functions
  • Leadership & Management
  • Business Environment

Within each of these categories, you’ll find various sub-categories that also cover both the essential and non-essentials components of businesses, which span subjects such as Game Theory and Industry Analysis (Functions) or Money and Banking and Perspectives on Capitalism (Business Environment). This MBA coursework is not all universal; Chicago Booth is only one MBA program and you’ll find out when exploring MBA coursework before you apply that every business school creates its curriculum based around values and perspectives that it considered more important than others.

At Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, you must complete 19 credits, divided among three areas, to earn your degree in only two years:

  • Core Courses - 9.5 credits
  • Major Requirements - 5.0 credits
  • Electives - 4.5 credits

However, the Core Courses are divided between three fixed courses, and six flexible courses, meaning you have even more flexibility in choosing your degree interests at Wharton than at most other schools. The three fixed courses can be taken from any of the following subject areas:

  • Foundations of Teamwork and Leadership
  • Marketing Management
  • Microeconomics for Managers
  • Advanced Microeconomics for Managers
  • Regression Analysis for Managers
  • Management Communication: Speaking and Writing

These are the courses you can complete in your first year, but your second year can be made up entirely of electives, of which there are over 200 at Wharton. Since most MBA programs only last two years, you can also take advantage of summer undergraduate research experiences to earn credits faster or to simply enhance your education during the fall and winter semesters by undertaking non-credit experiences; this is the case at Wharton, where you can participate in internships, or research experiences for undergraduates that can help you develop a capstone project, or start-up idea that you want to bring to fruition.

Curious about the differences between MBA and Executive MBA?

MBA Coursework: MBA Electives

MBA electives are a central part of any MBA education; they let you organize your academic path to suit your career goals and specific interests similar to how you would use medical school electives to personalize your medical studies. Business schools know this, which is why many have adopted as wide variety of electives to attract various types of students with diverse and interdisciplinary interests.

Using the Chicago Booth business school as an example, you can choose up to ten different electives courses from the school’s over-100 different MBA electives from Health Economics and Global Health and Social Policy to the Political Economy of Climate Change and Strategies and Precision in Negotiation. Of course, Chicago Booth is only one example, but you’ll find that every business school tries to give you as much variety as possible when it comes to choosing your electives.

For example, if you’re drawn to corporate finance, Harvard Business School provides a course titled “Advanced Corporate Finance”, which gives you an in-depth look into complex financial strategies used by major corporations. But with such a wide variety of MBA electives, it is sometimes hard to choose, which is why we’ll explore a little more about what you should think about when thinking about this vital aspect of MBA coursework.

What MBA Electives Should I Choose?

Your choice of MBA electives should be based on what you want to do with your MBA and what kind of areas of business you want to specialize in. However, you should remember that, while important, MBA electives only complement your main academic and professional interests; but MBA concentrations (which we’ll talk about in the upcoming section), or specializations, are where you can actually become certified in a specific field or discipline.

What this means is that an MBA concentration or specialization is where you should pursue your main academic interests, but MBA electives are a place for you to learn more about an area of business that you’re not familiar with. With that said, you can choose your MBA electives along two lines.

Depending on your program, and how many electives they let you choose, you can 1) opt to focus on your specific goals or interests, or, 2) choose MBA electives in areas outside of your particular field of focus, so you can build a more comprehensive business education rather than focusing only on your area of interest. Most MBA programs only last two years, so, unless you’re thinking about getting another degree or a doctorate from a DBA program, you should take advantage of this short amount of time to learn as much as you can about everything you can.

If, for example, you choose the first route and you have a keen interest in finance, you might opt for electives that examine advanced financial analysis, investment strategies, or corporate finance. On the other hand, if you choose the second route, and you know little about marketing, you might choose electives focusing on consumer behavior, digital marketing, or brand management.

MBA electives can also provide an avenue for staying updated on emerging trends and industry-specific knowledge, which falls outside of the purview of MBA core courses. Courses in areas like data analytics, sustainable business practices, or global strategy can equip you with the latest insights and skills needed to navigate the evolving business landscape. In fact, many business schools are mulling over whether to include more forward-thinking areas such as artificial intelligence and cryptocurrencies within their core courses rather than as electives.

Again, depending on your program and which school you attend, you can also take advantage of the other professional schools and courses available at your program.

For example, Wharton makes available the eleven different professional schools within the university, such as the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law, School of Medicine, and the School of Design from which you can take up to four elective courses, if you’re interested in interdisciplinary exploration. You should also consult an MBA advisor at your program to find out what opportunities you can explore outside the business school to further enrich your educational experience.

MBA Coursework: MBA Concentrations

We talked about the subtle differences between MBA electives and MBA concentrations, as it involves MBA coursework, and here we’ll expand on those differences further. MBA electives are individual courses that you can take to satisfy your program’s credit requirements, but an MBA concentration represents a focused area of study within the broader spectrum of business education. These concentrations are designed to provide you with in-depth knowledge and expertise in specific domains, especially if they align with your academic path or your career aspirations.

The importance of MBA concentrations lies in their ability to offer a specialized skill set that is highly relevant to particular industries or functions. For example, the MBA program at the MIT Sloan School of Management offers eleven different certificate programs that are available not only to MBA students, but to all graduate students who want to earn certification in one of these specialized areas. At MIT, you can choose from any of the following MBA concentrations:

  • Business Analytics Certificate
  • Digital Product Management Certificate
  • Enterprise Management Certificate
  • Trust Center For MIT Entrepreneurship
  • Finance
  • MIT Sloan Health Systems Initiative
  • MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative

These certificate programs will add a unique element to your MBA resume, as MBA specializations are entirely optional. You do not have to complete a certificate program as part of your MBA coursework, but some schools have different rules regarding MBA specializations. At the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University, if you don’t choose a specialization from among the school’s six certificate programs, you can choose a General Management specialization that touches on several areas rather than focusing on one; but this is also optional.

But, regardless of the MBA concentration you choose (or not), the requirements of earning your certificate vary. As with any certificate program, there are different credit requirements that are split between required courses and electives, but all within the same subject matter. For example, if you choose the Finance certificate program at MIT, you must complete three required courses (Managerial Finance, Corporate Finance, Introduction to the Practice of Finance) while also completing two elective courses from a long list of potential electives that range from Entrepreneurial Finance & Venture Capital to Financial Data Science and Computing, for a total of 21 credit units.

But, as with every other type of MBA coursework, the importance of MBA concentrations extends beyond the classroom. Along with completing your core requirements in the Finance certificate program at MIT, you’ll also be able to join Action Learning courses, which pair you with an existing, mid-size business that affected by a particular problem that you must help solve. These Action Learning courses count toward your electives so you can choose this path, instead of taking a seminar or traditional class.

MBA concentrations are like mini-MBA programs that can also help you decide your electives, as you can begin taking a certificate program in your first year and then choose your electives for the summer or the following year. As you can see from the certificate programs at MIT, they’re also beneficial to make contacts within a specific community of professionals, faculty, and alumni who share similar interests and career paths.


1. What are required courses in MBA coursework?

The required courses in MBA coursework varies from school to school. We mentioned some of the core courses at schools such as Chicago Booth and Wharton, but the content and number of core courses is different at every school and tends to blend essential and non-essential business courses. 

2. What are some of the essential courses within MBA coursework?

Essential courses, as defined here, are courses that are based around traditional business subjects such as accounting, marketing, human resources, general management and leadership or any other essential part of running and operating a business. 

3. What are some of the non-essential courses within MBA coursework?

Non-essential courses are courses that are not essential to running a business, but are important to running a socially responsible and ethical business that many business schools try to impart to their students. These courses can range from courses in leadership to organizational behavior. 

4. What kind of MBA electives can I choose for my MBA coursework?

You can choose from various types of MBA electives offered by your MBA program. Every business school has hundreds of different electives so you have to consult the list of electives at these schools as part of how to choose the right MBA program for you. 

5. What are the credit requirements for MBA coursework?

Every MBA program has credit requirements unique to it, and the distribution of credits between core courses and electives is different for every program. 

6. Should I choose an MBA concentration as part of my MBA coursework?

Whether you choose an MBA concentration is up to you and your specific goals. An MBA concentration can help you if you want to enter a specific field, but you can also design your MBA according to your career goals without taking a concentration by taking a set of particular electives. 

7. What else is involved in MBA coursework?

Along with core courses, electives and concentrations, MBA coursework can involve several MBA extracurriculars, such as participating in internships, research labs, and real-world externships where you work directly with a company or outside organization. 

8. What’s the most important part of MBA coursework?

There is no one single component of MBA coursework that stands out above all others. Every part of your MBA coursework is to help you not only meet your credit requirements, but also to give you the knowledge and learning that you want to accelerate your professional career. 

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting

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