Is an Executive MBA Right for You?

Written by Rachel Nelson, Gatehouse Consultant and Wharton MBA.

One question that prospective MBA applicants often ask is whether they should pursue an executive MBA (EMBA).

As with many questions like this, the answer is… it depends! Both the EMBA and the more traditional two-year, full-time MBA program are well suited for applicants who can provide evidence of strong leadership and the ability to drive results, and for those who have made an impact within both their job and the broader community. Beyond that, determining which program is the best fit will likely depend on your specific circumstances.  

Broadly speaking, executive programs seek candidates with more years of experience compared to a traditional MBA program (typically, at least seven years), a clear vision for the future, a strong track record, and ideally, some management experience. Because having a longer career gives schools more data about you to evaluate, academic statsin particular, standardized test scoresare less important to EMBA programs. Conversely, most full-time programs place more emphasis on non-career aspects of your applications (e.g., test scores, extracurriculars) because you have had less time to stand out in your career.

Here are some of the variables you should consider when deciding whether an EMBA or a full-time MBA program is right for you:

Are you happy in your industry and role?

EMBAs are ideal for applicants who are looking to advance along their current career trajectory. EMBA students usually remain at the same company for the duration of their studies and even after, especially if they are sponsored by their employer. Conversely, those who want to pivot to another industry or role might find a full-time program offers the resourcesincluding recruiting and career placement advicethat are crucial to make that change a reality. 

Do you need an internship to achieve your goals?  

Most EMBA programs are structured to accommodate full-time work commitments. For example, no time is allocated for an internship. Therefore, if you think you need an internship to achieve your goals, or if an internship is a key aspect that makes business school appealing to you, a two-year program that offers a summer internship or a business school that schedules an internship during the school year might make more sense.

Is a full-time MBA worth the opportunity cost?

In addition to program costs, a full-time program will require you to leave the workforce. This means two years of lost income, career progression, and promotions. If you want to leave your industry anyway, you may feel this is a necessary and acceptable sacrifice to make the change you are seeking.  

In contrast, most EMBA programs allow you to work while you take classes, often on the weekends or select weekdays. Consequently, EMBAs are often more appealing to professionals who are further along in their careers simply because the opportunity cost of starting over in a new industry or role is too highmuch higher than for someone who is three or four years out of college. The income lost during the two years of a full-time program can be a significant consideration. This is very much a personal decision with no right answer. Therefore, the more thoughtful you can be about this trade-off, the better decision you will be able to make.     

Do you want a break from work? Or do you want to move and live somewhere new?

Some prospective applicants are ready for a change, whether they desire to be a student again, have a break from a full-time job, or simply move to a new location. All of these are reasons why a full-time MBA could be right for you. My colleague, Eric Hollowaty, often reminds clients that this is a personal decision, and it is okay to want an MBA for “life” reasons as well as professional ones (important caveat: this is not something we would ever encourage you to write in an essay, but it can be helpful to be honest with yourself about your reasons for wanting a change!).

On the other side, many people seeking an EMBA find that they are happily settled in their life, and so a full-time program just does not make sense either professionally or personally. Perhaps they do not want to move or be separated from a partner or their family, or they are happily settled in a city or routine that works for them.

Is there an EMBA program that works for you?

EMBA programs come in lots of different flavors: weekend only, weekend/weekday mix, global, in-person/virtual blends. Thinking about which one works best for you will help you evaluate which type of program will enable you to achieve your goals.

What does your company think of an EMBA? 

Most EMBA programs require the support of and even a formal letter of endorsement from your company. Note that this is different from financial sponsorship. Some companies will offer to pay for an employee’s EMBA. But even if your employer is not paying for school, many EMBA programs want to know that your employer supports your plansand the schools will let you know this on their website before you apply. If your employer will not support you, it is worth confirming whether the program to which you are applying requires your employer’s endorsement.

Do you dread taking standardized tests?

As mentioned earlier, most EMBA programs place less emphasis on standardized test scores than full-time programs do. In addition to GMAT and GRE scores, many programs will also accept the Executive Assessment, which focuses more on the experiences you have gained throughout your career and may be a less daunting test to prepare forand takeif you are five or more years removed from college and out of practice studying. 

Regardless of which type of program you choose, you can consider requesting a test waiver. Many programsboth EMBA and full timewill grant a waiver provided you have strong work experience and can demonstrate solid quantitative and analytical thinking skills. 

Who do you want your peer set to be?

When working with clients in their 30s who are considering a two-year program, one thing I ask is if they want to be learning from folks who have three to five years of experience when they themselves might have several more. For those seeking a career pivot, this may be an acceptable trade-off or even a desirable opportunity to retool a skill set among a peer group of eager learners. But for others, this will be a clear push toward a program with executive-level classmates.

I think an EMBA might be right for menow what should I do?

Talk to the admissions committee! My colleague, Marcus Dahllöf, suggests that “unlike two-year programs, where the team is inundated with applicants, the exec team is usually delighted to speak with candidates.” In fact, some offer screening services to help you decide which program is right for you, and some offer one-on-one meetings. The more you know, the better able you will be to make an informed decision. 

What if neither a traditional EMBA nor a full-time program is right for me?

There are some other options to consider, including a few one-year programs. MIT’s Sloan Fellows MBA is a year-long residential program for “experienced leaders and mid-career professionals with a minimum of 10 years of work experience,” according to the school’s website. For those interested in spending 12 months studying in London, another option is the LBS Sloan Masters in Leadership and Strategy, which boasts an average of 19 years of work experience for the 2023 graduating class. For those with slightly less experience, the Kellogg One-Year MBA Program can be a great fit if you are not looking to change industries. Finally, the Stanford MSx Program promises on its website to “change your life and prepare you for the next stage in your career” in one year. Its class consists of “accomplished professionals with an average of 13 years of work experience.”

The main thing I hope you take away is that there is likely a program that is designed for you and your needs. The key is to figure out what you want and need from a master’s program, and then do your research.

Want to learn more about which program may be right for you? Request a free Gatehouse consultation with Rachel, Eric, or Marcus.