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Should you use electives to determine your MBA shortlist? 

Katie Schenk - November 21, 2016

MBA Electives

Remember the thrill of choosing free electives during your undergrad? You could opt for just about anything your heart desired – and the school offered.

Your MBA electives aren’t likely to be anything like that.

There isn’t nearly enough time to worry about the psychology of food or photography (unless your business goals align with those directly). And, no matter how many electives MBA programmes offer, you’re unlikely to find those on the list. 

Business schools offer a lot of electives

A current trend in business school is specialisation. You don’t just get an MBA; you get a finance-driven degree or an entrepreneurship-based curriculum. That means you’ll find a lot of electives, covering almost the complete spectrum of business subjects.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business claims their nearly 200 electives are unparalleled. Columbia Business School has more than 200 electives to choose.

Elective courses tend to be lower on the other side of the Atlantic. IESE Business School in Spain offers over 70 elective courses; INSEAD offers more than 75.

Just about every MBS programme makes an effort to brag about their electives, whether they have 50 or 250. They’re suggesting that electives are an important part of their curriculum – and should play a significant role in school selection.

But how important are electives in choosing an MBA programme, or short listing the possibilities?

Perhaps not as much as schools would have you believe. 

Which electives should capture your attention?

It’s a little difficult to choose between 200 different electives unless you have a laser focus on your plans (with every month of the next 20 years planned to the minute). With a mere 70 electives, choices must be made. You’ll be able to squeeze just a few in between core classes, international and experiential treks, internships, recruiting activities, campus club work, and your thesis (if you choose to pursue that route).

While each class helps to narrow your focus and set the stage for your future, you can only do so much.

To complicate matters more, the classes that help most in the short-term aren’t the same that you’ll wish you had when you reach top management levels.

And none of this takes into account the offer you accept in the first semester or the new opportunities your internship unlocks. Classes with dull titles could be the most engaging or taught by the best professors. Scheduling concerns and the lottery systems at some schools also factor into the equation.

As much as Strategy and Sustainability or Business Model Innovation whets your appetite for a particular MBA programme, you probably don’t want to choose a particular school based on single electives.

Since schools brag about these courses, you’re likely to find similar options across every programme.

When you really want specific electives

You can’t take electives at face value though. They represent more than a single choice; they can offer deeper insight into the priorities of the school as a whole. Anyone considering an MBA with a marketing focus should pass on programmes that have extensive lists of finance electives but only half a dozen marketing classes.

And, don’t underestimate flexibility at the MBA level. Harvard Business School, for example, has huge lists of electives. Yet, they have an exchange programme in place for students to undertake classes at nearby colleges (including MIT) if HBS doesn’t offer overlapping options.

Many schools offer unique electives at satellite campuses so you can take advantage of both experiences simultaneously.

All of this suggests that electives shouldn’t be your biggest concern when it comes to choosing your shortlist of MBA programmes. But, nothing is stopping you from drooling over the options at your top pick programmes; everyone does. 

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