What Do You Actually Learn in Business School?

A current MBA candidate at Harvard Business School provides an inside look at what you actually learn in business school.

Emilie W.

By Emilie W.

Posted March 12, 2024

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As a current MBA student, I am often asked the question, “What do you actually learn?” There are many motivations to pursue an MBA, and each student has different goals and experiences they are looking to achieve during business school. For some, it is enhancing networking opportunities and nurturing entrepreneurial ambitions, or for others, it is gaining a comprehensive understanding of the business landscape. Regardless of the reason, every student spends much of their time in a rich learning environment that will provide them with a business foundation in whatever path they pursue post-graduation.

The Academic Framework

MBA programs worldwide employ diverse teaching methodologies. For instance, while my program at Harvard Business School is known for its case method, many programs combine lectures, case studies, simulations, and group projects. All of these activities are furthering the goals to promote critical thinking, enable dynamic discussions, and derive insights from various experiences. Although the specific courses might differ, most MBA programs share a similar structure of core foundational curriculum with elective coursework. Here's an overview.

For more info on HBS' curriculum, head to: Harvard Business School — MBA Program & Application Overview (2023)

Core Coursework

Most business schools will have a variation of core, required courses that lay the foundation of their business acumen and understanding. Some business schools stack these courses at the front of the MBA journey, while others blend them with elective courses throughout the program. Here is a sample of what this core coursework may look like:

  • Accounting: Move beyond basic financial transactions to understand the financial structures of businesses to make strategic decisions
  • Finance: Dive into the mechanics of financial management. Understand investment strategies and financial planning at a corporate level
  • Strategy: Learn to develop actionable plans that guide companies through challenges and lead to sustainable growth
  • Economics: Analyze the forces of demand and supply across global markets, studying the economic factors influencing business decisions
  • Marketing: Understand the strategies that connect businesses to consumers, establish brand recognition, and drive sales
  • Leadership: Delve into team management and your individual leadership style to understand how to drive change and make a meaningful impact in your organization and community
  • Data Science: Utilize data for decision-making and transform raw numbers into actionable business insights
  • Operations: Focus on the processes that keep businesses running efficiently and learn to enhance productivity and ensure consistent delivery

Read: Not Every MBA Program is Made Equal–An Overview of the Program Structures of Top Business Schools

Elective Coursework

One of the strengths of an MBA program is its adaptability. Beyond the mandatory subjects, students can tailor their education to align with their interests or career goals. Most programs allow students to choose a number of courses that they are passionate about or are specific to the career they want to pursue. This could range from deep dives into investment strategies, real estate, business ethics, general management skills, industry-specific courses, or personal development.

Some programs shift these elective courses to the back end of the MBA program, once students have formed a collective foundation in the core coursework. Others allow students to choose many of their courses throughout their time in the program. These courses greatly vary by MBA program, but often there are so many options for truly intriguing, passion-driven learning that everyone can find what they are looking for.

Read: How to Choose Electives in Your MBA Program


Many MBA programs offer avenues for deeper exploration into specific industries or areas of study, such as dual degrees, unique majors, or opportunities to take courses from other graduate schools. These specialized tracks provide in-depth knowledge in particular sectors. Some examples of this could be a JD/MBA from Chicago Booth (any many other programs), Wharton’s Healthcare Management major, or Harvard Business School’s cross-registration program with the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Beyond the Classroom

An MBA experience extends beyond traditional coursework. There are so many opportunities to learn outside of the classroom. Student clubs, internships, innovation labs, and peer interactions further enrich the learning journey, and are a critical piece of the MBA experience!

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How to Make the Most of Your Learning Experience

As I reflect on my MBA so far and think of the advice many mentors and past students have told me, I keep thinking about three tips that I believe will help every MBA student take full advantage of the learning experience in their program:

  • Tip #1: Make the most of every academic and extracurricular opportunity. The value of an MBA is both in its structured curriculum and real-world applications
  • Tip #2: Participate actively in discussions and group projects. Collaboration often leads to deeper insights and broader perspectives
  • Tip #3: Approach an MBA as not just a degree, but as a comprehensive learning experience. It provides tools and strategies that are applicable in both business scenarios and broader life challenges

In essence, an MBA doesn't just teach you business; it prepares you for life! An MBA offers a comprehensive education in business management while also equipping students with skills and perspectives that are invaluable in diverse professional settings. It's a commitment to individual and professional growth, and will pay dividends throughout your future career and personal life.

Emilie W. is an MBA Candidate at Harvard Business School. She was accepted as a deferred applicant her senior year in college, and worked at Oliver Wyman before matriculating. She is passionate about helping you shape the future you want! Book a FREE intro call with Emilie today!

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