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What Makes A Good MBA Candidate?

According to the Department of Education, the master's in business is the second most popular master's degree earned in the nation. MBAs are popular, and with popularity, resentment often follows. There seems to be no shortage to the calls that the MBA is a waste (CBS), has lost its charm (LinkedIn), isn't exclusive enough (LinkedIn), has a poor ROI (WSJ) or could be replaced with acceleration startup programs (QUARTZ). Indeed, the sight of full-time program costs rocketing ever skyward trailed by depressing job placement records can be enough to make a prospective MBA applicant weep.

However, according to Bersin & Associates, as of 2011, two thirds of U.S. businesses report persistent shortages of talented mid-level leaders. And early leadership studies could be important: The Harvard Business Review suggested in 2012 that leadership training is delayed far too long into a manager's career -- when managers are in their mid-40s.

"It takes a lot of guts to leave your job and just pack up and go to school for two years and really not know what's going to happen."

  - Ken White

Who could benefit from MBA studies?

If the MBA is expensive, doesn't guarantee a job, and could involve quitting your job and traveling across the country to attend school for two years or more, what kind of student could call this beneficial? According to Ken White, the associate dean of MBA and MS programs at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, the student who can benefit from an MBA is one who knows how to fail.

"It takes a lot of guts to leave your job and just pack up and go to school for two years and really not know what's going to happen," he said. "So a good [MBA] candidate has to be willing to take chances, has to be willing to fail once in a while, because that's how you learn."

And, he added, they shouldn't be too full of themselves. "If the person [feels they are] perfect coming in the door, then why come at all?" White added.

Students should also understand that earning an MBA isn't a means to make money, but to become a better leader, in business and in life.

"I think MBAs are not all about the money; I think they are about leadership and making things better, whether it's a process, a product, a service," White explained.

"I've seen how it changes people, whether they are in our executive program, full-time program, or part-time," he added. "They are a different person when they walk out the door. They tend to see the world through the eyes of a leader."

The connection to money, White said, is a product of motivation and a desire to be the best. MBA students tend to be motivated -- they'd need to be since they may spend tens of thousands of dollars on a graduate program -- and when hired, they can motivate others. Proof of this, according to White, is in the program selections of MBA students.

If earning an MBA were only about money, the Smith School wouldn't have an explosion of green MBA students. "One of the things we're seeing is the interest in social value and green business," White said. "Among our students, those are extremely popular areas." "Students want to make money, but first they want to make the world a better place," he added.

And White isn't alone in thinking this. Andrew Sama, senior associate director of MBA admissions at the University of Notre Dame, agrees that the MBA is still useful, if not vital, to modern business.

"I've seen MBAs help people from a variety of different undergraduate programs," Sama said. "I've seen it help folks that have had 10 plus years of work experience, I've seen it help people like myself who have had no business background, and I've seen it help people who were coming off of Wall Street."

What about the value of MBAs?

"But what they end up doing is getting a master's in whatever field they studied as an undergrad and they don't really learn anything new."  - Ken White

But what about those articles touting acceleration courses, lean startups or simply investing the cost of an MBA instead? William Wait, director of MBA admissions at University of Wisconsin's School of Business, suggests that the stigmas associated with MBAs aren't all based on actual program results.

"I think the MBA is still a wonderful return on [a student's] investment," Wait said. "Unfortunately MBAs are getting lumped in to some of the bad press that's out there for some of the other graduate degrees."

"Some less prestigious degrees, some less practical or applied type master degree programs that students enroll in rack up a lot of debt, and then [students] don't find great job opportunities," Wait said. "That certainly isn't the case for MBA students in the top tier programs."

Yet, many people outside of the business or education sphere may not see the value of MBAs. According to The Economist, MBA tuition fees have outpaced not only the rate of inflation but the average salaries of MBA graduates as well. Job placement doesn't fare much better. For the Classes of 2005 to 2008, about 94 percent of Stanford MBA graduates accepted job offers within three months of graduation, the Stanford Daily reports. For the Class of 2009, only 85 percent of MBA graduates seeking employment had accepted job offers within three months of graduation.

As a result of the bad press, earning an MBA can be a daunting proposal that could drive people in the civic, educational and business worlds to avoid MBA programs when perhaps they shouldn't.

"I think there are several types of students who aren't pursuing [an MBA] but should," White said. "There are people who are afraid of numbers, they are afraid of anything quantitative, they are afraid of the unknowns of the business world and so they don't even consider an MBA. To me, those are the people who could probably benefit the most from it."

"But what they end up doing is getting a master's in whatever field they studied as an undergrad and they don't really learn anything new," he added.

Despite the naysayers and the changes that are taking place in business schools around the country, the MBA can still be a pivotal degree. The salaries may not be as astronomical as they once were, nor the cost as accessible, but the skills and values learned during the program may still be important to both business and society.

"The MBA, I think, is still the greatest degree that anybody can get because it still is a leadership degree," White said. "If you want to lead and make a difference in the lives of others, I don't know what else could help you more than an MBA."

"A Smart Investor Would Skip the M.B.A.," Dale Stephens, The Wall Street Journal, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323884304578328243334068564.html
Interview with William Wait, director of MBA admissions at the University of Wisconsin's School of Business, conducted by Jamar Ramos, MBAPrograms.org, June 2013
Interview with Andrew Sama of the University Of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business, conducted by Jamar Ramos, MBAPrograms.org, May 2013
Interview with Ken White, the associate dean of MBA & MS programs at the University Of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School Of Business, conducted by Jamar Ramos, MBAPrograms.org, June 2013
"Bachelor's, master's, and doctor's degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions, by field of study: Selected years, 1970-71 through 2009-10," National Center for education Statistics, Department of education, 2011, http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d11/tables/dt11_289.asp?referrer=list
"The $200,000 Question: To Get an MBA or … Not?" Joel Peterson, LinkedIn, 2013, http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130514070419-11846967-the-200-000-question-to-get-an-mba-or-not
"Developing 21st Century Leaders Who Make a Difference," Bersin & Associates, Slideshare, November 2011, http://www.slideshare.net/eremedia/developing-21st-century-leaders-who-make-a-difference
"If you can't get into a top-five MBA program, don't even bother", QUARTZ, Yahoo! Finance, 2013, http://qz.com/42233/if-you-cant-get-into-a-top-five-mba-program-dont-even-bother/
"Leadership Programs: Half Full or Half Empty?", Bersin By Deloitte, 2009, http://www.bersin.com/blog/post/2009/11/leadership-programs-half-full-or-half-empty.aspx
"MBA applications: No price too high?" The Economist, Jan. 8 2013, http://www.economist.com/whichmba/mba-applications-no-price-too-high
"MBA grads facing low employment rate," Stanford Daily, Ellen Huet, January 2010, http://www.stanforddaily.com/2010/01/14/mba-grads-facing-low-employment-rate/
"Skip the MBA: 3 Reasons Why You Should Get Real-World Experience Instead," Ryan Holmes, LinkedIn, 2013, http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130422185424-2967511-skip-the-mba-3-reasons-why-you-should-get-real-world-experience-instead
"We Wait Too Long to Train Our Leaders," Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger, December 2012, http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/12/why_do_we_wait_so_long_to_trai.html
"Why an MBA Is a Waste of Time and Money", Penelope Trunk, CBS Money Watch, 2010, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505125_162-45040152/why-an-mba-is-a-waste-of-time-and-money/