A common question for those considering undertaking a Master of Business Administration is whether they should apply for an MBA or an Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA).

There are several misconceptions in the market. For example, some say there is little difference between an Executive MBA and an MBA, but actually they differ on several fronts. Others believe one carries more weight amongst working professionals and employers than the other, while the truth is that both are enormously well respected in the employment market.

So, what is different between the two business degrees? And how does an MBA or EMBA candidate decide which degree program is best for them?

Both degree programs, after all, are general management degrees. Both may be a part-time or full-time MBA program, although EMBAs are mostly part-time. Both could be studied online, although the EMBA is more likely to be face-to-face. And both require a major commitment of time and effort, offering an exceptional level of return on investment for those willing to make that commitment.

Rather than looking at the similarities, it’s most useful to focus on the differences between the two business degrees. These can be gathered under four main topic areas:

Let’s explore each.

Work experience of candidates

The team behind the 2018 QS Global Executive MBA Rankings spoke with over 100 EMBA programs before producing their report. In traditional MBA programs, students typically have three to seven years of work experience, they discovered. EMBA students, on the other hand, have an average of 14 years of work experience including an average of nine years of managerial work experience.

For the research, the QS team also looked into C-suite experience, encompassing senior leadership, senior management experience and directorships, etc. Around one in four EMBA students are at the C-suite level, they reported.

The research team at Times Higher Education agrees with the QS analysts. “The average EMBA student is 38 years old with about 14 years’ work experience and nine years of management experience. Comparatively, full-time MBA students are often earlier on in their careers…” Times Higher Education said in their report - What is the difference between an MBA and an EMBA?

This means that within EMBA programs, discussions within classes and groups will tend to be at a higher and more strategic level, around senior management and business direction. Those with less experience will possibly be lost, and at risk of not contributing at a level expected by their fellow Executive MBA students. This helps partly explain why admissions requirements [see next section] for an EMBA differ – those conducting an EMBA expect a certain level of experience amongst their fellow students.

Importantly, as EMBA programs are typically taken part-time so the managers and senior managers can continue with their jobs, assignments and projects set during the EMBA often relate to the more senior level of work they’re doing.

It makes sense that this is the case. The reason the EMBA program exists is to offer a level of education that matches the needs and expectations of senior managers and executives.

The EMBA is designed to make great senior managers even better at the work they’re required to do. That work involves making major business decisions and carrying out strategic planning for the entire business.

The Master of Business Administration student profile, on the other hand, is comparatively junior to mid-level. An MBA is designed for students with a lower average age (although it also suits mature-aged students) and lower levels of skill and experience. It covers such topics as decision-making in business and strategic planning in just as much details as its EMBA cousin, but at a different level.

While a traditional MBA degree may assume an amount of business knowledge and could require a certain number of years of work experience, it targets those who aspire to senior management, rather than those already at the senior management level.

And so, the EMBA and the MBA have very different student profiles. While average ages of students may only vary by seven or eight years (at one of the world’s best respected business schools, Wharton EMBA students have an average 12 years of work experience, compared to Wharton MBA students with an average of five years), the levels of experience, insight and seniority can vary dramatically.

As with any type of MBA at any school of business, it’s vital to ensure your own knowledge, skillset and experience are at the right level to guarantee the best results.

Entrance requirements for MBA vs EMBA

Admission to an MBA has a lot to do with academic scores, at school and particularly in the applicant’s undergraduate degree. Some traditional MBAs require further tests to be taken, such as the Graduate Management Admission Test(GMAT) which consists of a written assessment, a test of verbal ability and a quantitative analysis. Some require personal and professional essays to be written. Some ask for professional and personal references.

In a traditional MBA, work experience is not necessarily a high priority, with many business schools accepting promising students who do not yet have any professional experience.

Admission to an EMBA, on the other hand, absolutely prioritises professional work experience, including past and current roles and responsibilities as well as future aspirations, in the form of a coherent career plan.

The application, on top of various forms and documents, often requires detailed reference letters from others within business, essays written from a professional and personal standpoint, and a clear career plan that demonstrates exactly what it is that you hope to achieve from the EMBA. Every part of the application must focus on senior management and leadership skills.

Both MBA and EMBA selection committees must be sure you’re the right person to earn a coveted position within their course. Without a clear picture of who you are and where you’d like the degree to take you, this is a difficult task. An application that focusses on the right specifics and therefore tells selection committees exactly what they need to know, makes their job much easier.

Finally, the EMBA executive MBA council often requires endorsement not just of the applicant, but also of the applicant’s employer. Selection committees must be convinced that the employer understands the unique pressure the course will place on the student, and has put support processes in place to ensure the individual’s success in the course.

Increasingly, employers will fully or partly fund the course fees, meaning they have a financial interest in the candidate’s success. This sponsorship is not a necessity of endorsement, but if it is the case, the employer will typically expect several years of service by the individual after graduation. This means it’s very much within the organisation’s interest for the candidate to have the time, space and bandwidth to learn all they can from the EMBA degree, maximising return on investment.

Degree program delivery format

Full-time MBA programs require a career break, typically for 24 months while the course is being completed. Of course, MBAs are also increasingly available in part-time and online formats that provide far greater flexibility. While MBA programs can be completed in two years or less, an executive MBA program tends to run to around four years.

EMBA programs, on the other hand, are shaped around people who hold senior management positions and who simply cannot take a career break. EMBA courses, as a result, are mostly delivered in a part-time format.

As the senior professionals taking an EMBA have a full-time job, their choice of EMBA providers is more restricted as it must be local to them. Those taking a career break for a traditional MBA can move away, even overseas, to attend their course.
While core subjects remain fairly similar between MBA and EMBA programs, there are typically fewer electives in an EMBA. In an EMBA, the group of professionals that starts the course also takes every subject together. In doing so, they bond and network and their learning is bolstered by the shared experience of the group.

In an EMBA, diversity is vital. Those in a particular admission will have a broad spectrum of professional experience, from healthcare to finance, from start-up to federal government, and from general management to deep subject specialisation.

Of course, this is also typically the case in traditional MBA groups. But those studying an MBA are naturally more likely to have that diversity of knowledge and experience within their student groups as they move around between electives and core subjects, surrounded by different people in each group. Those managing EMBA programs, on the other hand, must carefully design diversity into the group, as it typically remains the same throughout the duration of the course.

Some EMBAs are run for one or two days each week, perhaps a Friday and one day each weekend. Some split their classes across a couple of nights each week.

So, before they even begin to put together the contents of their admission pack, the potential candidate must ensure the university’s offering fits in with the various demands of their life. This often requires some shifting of responsibilities and managing of expectations of others in the candidate’s life.

Salary increases from MBA vs EMBA

As we discussed in our report on MBA Salary Increases, the Australian Financial Review’s 2019 BOSS MBA Ranking confirmed Australian MBA and EMBA graduates averaged impressive salary increases after graduation.

MBA graduates, the report said, earned a pay bump of 28 per cent to an average of $157,000.

That’s a significant leap, but the EMBA managed to dwarf it, with a salary increase of 44 per cent to an average of $222,000.

While there are numerous differences between an MBA and an EMBA, including the type of candidate in each course, their professional work experience, the entrance requirements and course delivery options, one thing remains the same – both master’s degrees are still enormously well valued and respected in the business world.

The secret to success is ensuring you’re a good match for the type of MBA, then building time, space and support mechanisms into your life, to guarantee success.

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