Misconceptions: Understanding Pre-Business

Many high school students have the mistaken notion that an undergraduate degree in business is a natural first step to an MBA. In fact, it is far from that. Most people who got into the elite MBA programs did not major in business as undergraduates. For example:

  • Carly Fiorina, former CEO of HP majored in Medieval History and Philosophy.
  • Charles Schwab, CEO of the Charles Schwab Corporation, majored in economics.
  • Philip Knight, cofounder of Nike, majored in journalism.

The truth is: 7 out of the 8 Ivy League schools do not offer an undergraduate degree in business. Other selective universities like Stanford, MIT, Caltech, and Chicago do not offer this major, either. Why? The reasons are two-fold.

  • A traditional liberal arts education aims to prepare students to become critical thinkers and lifetime learners. The courses are often designed on the “why,” with discussions of articles and essays written in scholarly journals and books, focusing on the theoretical frameworks or empirical results.
  • A business education tends to focus on functional areas, such as accounting, sales, and finance. The courses are often organized around the discussion of written cases of actual situations, and as a result, the focus is on the “how.”

So if you want a job in business right after college, an undergraduate business degree may get you there. But if your long term goal is to earn an MBA, consider majors you find truly interesting and engaging. Some of the specific advice I gave to prospective students when I was at Stanford and now I give as a private consultant includes:

  • Although there are no specific undergraduate major or courses required for MBA admission, top programs look for strengths in your quantitative, verbal, and written skills.
  • Top programs favor students who have strong analytical reasoning skills. So take logic courses such as applied mathematics, computer, philosophy, and physics, to fully prepare yourself.
  • Along the same line, take courses that will sharpen your quantitative skills, such as math, microeconomics, and statistics.

As you can tell, the MBA programs are, after all, not designed for students who have prior trainings in business. Students have overweighed what they think an undergraduate degree in business will do for them. Similarly, the Wharton School is overtaken by students.

In my upcoming newsletters, I will talk about Pre-Medical programs, followed by Pre-Law programs.

Stay tuned!
Wan Chen, Admissions Advisor

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