A business degree from a US college or university can open doors to just about any industry or professional role. Perhaps this is why business is consistently ranked the most popular subject to study at universities in the United States.
Additionally, there are many types of business degrees and specializations. With access to transferrable skills such as accounting, finance, management, marketing, and more, students can customize a business degree according to their interests.
But what is business? What is it like to study business as an undergraduate or graduate student in the States? What work can you do with a degree in business? Keep reading to find out why close to 20% of all US students choose business as their major.
What Is Business and What Skills Will I Learn?
Business students learn skills and principles that help organizations succeed in their industries. Many students pursue a generalized business degree — a business administration degree or business management degree — to learn a solid foundation of operations, strategy, leadership, sales, and other facets of working for a corporation.
Other business majors choose to focus on a particular field or specialization, depending on their strengths and interests. There are math-heavy specializations like accounting or finance, and there are people-oriented paths, such as human resources or marketing. Regardless of their specialization, business students can expect to apply practical theory, research case studies, collaborate on group projects, and solve problems in their coursework.
Business students can continue their education in master’s and PhD programs; the most popular program is a master’s of business administration (or MBA). After grad school, many students find careers as chief executive officers, entrepreneurs, sales managers, accountants, or financial analysts.
The specialization you choose as a business major will also affect your job outlook and salary after you graduate. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a market research analyst, a typical first job for business marketing specialists, is $63,920, and a management analyst, or someone who works to improve an organization’s efficiency, makes $93,000.
What Is it Like to Study Business as an Undergraduate Student in the United States?
Understanding the differences between undergraduate business degrees at US universities can be confusing. Similar to computer science and other fields that require both hard skills (e.g., math) and soft skills (e.g., communication), business majors can choose between a bachelor of arts (BA) and bachelor of science (BS) degree options. There are also BBA and BSBA degrees—or a bachelor of business administration and a bachelor of science in business administration, respectively.
A program may qualify as one degree type at one university, but a different degree type at another university. Accounting students, for example, study to receive a BBA at Adelphi University and a BS at American University.
While this may seem complicated at first, it is actually a helpful way of understanding different programs and the way they are structured. In the United States, universities often have their own method of teaching a subject, so research the curriculum before you enroll in a business school. If you are looking for more of a mathematical and scientific approach to business, you should pursue a BS or a BSBA. If you are looking for a broad overview of all aspects of business, you should pick a BA or BBA. It is rare to see a BA and a BBA, or a BS and a BSBA, in the same specializations at the same schools.
Which Required Classes Do Undergraduate Business Majors Take?
Colleges in the United States are different from many in other countries. US universities take a well-rounded approach to undergraduate academics. While students in the UK may dive deeper into their business area of specialization, their American counterparts are often required to study core art and science subjects, no matter their major. For example, students enrolled at Auburn University, the 78th-best business school according to U.S. News & World Report, call this a “pre-business curriculum.”
The pre-business curriculum at Auburn is meant to provide students with a solid education in the arts and sciences during their freshman and sophomore years. In most cases, students can also take lower-level business classes before they move on to their specialization. Other schools follow similar course plans, including American University, which requires at least half of its business students’ total coursework to consist of non-business school classes.
Students at universities in the United States generally pick their major at the end of their sophomore year, regardless of whether they are in business school. Declaring a major later allows students more time to explore courses and potential majors before deciding on one.
Which Business Classes Do Undergraduate Students Take?
There is a large variety of undergraduate business school programs and requirements at US universities. Most schools, however, have a set of mandatory course-areas that make up the core structure of their program.
At American University in Washington, DC — ranked eighth-best undergraduate international business program of 2023 by U.S. News & World Report — business students are required to take 34 credit hours in foundational courses to give them a solid understanding of their major. These classes focus on:
Analytical tool literacy: students learn the software and programs that help them make better business decisions.
Case study analysis: students understand, interpret, and utilize processes or records of research to make informed decisions.
Oral communication skills development: students learn how to be confident public speakers.
Teamwork skills development: students work as a group when approaching and solving problems in business.
Written communication skills development: students gain skills to become better business writers.
Examples of core business classes at American University include:
Principles of Financial Accounting
Principles of Marketing
Other academic requirements for all undergraduate business majors at American University include three economics credit hours and seven to eight business math credit hours.
What Are Some Specialization Areas for Undergraduate Business Students?
In addition to core business classes, some programs require students to pick a specialization. Each university has its own suite of business specialization offerings; however, you can focus on accounting, economics, finance, and management at any accredited US business school.
At the University of South Carolina, the 2023 best undergraduate international business program in the United States according to U.S. News & World Report, students can focus on the following areas of study:
Operations and supply chain
Risk management and insurance
Other universities offer programs in information systems, ethics, and public policy. Depending on where you choose to study, you may be able to combine specializations for an interdisciplinary major.
What Does an Undergraduate Class Schedule Look Like for a Business Major?
To review: business students are generally required to take classes in the arts and sciences, core business topics, and specialized business subjects to earn an undergraduate degree in the United States. Let us now take a look at a sample course schedule for an undergraduate business major at the University of Illinois at Chicago:
Freshman year, first semester: 14 - 15 hours
General ed: Introduction to Professional Development
General ed: Academic Writing I—Writing in Academic and Public Contexts
Elementary Linear Algebra
Principles of Microeconomics
Fundamentals of Human Communication
Freshman year, second semester: 14 - 15 hours
General ed: Academic Writing II—Writing for Inquiry and Research
Calculus for Business
Intro to Management Information Systems
Introduction to Financial Accounting
Sophomore year, first semester: 16 hours
Business Statistics I
Introduction to Finance
Introduction to Managerial Accounting
Introduction to Marketing
Sophomore year, second semester: 16 hours
Business Professional Development II
Introduction to Organizations
General ed: Understanding the Past
2 major courses
Junior year, first semester: 16 hours
Principles of Macroeconomics
Advanced Quantitative Skills
General ed: Exploring World Cultures
2 major courses
Junior year, second semester: 15 hours
Business and its External Environment
General ed: Understanding the Creative Arts
2 major courses
1 major course / business elective
Senior year, first semester: 12 - 14 hours
Global Business Perspectives
General ed: Analyzing the Natural World
Business elective/major course
Senior year, second semester: 16 hours
2 business electives or major courses
2 general electives
Should I Intern as an Undergraduate Business Student?
Business majors are encouraged — and at some universities, required — to intern as part of their undergraduate education. Internships are essential for all majors, but perhaps even more so for business students. Since a large part of business school consists of case study work and practical application of business theory, internships allow students to put what they are learning into practice. Other benefits of interning include:
Resume building: real-world experience can help students land a job after college
Networking: strong connections in your field can also help with getting hired after college
Finding work: many internships lead to full-time employment
In addition to interning, most business schools offer several clubs and student organizations for students to join. These are great opportunities to learn more about your specialization, build connections with other students, and put your skills into practice with group-run projects and charitable outreach. Adelphi, for example, has many student-led business organizations, from international student groups to finance, accounting, and human resource societies.
Should I Pursue a Master’s Degree After I Graduate?
Business-based master’s degrees, such as an MBA, are the most popular US graduate-level degrees. In 2020-21, more than 202,000 grad students earned business graduate degrees, representing 23% of all graduate-level degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
What Are the Admissions Requirements for Applying to MBA Programs?
When applying to graduate-level business school programs, expect to spend as much as $250 per university; however, many schools charge much less to apply. At American University, the application fee is $75 and, for international students applying to the MBA program at Auburn University, the cost is $70.
If application fees are limiting the number of schools you are planning to apply to, remember to check for early application deadlines. Many universities, such as the University of Utah, reduce the application fees for students who apply to programs well before the final term deadline.
In addition to fees, expect to submit the following items as an international student applying to graduate-level business school programs in the United States:
Official TOEFL/IELTS scores (many schools have minimum requirements) to demonstrate proficiency in the English language.
GMAT exam scores from within the last five years to show that you are ready for business school. Some schools also accept the GRE for business school — be sure to check your university’s website for more details.
Official transcripts from your undergraduate university, one in your native language and one in English, if applicable. (You must have graduated from an undergraduate program to qualify for graduate school.)
A completed application.
At least one essay. (The university will provide the essay prompt.)
At least one letter of recommendation.
Your professional resume or CV.
Some universities and colleges also require an interview with a faculty member or other university representative before you are admitted. International students may also be required to show financial records to prove they have the resources to fund an American education. If you have further questions about the application process, your Shorelight advisor is available to help you complete your application and can answer any questions you may have.
Is an MBA Worth the Cost?
Compared to an undergraduate business degree holder, an MBA can add 38% more money to your annual salary. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the projected starting salary for a bachelor of business is $58,869 and $75,461 for an MBA. The average tuition cost for the top 25 MBA programs in the United States is more than $50,000 a year.
Should I Work First or Go Right to Grad School?
More than half of all MBA students work before they enroll in a program. An MBA is considered an opportunity to take one’s career prospects to the next professional level. Professional experience is vital for business students and might be a reason to hold off and spend some time in the real world before pursuing a graduate-level degree.
Professional experience also allows business students to see if they like their chosen career path before investing in a graduate degree. According to U.S. News & World Report, the average age of students in full-time MBA programs is 27. These students bring up to 50 months of work experience to grad school.
Some programs, such as the MBA program at the University of Utah, require students to have at least one year of professional experience before enrolling. If you are considering graduate business school straight from college, be sure to research your program’s requirements.
How Can I Save Money and Time While Pursuing My MBA?
If you decide to go directly into a master’s program after graduation, it is worth considering an accelerated or 4+1 program, which allows students to earn an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in business in five years from the same university. Usually, it takes four years to complete your undergraduate education and two years to complete an MBA in the United States. The accelerated program not only cuts out one year of study, but one year of tuition, too.
At Adelphi University, for example, students can choose between three accelerated business programs: BBA in Accounting/MBA Five-Year Program, Bachelor’s Plus One-Year MBA Bachelor’s, and an Accelerated Business of Science Program.
What Is It Like to Study Business at the Graduate Level in the United States?
Graduate-level business school is more than just MBA programs, although they are by far the most popular. Many business master’s degrees focus more on specializations, such as accounting or finance.
Most programs last two years and carry a real cost of more than $260,000, according to Investopedia — once you factor in books, room and board, two years’ tuition, peripheral expenditures such as mandatory computers and class trips, and lost income while in school. There are plenty of part-time and online options that can be less of a financial burden, especially the lost income part of the equation. Be sure to talk with an advisor, current students, and alumni before you decide on a program. A quarter-million dollars is a lot to spend on the wrong program for you!
How Are MBA Programs Structured in the United States?
Similar to other areas of study in the United States, business undergraduate classes rarely go deeply into a specialization. Students receive a broad, well-rounded education, but save the deep focus for graduate school.
What Can I Expect in the First Year of My MBA Program?
MBA programs reassess students’ understanding of core business principles before they focus on electives and specializations. So, these classes cover topics such as organizational behavior, economics, finance, accounting, management, and decision sciences. While these classes may seem basic or even redundant for business undergrads, the speed and volume of work at the graduate level will be much more intense. By the second semester of their first year, MBA students are finishing these core classes and starting their specializations and electives.
Your first semester is also when you will most likely be assigned to a section or cohort. Many business schools in the United States are cohort-oriented, which means, as a student, you are assigned to a group with other classmates. As a cohort, you progress through the curriculum together, work on group projects together, and eventually finish your degree together. Cohorts can be as few as 15 people or much larger. At Harvard Business School, students are placed into cohorts of 90.
How Important Is a Summer Internship While Studying for Your MBA?
Perhaps more than any other field of study, graduate-level business programs require students to find internships when they are not actively studying. Not only do business school graduates with internship experience get hired more quickly, but they also make better starting salaries.
According to a Graduate Management Admissions Council survey, business school graduates who interned reported a 78% increase in salary over their pre-MBA earnings; those without internship experience reported a 50% increase. The same survey also reported a 26% increased job offer rate for graduates with intern experience.
Some programs require an internship, especially for students pursuing their MBA right after they complete their undergraduate studies. Auburn University, for example, recommends a summer internship for all students, but requires one for any student with less than two years of full-time professional experience.
What Can I Expect in the Second Year of My MBA Program?
By the second year of an MBA program, the frantic pace and volume of classwork usually settles down, and students start working on their electives and specializations. It is during the second year that students move from learning to proficiency — or even mastery — of their specialization.
The second year is also an important time to expand your professional network. There are three ways students generally network in business school.
Classmate networking: many students report the work with their cohort builds bonds that extend into professional life. Often, classmates become customers, business partners, and coworkers.
Alumni networking: one of the most important considerations when picking an MBA program is the breadth and accessibility of the alumni network. Second-year MBA students can ask alumni professional and career path questions, and even land interviews and internships through their network.
Professional networking: MBA students know that keeping in touch with that internship manager can often result in a job down the line. During the second year of MBA studies, grad students work to cultivate relationships with previous bosses, coworkers, and managers in hopes of finding work after school.
What Does an MBA Student Class Schedule Look Like?
Classes and curricula vary from school to school, but MBA students can expect courses to move from general to specific and lower level to higher level as they progress. Some schools have prerequisite classes students must take at the beginning of their program; others have required class sequences for MBAs and other business master’s programs. Some programs, such as the MBA program at Auburn University, are only three semesters long, plus a summer internship; others are more than the traditional four semesters.
Here is a look at the University of South Carolina MBA curriculum, which requires students to progress through a sequence of classes. Unlike many other universities, UofSC divides semesters up into seven-week blocks for some classes and uses the full fourteen weeks for others. UofSC also schedules classes in the summer, which many other programs keep open for internship opportunities, and has an additional fall semester at the end, making the program two-and-a-half years long.
First year, first semester
Financial accounting (7 weeks)
Quantitative methods (7 weeks)
Competing through people (14 weeks)
First year, second semester
Managerial accounting (7 weeks)
Financial policies (7 weeks)
Optional immersion elective (14 weeks)
First year, summer semester
Marketing management (7 weeks)
Managerial economics (7 weeks)
Second year, first semester
Operations management (7 weeks)
Elective (7 weeks)
Optional immersion elective (14 weeks)
Second year, second semester
Elective (7 weeks)
Strategic management (7 weeks)
Optional immersion elective (14 weeks)
Second year, summer semester
2 electives (7 weeks)
Third year, first semester
2 electives (7 weeks)
Optional immersion elective (14 weeks)
Are There Other Graduate-Level Business Degrees Besides the MBA?
Graduate-level business schools usually offer more than just MBAs. Students who choose an MBA track are interested in business: they want the flexibility to change specializations, roles, and industries. They are interested in the big picture and aspire to be senior-level management or get hired into executive positions. They may have a generalist business undergraduate degree or a degree in a different area of study altogether.
What Type of Student Gets a Master’s Degree in a Business Subject and Not an MBA?
Students who choose to pursue a master’s degree in a specific business subject, such as accounting, health care administration, or real estate development, are less interested in generalist business learning. These students often have undergraduate degrees in their graduate school specialization. They know what they are interested in and want a thorough, in-depth education in that subject.
An accounting master’s degree candidate, for instance, might be focused on passing the Uniform Certified Public Accountant examination and becoming certified to practice in the US. They do not need to take classes in marketing or managerial economics.
An MBA with a specialization in finance, for instance, means students move through the MBA curriculum with finance courses as their electives. A master’s degree in finance will have a much different, finance-specific curriculum, with fewer generalist business classes.
The length of non-MBA master’s in business programs may vary in length. At the University of Utah, for example, the master of accounting program lasts only nine to twelve months.
Here is a list of some popular master’s degree programs at business schools that are not MBAs:
Health care administration
Supply chain management
Many schools allow you to package an MBA with a different graduate-level degree for further specialization. Students can pursue dual degrees in several different fields, including a dual MBA and Juris Doctor (JD) for law students. Since business principles are applied to every industry and every sector, universities in the United States do their best to create programs for every niche. If you do not see the right one for you, keep looking. Business schools in the United States have programs for every possible career path, from entrepreneurialism to international business law.
Be sure to reach out to your Shorelight advisor to find out more about available programs that fit your interests before you apply.
What Can I Do with a Business Degree?
A master’s degree in business administration is one of the most flexible graduate degrees available. With thousands of different programs, dual degree options, and specializations, students can find the right master’s degree for their career goals.
Here are a few typical jobs for business school students after graduation and beyond:
Computer and Information Systems Manager
Job description: plan, coordinate, and execute software upgrades, network security protocols, and other computer-related technologies
Median salary: $90,000, according to PayScale (2023)
Growth projection: 16% (much faster than average), according to the BLS
Job description: manage investment strategy, produce financial reports, develop plans for long-term financial goals, and dictate the overall financial health of an organization
Median salary: $99,000, according to PayScale (2023)
Growth projection: 17% (much faster than average), according to the BLS
Job description: raise capital for individuals, corporations, and governments from within a financial institution
Median salary: $118,000, according to PayScale (2023)
Growth projection: 10% (faster than average), according to the BLS
Product Marketing Manager
Job description: manage market research, product roadmaps, guide sales, develop messaging, and market positioning
Median salary: $96,000, according to PayScale (2023)
Growth projection: 10% (faster than average), according to the BLS
What Do Employers Look for in Business School Graduates?
Business degree holders have versatile and transferable skills employers are looking for. However, some skills are easier to recruit than others. According to a 2020 McKinsey survey, the number of companies prioritizing soft skills that relate to interpersonal relationships and empathy have doubled. These skills include:
Ability to work with a broad group of people
Time management and prioritization
Complex problem solving
Of course, hard skills are still essential to employers. (After all, you do not want an accountant who does not know math!) 75% of LinkedIn employers say that finding the right mix of hard and soft skills is difficult. The difference for employers is that most hard skills are much easier to find. Similarly, teamwork, a soft skill, is vital to employers, but is easy to find in candidates. The hardest skills to find, according to employers, are:
Ability to influence others
Drive and resilience
Big data analysis
Ability to solve complex problems
Finding a great job after graduation will likely require developing some or all of these essential and hard-to-recruit skill sets. Look for internship opportunities, clubs, and student organizations, projects, and group work that will help you develop these skills, and you will be in demand after graduation.
Why Study Business in the United States
According to U.S. News & World Report, 19 of the top 25 global universities for business and economics are located in the United States. With more than one million international students studying in the United States, no other country can offer as rich of a global perspective.
Additionally, around 30% of the world’s largest public companies are also based in the United States. So, students benefit from diverse employment and internship options, with both innovative startup companies and long-established industry leaders.
Before you decide on a business program, take your time and explore your options. With so many different degrees, specializations, and learning styles, it is essential to research and find what works best for you. Spend some time looking for job openings in your home country and abroad, too — as it is also important to choose a business specialization with favorable prospects in the country where you intend to live.
Most importantly, remember to listen to yourself and keep your long-term goals in mind.
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