Differences between N. American and European MBAs: a guide for Europeans

By - Oct 21, 10:00 AM Comments [0]

US and European business schools have been competing for top MBA applicants for a long time. For US schools, one of their strongest selling points has always been the MBA rankings; a domain where they have traditionally ruled. That is, until The Financial Times gave its coveted number one spot to London Business School in its FT 2010 Global Rating Report. While rankings vary and are open to debate, there is no question that European b-schools are on the rise.

According to the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), Europe, largely represented by Western European countries, was the only region where more full-time MBA programs reported stronger application volume in 2009 compared with 2008. Shorter program length, lower tuition fees, an international environment, and, for Europeans at least, no visa hassle have all played a role in this surge. Even post-grad stats were looking good with a greater percentage of European MBA grads (85%) finding employment within three months than their US counterparts (79%) [1].

However, recent economic woes in Europe and a more positive job outlook in the US MBA job market could make an American MBA more attractive to European applicants. MBA Spain and ZoomInterviews explored what US business schools offer Europeans and what they are doing to attract more top MBA applicants from Europe.

Going beyond rankings and statistics, what are the real differences between European and US MBA programs?

The most obvious differentiator is length. European b-schools have heralded the shorter program--from INSEAD’s intensive 10-month MBA to London Business School’s flexible 15 - 21-month program. In contrast, two years is the norm at top US b-schools. Despite what some applicants may think, required curriculums at both one- and two-year programs are comparable in terms of course content. Of course, you’ll be cramming all that knowledge into a much shorter time period. This means that European MBAs tend to be much more intensive than US programs. In terms of extra-curriculars such as clubs or even social life, while they do exist in European programs (INSEAD’s Chateau parties in Fonty are legendary), candidates may find themselves with very little free time to take advantage of them.

Shorter programs also bring up the question of how students can truly take advantage of an MBA in one year or less. Work experience is one answer. The average career length for entering European MBA candidates is over five years compared to under four for US candidates. Greater time spent in the work force equips European b-school students with the business fundamentals necessary to succeed in the intense shorter MBA programs.

The shorter program also means applicants can get back to work sooner--a key concern for those returning to their company or remaining in the same field. In addition, for many applicants, the main advantage of a shorter MBA program is money. Although tuition and living expenses can be comparable between the top US and European schools, in a European program you are only out of a salary for one year--that can make a big difference in your final MBA costs.

Another key difference is international diversity. Though many US b-school curriculums emphasize international courses and a global perspective, the reality is that the student bodies in US programs tend to be mainly made up of actual US bodies. European b-schools seem like the U.N. in comparison. International students at IESE account for 80% of the student body, London Business School also boasts 80%, and INSEAD with 92% promises that no more than two people from a single nationality will be represented in any study group. For MBA candidates committed to international careers, the diversity offered at European schools is a big plus, not only for the cross-cultural experience they offer, but also the worldwide alumni networks they become a part of.

Despite the advantages of a European program, US business schools still maintain not only the bulk of the top spots in the rankings, but also a long-standing reputation as premiere business training grounds--after all the MBA was invented in the USA. Yet only 12% of Harvard Business School’s 2010 class entrants were from Europe, 8% for Chicago Booth and 6% for Northwestern Kellogg. So why aren’t more Europeans flocking to US programs? Rose Martinelli, until recently long-time Chicago Booth School of Business Dean of Admissions and currently Assistant Vice President for Enrollment at the University of Chicago spoke to us about this question and more.

Beyond demographical factors such as Europe’s lower population numbers, Ms. Martinelli pointed out that location is a driving factor--it is simply easier, geographically, economically, and from a bureaucratic point of view (no visa required), for Europeans to attend a European school. She also conceded that cost can be a major influence, however pointed out that cost disadvantages may not be as big as many applicants think. “At Chicago Booth, for example, students can speed up their MBA from 6 quarters to 4, reducing the overall costs.” In addition, US MBA programs, including Booth, offer merit scholarships to high-performing European applicants which can reduce the cost differences even further or in some lucky cases, make an American MBA a profitable venture.

While location and cost are indeed big concerns, Ms. Martinelli says that US business schools offer invaluable experiences not often found in European programs. Enrollments in US business schools are bigger than European business schools which creates more diversity in the classroom in terms of backgrounds and experiences. They also offer a greater number of extracurricular activities including laboratories, special projects, seminars, and professional and leisure clubs. The top US b-schools are also attached to well-endowed universities allowing MBA students to tap into subjects as diverse as architecture, engineering and public policy.

The longer length of the program also allows students to really specialize in the areas of their interest and truly explore exactly what they want to do when they graduate. They can try out the entrepreneurship ideas of their dreams, participate in consulting projects, and chose from a dizzying array of electives. US b-schools also let students experiment with different careers through their internships before committing themselves to full-time opportunities.

Many European applicants choose a US b-school as a way to access a job in the United States. Despite the negative effects of the financial crisis on recent MBA grads, according to Ms. Martinelli, European students are very sought after in the US. They offer diversity and language skills which are highly valued by US-based international companies. From a recruiting standpoint, she also notes that many European grads tend to perform well in the recruiting process.

But what do European students have to say about all this? We asked two recent MBA grads, Santiago from Spain (Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley) and Joanna from Poland (Chicago Booth) to share their experiences.

According to Santiago, the US is at the forefront of new business practices. Studying at Haas put Santiago in the very middle of that environment of change and innovation, right next to Silicon Valley. With unprecedented access to world leading tech companies, Santiago and his classmates had internships and interactions with Google, Facebook and a host of dynamic tech start-ups. These exposures could not have happened in Europe and made his MBA much more meaningful.

Joanna likes the fact that US business schools have more experience in business education than European schools. Her two-year program at Booth exposed her to multiple educational, networking and employment opportunities which don’t necessary exist in Europe. Another important aspect for her was the opportunity to gain work experience through the summer internship. She concluded that for anyone interested in getting job experience in the US, American b-schools should be a natural choice.

While European and US business schools each have their own advantages and drawbacks, deciding where to study an MBA is a very individual choice. Important considerations such as school location, geographical preference of your post MBA career, career perspectives, expense, length of program and degree of access to extracurricular activities, should rightly be defined by the MBA applicant. Oh, one thing you needn’t worry about: post MBA-salaries. For the top schools, European and American, post-grad salaries are comparable [2].


[1] Based on calculations of the top 15 US and European MBA programs as rated by the FT 2010 Global Rating Report

[2] FT, Global MBA Ranking 2010

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