How to Choose MBA Elective Courses

If selected properly, business school electives can help prepare students for their future careers

By Menachem Wecker
Posted 2013

When promoting their elective courses, some MBA programs appear to subscribe to the belief that bigger is better. The University of Pennsylvania Wharton School's website refers to the "unmatched scope" of its "nearly 200 electives," which it says constitutes the most electives of any b-school. But about 100 miles northeast of Wharton, Columbia Business School heralds its "more than 200 offerings" as "one of the largest and most innovative slates of electives at any business school" on its website.

"It's just like if you're going to go buy socks, or a house, or anything; more choice is better," says James Dean, the dean of the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School, which has more than 125 electives, according to its website. But however exhaustive MBA course catalogs are, students—particularly those who spend a semester on an exchange program abroad—can only take a limited number of courses, Dean adds.

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Although there is some variation, business schools' curricula tend to consist of required courses during the first semester, and thereafter, students choose from electives, which tend to be narrower in focus and can get as granular as "derivatives, and advanced derivatives, and advanced, advanced derivatives," according to Dean.

Many students tend to focus too much on the short term when they select electives, Dean warns. For example, finance courses may serve students well initially, but as they climb the executive ladder, technical issues recede in the background and training in leadership and management becomes more important, he says.

"I've had many, many students say [that] looking back, 10, 15, 20 years after the degree, they wish they had paid more attention [to] and taken more seriously the whole idea of leadership and organizational change," Dean says.

Leadership and management courses were among the best classes that Mandee Heller Adler took as an MBA student at Harvard Business School. "Most skills can be learned on the job, but how to deal with people can never be underestimated," says Adler, founder and principal of International College Counselors, an admissions consultancy in Hollywood, Fla.

Other MBAs and professors advise graduate business students to pursue electives focused on the following areas.

1. Globalization: "Because most U.S. MBA programs still approach business education from a very U.S.-centric point of view, I always encourage business students to take elective courses that expand their geographic scope," says Duncan McCampbell, a professor and director of the MBA program at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn. Those electives might include global management, global technology management and international legal and regulatory compliance, he notes.

2. Presentation skills: Deborah Grayson Riegel's MBA students at the two schools she teaches at—Fordham University's School of Business Administration in New York and Beijing's Peking University—find her course on presentation tips so important that they tell her it should be a requirement for all MBA students, says Riegel, president of Elevated Training, a consultancy in New York.

Students can benefit from learning these skills in the classroom, which is a lower-risk environment than the business world, and where they can observe classmates and receive feedback. "Most business people are mediocre presenters, so there isn't a lot of excellent modeling in the corporate world," she adds.

3. Ethics: Students would also be wise to take courses in ethics, according to Bethel's McCampbell. "How can so many top business programs still be ambivalent about formally and aggressively addressing business ethics?" he asks.

Whereas companies used to subscribe to the old paradigm that all was well and good in business if shareholders were happy and no laws were broken, the new direction is about "professionalizing" business practices and considering more ethical ones, he adds.

4. Nonprofit management: Even students who aren't necessarily considering nonprofit management can benefit from coursework in the area of fundraising and nonprofit finance, says Michael Montgomery, principal consultant of Montgomery Consulting in Detroit.

Nonprofit management training "equips people to do as much, if not more, with less," adds Montgomery, an adjunct management professor at Lawrence Technological University. "That's [a] great background to take into smaller companies or entrepreneurship."

5. Preparation for entrepreneurs: Efua Mensah-Brown, a 2011 MBA grad from University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, says she "accidentally" took taxes and business strategy as an elective. Although that's not generally considered a must-take class, it can help aspiring entrepreneurs better understand things like tax write-offs, says Brown, who is founding the clothing label, Proverbs By Efua, which she says will use its net profits to fight human trafficking.

Budding entrepreneurs might also consider enrolling in an elective course like "Founders' Dilemma," which Kaneisha Grayson took as a student at Harvard, where she earned her MBA as well as a graduate degree from the Kennedy School of Government.

Grayson, who runs the admissions consultancy Love & Achievement, says the course taught her everything about starting a company, from how to convince a significant other to support one's entrepreneurial ambitions to how to decide whether to launch a solo venture or a larger company.

"One of the most important lessons I learned is that as an entrepreneur, I care more about control than wealth," she says. "Most entrepreneurs hope to be able to do both, but by centering my decisions on one rather than trying to juggle both, I am able to run my business in a way that is in sync with my deepest motivations."

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