So, you’re considering an EMBA?
Congratulations on considering this next step in your educational and professional journey!
Still, the road to an EMBA acceptance can be complicated and unwieldy – especially if you’ve been out of the school-loop for a long time. But on the plus side, I’ve worked with so many clients who have not only found the acceptance thrilling, but also found the application process illuminating as they reflect on their careers, their lives, and their goals.
This ultimate guide for EMBA applicants covers these topics:
- What is an Executive MBA?
- A closer look at 5 top EMBA programs
- Top EMBA program stats
- What do EMBA program adcoms look for in applicants?
- Getting started on your EMBA applications
- How to distinguish yourself through your admissions essays
- Tips for securing strong EMBA recommendation letters
- EMBA interview advice
What is an Executive MBA?
A little background:
Essentially, any type of MBA is a graduate program in business administration for professionals who seek knowledge, skills, a credential, and/or a network to advance in their careers and to maximize their business performance.
Executive MBA (EMBA) programs are MBA programs targeting seasoned managers and entrepreneurs, typically in their mid-thirties to late-forties (depending on the program) whose rise to senior manager level is imminent, or who are already in senior management, or whose entrepreneurial venture is set to “scale” to a level requiring formal management expertise.
Almost all EMBA programs are part-time programs, but they vary in terms of desired or required length of experience. While coursework covers the same topics as regular MBA programs, it’s developed and presented with the higher-level perspective.
A great benefit of EMBA programs is the chance to network and form relationships with peers from a variety of industries and functions at a career point when a fresh perspective is highly valuable. These programs don’t target career changers but are increasingly used for that purpose and are open to it.
Like everything in life, EMBA programs have their pros:
- Students can apply learning immediately at work.
- The breadth of exposure is valuable at a pivotal professional moment.
- Valuable credential – having the graduate business degree on your resume will enhance your stature and value in the eyes of future employers, customers, and business partners.
- For EMBA students who are working for an employer, having the degree may open the door to faster and/or higher promotions and therefore enhanced earning power.
- These programs facilitate moves from a technical management role to a general management role.
And EMBA programs have their cons:
- There’s the challenge of simultaneously handling school plus a demanding career and personal/family responsibilities.
- For EMBA programs, there’s usually no formal recruiting for career changers.
- These programs tend to be expensive, so it’s important to accurately assess the potential value and understand your motivations for pursuing the degree.
MBA vs. EMBA
In a recent podcast episode dedicated to EMBA admissions, Linda Abraham posed the question: “Let’s say I’m in my early- to mid-30s; I’m in middle management; and have c-suite ambitions. I have a fairly strong technical background. Should I apply for an MBA or an EMBA and why?”
Watch the video below for the 2-minute answer:
Types of EMBA programs
Once upon a time, pre-Y2K (you might have to be EMBA-age to even know what that means), EMBA programs primarily targeted and attracted managers working in established corporations – some top EMBA programs even required full company funding. It’s a completely different EMBA world now
Today, many, if not most, EMBA programs offer multiple options for program schedules and formats, have satellite campuses, target geographically dispersed students, provide some form of global opportunities (which in turn often involve multi-program collaborations), accept and provide options for self-funding, and welcome entrepreneurs. Given the increasing number of EMBA programs that offer spread-out schedules for the on-campus segments, applicants can pursue programs beyond their immediate locale.
A perfect example: The Kellogg EMBA program has a Miami campus as well as its home base in Evanston, outside Chicago. The Miami program meets 1x/month and the Evanston program 2x/month, each with different class schedules and “intensive weeks.”
Another trend noted above: partnering among global EMBA programs to provide a global education. For example:
- OneMBA partners with Erasmus University in Rotterdam as well as business programs in Mexico, Brazil, and Hong Kong.
- The EMBA-Global is a partnership among Columbia University, London Business School, and Hong Kong University.
And these are just two of many!
While it is exciting to have so many appealing options to choose from, this variety also means it’s important to (a) do up-front research to understand exactly which programs are the right fit for you and why, and (b) articulate in your essays (and interviews) your fit for each particular program.
There also is one more option, and it’s narrow and highly competitive. That is the full-time, one-year executive level programs at London Business School (Sloan Masters in Leadership and Strategy), MIT Sloan (Sloan Fellows MBA), and Stanford (the MSx program). Of course, the full-time nature of these programs limits their feasibility for the vast majority of prospective EMBA applicants. But for those who can take a year for an intensive, immersive, transformative experience, they’re outstanding. They all are extremely selective, feature a highly accomplished global student body, and seek to train leaders who will shape their domains.
Top EMBA programs
Let’s zoom- in on several EMBA programs to see what commonalities exist among top programs and how such programs also have unique “personalities.” Understanding these points is critical to creating the most effective applications, ones that show fit with both the overarching purpose of the EMBA and each specific program’s culture and values.
I’m focusing on five programs – three US programs and two global/European programs. All these programs will appear in the top tiers of any reputable EMBA ranking, and they also have been consistently among the top preferences among my many highly accomplished EMBA clients over the past two decades. The US programs are MIT, Kellogg, and Wharton. The global programs are LBS and INSEAD.
A couple of points of context: 1) The US-based programs have many international students, address global business issues, and some have overseas components, but remain fundamentally US-centric. 2) The two European programs, while based in the UK and continental Europe, are not Europe-focused but rather truly globally focused.
A highly competitive EMBA program with sites on east and west coasts (Philly and San Francisco) known for its flexible, comprehensive program, outstanding global network, and engaged alumni. With a basic schedule of every-other-weekend, the program attracts top talent in each region. Both sites have highly diverse student bodies, which tend to be favored by dominant local industries/sectors (e.g., many finance and pharma professionals on the east coast; many IT and healthcare professionals on the west coast). Entrepreneurs are a strong presence in both programs, but particularly in California.
Wharton EMBA students tend to form close relationships with each other and to stay involved through Wharton’s many lifelong learning opportunities (including a Global Forum).
The Kellogg EMBA is renowned for its emphasis on management training – and the program seeks candidates who already have some “seasoning” as managers. Kellogg is where they go to master the art and science of management. They acquire the know-how to manage complex organizations, manage change, manage people, manage in uncertainty, and manage their own career trajectories.
The program features two campuses: one outside Chicago (Evansville, IL), which meets twice monthly, and one in Miami, FL, which meets once monthly, and which therefore draws a more international mix with its close connection to Latin America.
Kellogg EMBA students are functionally diverse, with strong representation from healthcare, finance, tech, consumer products and, interestingly, government/nonprofit.
Now nine years old, the MIT EMBA commenced in 2011 and rapidly became one of the leading programs domestically and internationally. The program seeks experienced managers and entrepreneurs who have intellectual agility, inspire with vision, embrace change, execute for impact, and work skillfully with people. Beyond teaching requisite management and leadership skills, the program aims to provide a transformative experience for students that goes deeper than the skills level. Hence, MIT Sloan admits applicants who will be open and able to take full advantage of the cutting-edge resources in management, innovation, decision-making, and sustainability.
The website says, “The instinct for invention and reinvention is deeply embedded in the culture,” and the successful applicants I’ve worked with every year since the program’s inception show in their applications that they get this.
Considering MIT Sloan?
To meet the needs and interests of hard-working, rapidly advancing business professionals from all over the world, this top EMBA program has created a modular approach that is executed across three global campuses: France (Fontainebleau, outside Paris), Singapore, and Abu Dhabi. One of its four admissions criteria is International Outlook. This means more than overseas experience; it means that a multicultural, global dynamic informs your perspective. This criterion mirrors the program’s International Outlook – implemented through both program structure and classroom approach.
While classes are in English, native English speakers must demonstrate basic proficiency in a second language to graduate. However, most INSEAD EMBA students speak at least two languages and often more.
Overall, the program attracts a cosmopolitan, cultivated student body – all my clients who have attended this program have lived in multiple countries and spoke multiple languages.
With a deep focus on the practice of leadership and management, this program is targeted to people preparing to advance to senior management in an established company or to lead their own growing venture. Its two campuses are in London and Dubai; it is fully global in terms of student nationality, and it features a Global Business Assignment to further emphasize and hone global competence.
LBS EMBA has a keen, practical focus on career management – it offers one of the most intensive and comprehensive career development approaches in the EMBA realm, with four major components: executive coaching sessions, professional development sessions, career development sessions, and career coaching sessions.
Top EMBA program stats
|EMBA program||Class size||Avg. age||Avg. work experience
|Columbia Business School (Friday/Saturday class)||146 (in two clusters)||33||9|
|Cornell Johnson EMBA (Metro NY class)||75||36||12|
|IMD Executive MBA||40||15|
|London Business School EMBA||80 (London)|
|Michigan Ross EMBA||114 (Ann Arbor + Los Angeles)||39||14|
|MIT Sloan Fellows||104||14|
|MIT Sloan Executive MBA||126||41||17|
|Northwestern Kellogg||65-75 (Evanston)|
|UC Berkeley Haas EMBA||68||37 (median)||12|
|UVA Darden Executive MBA||139||34||12|
|Yale SOM Executive MBA||74||37||13|
5 key qualifying factors EMBA program adcoms look for in applicants
As you explore the options and decide which programs you’ll apply to, keep in mind several “qualifying” factors that EMBA admissions committees want to see in you, the applicant. These factors will put you in the running for consideration; they’ll make you a viable candidate. They are elaborated below.
5 questions to address in your EMBA application
- Do you understand the demands of studying while working, and do you have a workable plan for fitting the EMBA into your life?
- Do you have the right level and amount of experience to fit the program (both its student body and its coursework)?
- Will you contribute to the program (professionally and/or personally, during and after)?
- Do you have the knowledge and skills to succeed in the EMBA academic program?
- Are your goals credible, and do they contain the right blend of feasibility and ambition?
Throughout the application, but primarily through the essay(s), address these key questions:
Are your goals credible, and do they contain the right blend of feasibility and ambition?
Appropriate goals will place you within senior management, since presumably you are already at the mid-management level or higher (or a comparable position) if you work for a company. If you are an entrepreneur/business owner, your goals should clarify not only your plans for the business, but also how you envision your own role evolving and growing as the business grows.
All EMBA applications (that I have seen, and they are many) require a goals essay or a similar Statement of Purpose/Intent. Be prepared to discuss your immediate/short-term, intermediate, and long-term goals. Not all goals essays ask for this breakdown, but many do – and even if a question doesn’t ask for it, it will hardly hurt to present such a progression, appropriately, for context. Having it clarified in your own mind helps you contextualize the phase you are addressing in the essay.
Do you have the knowledge and skills to succeed in the EMBA academic program?
Even if your goals are credible and appropriate, you will need a fundamental familiarity with business operations plus quantitative skills to handle the coursework. Undergrad and/or grad transcripts will cover the quant aspect.
But for EMBA applicants who come from non-business sectors – education, government, clinical medicine, and nonprofit are not uncommon – you have a higher burden to (a) make the case that you need business training, specifically, to achieve your goals and (b) that you understand and will make productive use of graduate level business education. You can ask your recommenders to address this point and you can work it into your essays.
For those who lack quant coursework, I suggest taking a reputable online college course – and earn an A, obviously! Also, if you are taking a standardized test (not all EMBA programs require them), a relatively high quant score will mitigate this gap.
Will you contribute to the program (professionally and/or personally, during and after)?
This is a three-pronged point: (A) Does the quality of your experience make it a potentially rich and valuable resource for you to draw from as a student in the classroom and on learning teams? (B) Do you have something to say – i.e., do you draw insight and meaning from that experience, and can you communicate it effectively? (C) Are you a team player/collaborator?
EMBA programs are learning communities and thus require willing contribution from students. While your recommendations can and should shed light on this point, your essays will be the primary vehicle to communicate your prospective contributions both as a student and as an alumnus/a.
Do you have the right level and amount of experience to fit the program (both its student body and its coursework)?
EMBA programs and their various sub-programs/options are usually looking for specific amounts and levels of experience. And these two items – amount and level – are interrelated.
As for amount – some EMBA programs are open to “younger” applicants, in their early thirties, while some have more stringent experience requirements or preferences, seeking candidates in their late-thirties/early-forties. Look at the average ages and experience levels in the student profiles, and also probe programs’ websites for a “what we look for” section, usually in the admissions tab.
As for quality, that should always include being a high performer – that you excel among accomplished peers. Aside from that, “quality” is open-ended, and it will vary person to person greatly. It combines being impressive in some way and standing out in some way. For one person, it might be guiding your team or department through organizational or industry volatility; for another it might be innovative leadership in a matrix organization; for another it might be starting up a business or a division in a developing region. Examine your own experience and determine what is most impressive, interesting, meaningful, and illuminating about it. That will reflect its quality.
Do you understand the demands of studying while working, and do you have a workable plan for fitting the EMBA into your life?
Some EMBA applications have an essay question specifically on this point. The last thing the adcoms want is for someone to leave the program before completion, or to attend without being a full participant in the learning community. And it’s very easy to underestimate the demands of studying and contributing while maintaining one’s professional and personal responsibilities. Whether in an essay or during the interview, demonstrate your time management skills and show that you have juggled multiple responsibilities effectively.
What are your career service needs?
Given today’s volatile business climate, almost everyone in the business world must continuously evaluate their career path, whether they are planning an imminent change or not. It’s an ongoing part of being a business professional. EMBA applicants who aren’t planning a career change still know that their well-laid plans can blow apart in an instant. And, increasingly, applicants are pursuing an EMBA specifically to facilitate a career transition.
To address this trend, EMBA programs have beefed up their EMBA career services. Almost all EMBA programs now offer career counseling and services.
These services include various types of career coaching, self-assessments, alumni networking and events, etc. While career services are common among EMBA programs, the line is often drawn at regular recruiting (a major draw of regular MBA programs).
Before putting all the effort into applying, if this factor is important to you, look closely at each program’s offerings.
Getting going: Applying to EMBA programs
The fun begins! Once you decide to go ahead with applying to EMBA programs, I suggest keeping a steady momentum if possible – staying engaged will enhance the quality of your application and also will enable you to – yes – enjoy the process because you will be taking concrete steps toward an exciting experience and impactful career growth.
There are some specific preparation steps EMBA applicants should take:
- Plan to request scheduling accommodations for your EMBA.
You will likely need a company sponsorship letter (more about this below) agreeing to time accommodations even if the company isn’t offering financial sponsorship. For some applicants this is a “slam dunk” because their company regularly sponsors EMBA applicants. For others, it takes some strategy and convincing. If you’re in the latter category, start strategizing and planning now to make your case to the decision-maker. I’ve seen people finish the whole application and then face a red light at this very stage. Many EMBA websites have advice for applicants on how to make the case to their employers for the needed schedule adjustments.
- Sketch out concrete plans to carve out time for school in your schedule.
Even if you plan to attend a weekend-only program, and even if you are without major personal obligations, you still can’t just add hours to a week on top of your current schedule without any change (and maintain excellence). Moreover, this accommodation may take some sensitive planning since it almost certainly involves other people. (Sometimes this can be a “plus” for subordinates; if you must delegate more, they gain the opportunity to shoulder higher level responsibilities.) For your own sake and for the sake of your application (as you may have to explain this in an essay or interview), start this planning now.
- Make sure your recommenders and you are on the same page about your future.
If you’re planning to stay with your current company throughout and after your MBA, your goals will necessarily include it. Sometimes, recommenders comment on your future career (either on their own initiative or in response to a question). It’s not too great if your and your recommender’s ideas about your career differ!
- Identify elements of your work that differentiate you and that will allow you to contribute distinctively to class discussions.
Your current work scenario, and your work situation over the next one to two years, is what you will directly bring to the EMBA table. Look at your experience from the perspective of someone outside it; what would be most interesting and relevant? Plan to integrate those points into your application, in the essays, resume, and interview.
- Review the standardized test requirements of your target EMBA programs and start lining up undergrad (and grad if any) transcripts.
The transcripts are straightforward. As for the test – most EMBA programs now accept the Executive Assessment (EA), a shorter test than the GMAT or GRE. And, happily, many top-notch EMBA programs require no standardized test, including MIT, Kellogg, and Michigan Ross. If your target programs do require a test, definitely try some practice tests and put prep time in if you need a good score (say, if you have a low undergrad GPA) or if you are really rusty at tests. Check the average or median scores for your target programs to have a sense of where you fit in that range and/or how much you must prepare to achieve a satisfactory score for your unique situation.
Watch: An EMBA student talks about the challenges of procuring EMBA letters of recommendation:
A word on company sponsorship requirements/expectations
EMBA programs usually require the applicants’ employers to sponsor the applicants’ time in the EMBA program (since many require some Fridays off, for example). But sponsorship can range from paying 100% of the tuition (rare) to accommodating the applicant’s need to take time off from work (almost universal).
The vast majority of EMBA programs that require the employer to provide a statement of support for the applicant’s EMBA plans take this factor seriously. Here is MIT EMBA’s sponsorship requirement: “We consider corporate sponsorship of the time requirement to be critical. In your application package, one of your recommenders should be from your boss, and address the topic of time sponsorship.”
Financial sponsorship can still be a competitive plus for applicants, because it underscores your value and high potential in the organization’s eyes. But not having it is not a negative factor.
If you’re an entrepreneur, you basically sponsor yourself – therefore you must indicate how you’ll accommodate the time requirements within the context of your own organization.
It sometimes happens that regularly employed applicants who are eligible for financial sponsorship may prefer to self-fund, because they do not want to be beholden to their organization but instead be free to pursue other options. Indeed, having time sponsored can create an obligation on the applicant’s part. If that’s not desired, EMBA programs (such as Columbia University’s) that offer a Saturday- or weekend-only option may be appealing.
Differentiating and distinguishing yourself: Essays are key
After determining your schools of interest and your qualifications for those schools comes the biggest challenge: differentiating and distinguishing yourself. You must show your uniqueness and value as an applicant in a way that is relevant to the EMBA program. Essentially, you’re giving the adcom the reason to select you out of other highly qualified, accomplished peers in similar industry, functional, and demographic groups.
While some differentiating factors might be apparent from your resume, e.g., if you work in an industry or function that is relatively underrepresented, the essays are where you can most vividly portray your distinctiveness.
There are three key avenues for differentiating yourself:
- Distinctive factual points
These are the unique facts of your experience, such as industry niche, pertinent experience like managing through a global merger, special challenges like dealing with heavily regulated industries, or an unusual organizational structure.
How do you determine whether an aspect of your experience is a differentiating factor? Dig past the topsoil. For example, it’s likely in any top EMBA program that a good percentage of students will come from the consulting industry, and so it may not seem like much of a differentiator. But going deeper into your consulting experience for the specifics – e.g., you consult on IT strategy for the defense sector – you’ll find details that are differentiating.
To get the most mileage out of a differentiating factor, don’t just state the fact in your essays, but also provide illustrative detail and anecdote to truly show how it is special, different and relevant (let the reader really see it).
- Your individual perspective
Individual perspective is inherently differentiating. In most essays you will reflect on your experiences to some extent. When doing so, don’t just highlight the facts and accomplishments – but also identify the key learning, growth, and/or insight you gained from each change or important event; and clarify your decision process when taking career steps. This individual view is naturally unique, even if the experience you are describing may seem commonplace. Do keep such perspective relevant; for maximum impact, it should align with your decision making vis-à-vis your career path and/or goals.
- Your goals
The goals essay will be the backbone of your application. (Rather than a specific goals essay, some EMBA applications feature a Statement of Purpose or Statement of Intent, which typically will also include some goals discussion.)
Depending on the wording of the goals essay question, for each phase of your goals addressed, discuss:
(a) What you expect to do at that level
(b) How you hope to grow
(c) Most important – what you hope to accomplish (for the company and/or industry and/or market and/or consumers and/or community, etc. – this is about external, real-world impact)
The last point (c) is most important because it’s what will get the adcom rooting for you.
Provide specifics: titles or positions, specific markets, likely number of people to manage, budget size or P&L responsibility, etc. Also describe how each given step builds on your previous experience.
How do you make your goals do “extra duty” by differentiating you? Through the vision for what you want to achieve, what impact you want to have – it goes back to that last point (c) above. While other candidates may present similar goals, only you will present your specific vision. For example, if your goal is to become a senior manager at a major pharmaceutical firm, don’t just explain why this is a logical and likely step. Get the reader excited about what you want to make happen through that role.
In summary, for powerful goals essays, keep three short words in mind: what, how, and why.
For more advice on how to write your school-specific EMBA application essays, click here!
EMBA recommendations tend to be on the shorter side – considering they are written by very busy people fairly high up the ladder.
Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your recommendations overall:
- Select people who really know you and can write meaningfully about your performance and contributions – better your direct supervisor in most cases than a higher-level exec just for the fancy title.
- Give your recommenders a link to the program, especially to the program’s website page that discusses the desired attributes and what they look for in students. This will help the recommender identify the most relevant points to discuss that will enhance your profile for that program. (At this level, they should not be saying things like “hard worker”!)
- Be available to answer any questions they may have about your plans for the program, the application process, etc.
If you are working for an employer, the recommender may discuss your career development plan within the company, anticipated future roles/positions, and why you are targeted for those positions. (As noted above, these must be consistent with your own stated goals!) You should be shown to be a high-performing, high-impact contributor who stands out from your accomplished peers.
If you are an entrepreneur, you may have some special challenges, since you don’t have supervisors or superiors. Depending on your business, you may use company peers, business partners, customers, and those of similar relationships as your recommenders. I have even seen some of my entrepreneur clients (who were accepted at top EMBA programs) use immediate subordinates – while this wouldn’t be my ideal approach, it can work if done credibly – that mean not just that the recommender is credible but that the applicant presents a candidacy that conveys credibility and integrity.
Your EMBA interview
It’s probably been quite a while since you’ve interviewed – as the interviewee. Therefore, the unfamiliarity with the situation may trigger nerves, even though overall your interpersonal skills are top-notch. Moreover, if you’re applying to only one or two programs, each interview holds great weight – there’s no room for error!
These factors make it all the more important to prep and practice for your EMBA interview. Here are some considerations and tips that I use when coaching EMBA applicants for interviews.
- At what point in the EMBA admissions process will you interview?
This will affect your approach and preparation. If you interview before submitting your application, don’t just jump into it without thinking through your “story” and your goals. What you write later in the application must align with what you say initially. If you interview after submitting, you’re immersed in your story and goals from the app writing process. Be careful not to sound like you’re reciting your application – your challenge here is to be fresh and engaged.
- Blind interview or not?
In a blind interview, your interviewer has not read your application, only possibly your resume. For blind interviews, you’re essentially a blank slate to the interviewer. Your challenge is to impart a vivid, appealing impression that will leave the interviewer enthusiastic. If you’ve completed your application, you can use examples and stories in it, because they will be new to the interviewer. For non-blind interviews, expect questions probing your application, and do not repeat examples from your application; have some new stories/anecdotes.
- Types of questions to prepare for
You should be ready for anything. Still, there are types of questions that often are asked.
- Open questions such as “So, tell me about yourself” or “Please walk me through your resume” are common as openers. Actually, I suggest always preparing a “Tell me about yourself” reply – it requires you to identify key points about your candidacy, which helps you strategize overall. It’s a great interview prep exercise.
- Since EMBAs are part-time programs, expect a question about how you will balance and fit school into your work and life – be specific.
- For questions like “What is your leadership style” or “What are your strengths and weaknesses as a manager” don’t just explain, but also give a brief example. Find examples/stories that show you in a high-level role and/or dealing with high stakes issues.
- There may be behavioral questions such as: “Describe a time when…” These are essentially stories. Answer with enough detail to make the story meaningful and interesting but not too long. Ideally, select stories that reflect higher level, higher stakes situations.
- Goals questions: Be consistent with your application, and indicate why you want to pursue that path – your motivation.
- Why the program, why an MBA: Let your enthusiasm for the program show! Cite program details and connect the program to your goals and professional growth needs. If it’s a non-blind interview, bring in some fresh points.
Beyond these, there are often questions about your industry, your function, your work culture, etc.
With these factors in mind, strategize before the interview: Think about your candidacy and what further points you want to make, and then during the interview try to weave those points into your discussion. Use your social and emotional IQ to nudge the interview toward dialogue, rather than just interrogation style Q&A. Most EMBA interviews are probing but also enjoyable dialogues – you will do best if you look forward to an interesting conversation!
You can prepare for your EMBA interview by teaming up with me or another one of Accepted’s consultants. Just a few mock interviews with a pro will give you the tools you need to walk into that interview with confidence, poise, and plenty of ammunition to launch a real dialogue with your interviewer.
Last but not least…
If that last point above got you thinking that you could use some guidance and support in making your case as compelling as possible, you are wise. 😉 That is exactly why I am here! For over 20+ years, I’ve helped hundreds of EMBA applicants gain admission to the most competitive and coveted EMBA programs all over the world. If you would like my or my colleagues’ support in your EMBA journey, please get in touch!Want Cindy to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!