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US vs. European MBA Programs: The 7 Key Differences

As the former Director of Admissions at INSEAD, I often get asked about how an MBA at a top international school is different from a top US school. It’s a great question. There are many commonalities between such schools – you’ll find a similar curriculum, top notch professors, access to outstanding job opportunities, as well as a network of successful alumni who can be a great resource to you throughout your career. However, there are also some key differences. Here are the most important ones you should keep in mind: 

Duration and Structure

One of the most significant differences is the typical duration of programs. US MBAs typically last two years, while European programs are often shorter, mostly 12 months (with some notable exceptions, like London Business School and IESE in Barcelona). The one-year MBA program was in fact invented in Europe: INSEAD pioneered the one-year format when the school was founded more than 60 years ago. (I should mention that INSEAD is not a European school but a global school, given that the school’s MBA program runs in parallel on INSEAD’s campuses in France and Singapore.) 

There are pros and cons of one- versus two-year MBA programs. A two-year program gives students ample time to explore different interests at a pace that is less intense than a one-year program. It means that you will have a bit more downtime during the program, and you can take more time to figure out what you want to do post-MBA. It also gives you a long summer break to pursue an internship, which can be an invaluable entry to a potential MBA employer. However, it’s obviously a longer stretch of time away from the workforce, and a more expensive proposition than a one-year program. 

 A top one-year program typically covers 80% of the curriculum included in a top two year program, so there’s no denying that the curriculum is thorough but also that the pace is fast. For example, at INSEAD, you’ll have exams every eight weeks. Student life is a constant whirlwind (some compare it to being like drinking from a firehose!) The benefit is that you are out of the workforce for a much shorter time, and it’s a more cost-effective format (more about costs below). 

Recruiters also regularly comment that the intensity of a one year MBA program more closely mirrors the reality of professional life in a post MBA career and better prepares students to juggle multiple demands when they start a new job. On the flip side, the accelerated format is not for everyone, especially for students who are not sure what they want to do after their MBA, and need more time to reflect, explore, and try out potential paths.

Curriculum and Focus

While the core curriculum will be very similar at top MBA programs in both the US and Europe, many of the US schools offer more electives, as it’s typically feasible to take more optional courses  during a two-year program. This gives you greater scope to customize your learning. 

 The biggest difference in the learning experience at business schools in the US versus Europe is the focus on international business at the latter. Indeed, a truly international education is the pièce de résistance of the European MBA. 

While US schools are primarily serving a domestic market, European MBA programs were designed from their inception to bring together students from different countries and prepare them for pursuing careers at a global level, so this international perspective is baked into the entire curriculum. Faculty use case studies and examples from various countries and cultures, and also facilitate discussions in the classroom that draw on the rich diversity of experience across countries that the student body represents. So at a European school, you can expect to learn a lot about doing business in other countries and cultures — which is invaluable if you expect to be working across borders in your future career. The melting pot of cultures you’ll encounter on campus give the experience a very dynamic vibe. 

It’s interesting to note that business school faculty who have experience teaching in both US and European classrooms often comment that they find the international cohorts much more challenging to teach, due to the diversity of perspectives that they encounter.


Cost and Investment

The longer duration of most US MBA programs generally translates into higher tuition fees and living expenses. At a one-year European MBA, tuition fees are lower than for a two-year program at a peer school, and you’ll be incurring living costs and foregoing salary for half the time. For example, currently fees for two years at Columbia Business School are around $170,000; the one year MBA at INSEAD costs around $107,000, and at Cambridge it costs around $86,000.

As a result, financially speaking, a top one-year program usually represents an excellent return on investment. In fact, the Financial Times MBA ranking shows that the one-year MBA can deliver the sort of earnings power and salary increase to compete with the very best two year programs.

Class Profile and Diversity

At US business schools, you’ll find yourself in a classroom that is dominated by US citizens; European schools, on the other hand, typically pride themselves on the international diversity of the student community. For example, at INSEAD, there are more than 100 different nationalities represented in the MBA student body, and no single nationality represents more than about 14 percent of the classroom. Other top MBA programs in Europe have a similarly rich diversity. 

European MBA students are also on average slightly older than their US counterparts; this is because European schools put more emphasis on the ability of candidates to bring depth of professional experience to the classroom, which means that the pace of the program can be faster, and the faculty can rely more heavily on classroom discussion rather than the case study method. 


Teaching Style

The teaching style in US programs is often characterized by the case method, encouraging a practical approach to learning. European schools, while also utilizing case studies, may incorporate a more varied mixture of lectures, simulations, and theoretical learning. The case study method is a time intensive way of teaching, and so faculty cannot rely on it as heavily on a one year program.


International Exposure

As mentioned, European programs are inherently more international, with diverse student bodies, faculty, and alumni communities. They may also offer the opportunity to study at various campuses across different countries. For example, at INSEAD the MBA program runs in parallel across two campuses, one in Fontainebleau, France, and the other in Singapore. European schools that don’t have campuses abroad put heavy emphasis on other experiential opportunities, such as the “Global Experiences” at London Business School, which take students on a challenging learning journey to places like Johannesburg and Lima. You’re not just studying ‘international business’; you’re living it, possibly hopping between campuses and continents. US programs, while also offering international treks or possibly campus exchanges, don’t put anywhere near the same emphasis on the value of international immersion.


Alumni Networks

Some US schools may have larger alumni networks than their European counterparts due to the longer history of established MBA programs. For example, HBS has a whopping 48,000 MBA alumni; INSEAD has 32,000, Cambridge Judge School has 12,000 alumni across all programs. European schools have more internationally dispersed networks than the US schools, given the international diversity of the school community. So if you attend a top school in the US, you’ll find that the vast majority of your classmates stay in the US, and most of your network is US based (and likely the network is strongest within a few hundred miles of the campus). If you attend a European business school, you won’t have such a deep network in one single country – but you will have a good network in a long list of countries. That’s very useful if you might be internationally mobile in your career. If you are from the US and plan on staying in the US, then you’ll likely find the alumni network of a top US school more useful.  

As well as having a different international profile, alumni networks may also vary in how well certain industries are represented. For example, if you want to be a Silicon Valley venture capitalist or tech entrepreneur, there is no better alumni network than Stanford GSB. If luxury brand management is your calling, then you’d be wise to consider the HEC MBA in France, due to the school’s many notable alumni in the luxury industry, as well as relevant electives.


Recruitment Opportunities

Post-MBA work opportunities offered to US MBA students are largely domestically focused, while European schools are typically feeding into job markets in a number of different countries, and often not just in Europe. International students at US schools benefit from the OPT program which enables them to work in the US for one year after completing their studies; many top US business schools have obtained STEM certification which means that their international graduates can stay for an additional two years (if they can demonstrate that their job is directly related to the STEM field of study). While a graduate is on OPT, their employer can apply for them to obtain the H-1B visa. This is the most common way for MBA graduates to stay and work in the US long-term.

In Europe, within the EU, the EU Blue Card offers work and residence permits to non-EU citizens; this also provides a path to permanent residence and possibly citizenship. The UK is also a popular job market; MBA students who study in the UK can get a Graduate visa which allows them to stay for at least two years. Students who pursue their MBA in other countries can also obtain the skilled worker visa for the UK, if they have a job offer from a sponsoring employer. 

It is very common for graduates of European MBA programs to take a post-MBA job that is in a different country from the country where they were working before they enrolled. In fact, many students choose these schools as a springboard to international mobility and opportunities. At London Business School for example, graduates of the MBA class of 2022 took up positions in 40 countries around the world. 

Choosing an MBA program is a complex decision and before you embark on applying to any school, you should invest plenty of time in figuring out what you want to get out of the experience, and therefore which schools could be a good fit for you. If at all possible, visit the schools you are thinking about applying to; there is plenty you can learn online, but still there is no substitute for exploring a campus and soaking up the atmosphere. 

Visiting is the best way to get a good gut feel for which community offers the best environment for you. It’s important to get a first hand sense of the type of people you’ll be rubbing shoulders with if you do attend the school, and to think about whether the campus vibe resonates with you. If you are looking at international schools and aren’t able to visit, then engage with the school’s virtual events, and check to see if they will be hosting events in your location. Many top schools travel the world to meet prospective candidates. You can also connect with alumni and current students; try to have some conversations with people who have attended the program, especially if they have pursued a career that looks appealing to you. Alumni are often thrilled to chat with prospective candidates and tell them their story. 

Fortuna has deep insider experience in the top European schools and you can sample some advice on getting in here. If you’d like to discuss your possible school choices and which program may be the best fit for you, schedule a free consultation.

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