Everybody knows about business schools—that is, graduate programs that offer a degree called an MBA, or Master’s of Business Administration. But students can of course study business as undergraduates as well.
Top undergraduate business programs boast exceedingly high rates of employment for their graduates, who also enjoy big starting salaries. In 2018, 95% of students who graduated from Wharton, the business school at the University of Pennsylvania, with a bachelor’s degree were employed within three months of graduation, and they were making over $90k a year on average.
Is an undergraduate business curriculum right for you? If you’re interested in pursuing a career in finance, accounting, marketing, entrepreneurship, or even real estate, you may want to consider getting started as early as college by enrolling in a focused business program.
Business vs. liberal arts
You’ll want to make sure you research different schools carefully. Doing business as an undergrad at UPenn’s Wharton School of Economics is different from enrolling at Dyson (Cornell), which in turn is not the same experience you’d have at, say, UVA’s McIntire. Every program has its own particularities in terms of structure and requirements, so you’ll want to spend some time familiarizing yourself with different options.
The first thing to keep in mind is that enrolling in an undergraduate business program generally means working toward a Bachelor of Science (B.S.), rather than a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.). At Wharton, students receive a B.S. in Economics; Dyson offers B.S. degrees in Applied Economics and Management and in Hotel Administration; McIntire calls the degree they offer a B.S. in Commerce.
How is a B.S. in Economics, Applied Economics, or Commerce different from a B.A. in Economics? The key word, at least in the rhetoric of business programs, is “applied,” as in, “applied economics.” While B.A.s in economics tend to offer a more theoretical approach, business programs are interested first and foremost in real-world application.
Unlike pursuing a graduate degree in business, however, enrolling in an undergraduate business program doesn’t necessarily mean forgoing a broad liberal arts education. Many programs give students the freedom to take plenty of classes outside of business. Once again, these requirements and opportunities differ from program to program. Some programs, such as the one offered by UVA, only begin in earnest in the third year, with first- and second-year students satisfying a broad array of liberal arts requirements. At Wharton, students begin their business education on day one, but still have the opportunity to take classes at UPenn’s eleven other schools throughout college. Do your research and see what kind of curriculum best fits your needs, or ask us for help.
Public vs. private
One major difference among the top-ranked institutions that offer undergraduate business programs is that some are public (Berkeley, Michigan, UT Austin…) and some are private (UPenn, MIT, NYU…). This is an important fact to keep in mind. Public schools are going to be less expensive than private schools—significantly less expensive for students paying in-state tuition. If you are from California or Michigan, you’ll pay around $15k a year at Berkeley and Ann Arbor, respectively. UNC Chapel Hill—ranked #8 for undergraduate business by U.S. News—is under $9k a year for North Carolina residents. On the other hand, top private schools, such as UPenn, Carnegie Mellon and Cornell, can cost over $55k a year.
What are admissions committees at business programs looking for? Before diving into this question, a word or two about acceptance rates and competition. Top business programs are exceedingly selective at the undergraduate level—often more competitive than top MBA programs. Wharton’s acceptance rate for undergrads is just over 6%. On the other hand, the acceptance rate for MBA students at Wharton is 20%. Other undergraduate programs are even more selective: last fall Dyson accepted just only 2.9% of its applicants.
It should come as no surprise that, in the application process for undergraduate business programs, good grades and test scores simply aren’t enough. The average composite SAT score at The University of Washington’s Olin Business school, for example, was 1,510. That’s just 90 points shy of a perfect score—and that’s the average across admitted students. One hundred percent of students admitted to Olin were in the top 10% of their high school class.
With numbers like these, you can be absolutely sure that Olin is rejecting plenty of straight A students with near perfect SAT scores. The same is true for other top business programs as well.
So who gets into the best business programs? How can you stand out against such fierce competition?
Become an entrepreneur
Think outside the box, or rather, think outside the classroom. You know you’ll need top grades and test scores if you want a shot at admission to a great business program, but you’ll also need to demonstrate impressive leadership in, and commitment to, your extracurriculars. For business school, you’ll want to show your entrepreneurial spirit by starting your own club at or outside of school—better yet, start your own business or non-profit.
Take something you’re passionate about and begin to think about ways to use your talents and interests to solve a problem, or provide a product or service to your community. You may consider combining two different interests or abilities, perhaps an academic strong suite with a longstanding hobby. Or, you may want to work on an issue related to your own personal history and experience.
Coming up with a great idea takes some time and research. Get into the habit of noticing what’s lacking around you, of paying attention to the problems your community faces. If you can find a way to address an issue you care about, and have the know-how to take on, you will put yourself in a good position to stand out against the competition.
One final thought
A degree in business can be a great way to launch your career. As always, however, we believe that for many students college is a time to explore different intellectual areas and career options. Don’t forget there are plenty of business-related opportunities available to students who graduate from liberal arts programs as well. If you’re a business-minded student who isn’t yet ready to commit to a full business curriculum, consider also applying to a few liberal arts colleges. A business education is not an absolute necessity for self-starting students with entrepreneurial drive.