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Is Math Overrated for MBAs?

Someone recently asked me about my getting an MBA degree, knowing that I was a Liberal Arts major in college. This person was interested in pursuing an MBA, but worried about the amount of math involved. While I could write endless articles on this topic, I am going to stick with one issue for now: Do you need to be good at math to succeed as an MBA student?

Short Answer: No.

When my friend asked me this question, my immediate response was that the liberal arts is the best preparation for an MBA and that overall, math was not as big a deal as one might think.

When pressed, I offered my thought: ’Excel can do math for you, but Word cannot write for you.’Â�

Nationally, educators are concerned about Americans’ lack of math and engineering skill, especially while the rest of the world continues to produce graduates with sophisticated quantitative abilities and degrees. I am not convinced that American jobs are in that much jeopardy, as long as Americans’ keep doing what they do best: innovate, apply creativity to problem solving, display confidence, network and write fluid prose.

While math is, without question, a major component of getting into an MBA program (think GMAT) it has been my experience that once in the program, those who fair best are those who can best express their answers ’“ not calculate them fastest.

Even as a Finance major, almost every class I have contains elements requiring concise reading and writing ability. I believe that American students with lackluster math backgrounds (but great writing and creative abilities) will generally do better academically than foreign students with strong math backgrounds (but weak abilities to express themselves in English, or to think ’outside the box.’Â�). Even if the American does not do as well academically, I believe their ultimate earning power is greater.

I see evidence daily that math may not be as important as business people like to think. For example, analyzing trends in a cash flow statement is irrelevant if you are then unable to take the next step and offer recommendations to a client based on your calculations. Why do many startups get funding? It has nothing to do with the numbers in the business plan, but it has everything to do with ability of the entrepreneurs to think innovatively and to confidently address questions and issues for an investor. Many CEOs don’t even have MBAs, let alone strong math backgrounds.

There are of course exceptions, but one the whole, I think math is overrated for MBAs. A greater value should be placed on creativity, networking and the ability to express one’s self confidently.

What do other MBA bloggers think?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • I’m a first-year MBA student at the University of Washington, and I absolutely agree. I met with a VP of a local management consulting firm today, and this issue actually came up in our conversation. She said that communication — spoken and written — is absolutely key. The quantitative anaylsis skills shouldn’t be underrated, but in what I’ve experienced so far, they’re not difficult.

    That said, however, I will point out that if you’re a potential MBA student and you haven’t touched a math book for, say, 15 years (this was my case last summer — I hadn’t studied any math since high school), you’ll need to do some review work. An excellent book that helped me a lot with this is Forgotten Algebra.

  • Nice blog Sam. I don’t necessarily think the issue is a country-centric problem because we all struggle with communication when it comes to language barriers. However, I do agree that an education that is more rounded is more useful for the higher level positions than one that is very specialized.

  • Hi Blake – Thanks for your input!

    I don’t mean to say it’s a country-centric issue alone. However, I do think the traits that American students tend to develop early on are unique from student traits in many foreign countries, especially in Asia. It is my impression that math is somewhat popular outside America because in most instances, math is an individual activity with very defined principles. Math tends to not allow for the creativity and group work more often stressed in American school systems.

    While language barriers are an issue for everyone, I think they are exacerbated if an individual has not been accustomed to confident interactions with others and an ability to express themselves creatively (outside what is the “right way”), if that makes sense.

  • Dan

    Excellent post. Liked it so much, I bragged about it on my own blog. :-)

  • I did an MBA back in ’95, and I look at this issue differently now than I did back then.

    Lots of fields divide people up into roughly two categories – ones that can handle the quant stuff and those who can’t. I worked in finance (trading) and for energy companies and MBAs working their way through middle management need to be able to crunch the numbers and think on their feet. No, you’re not going to have to solve differential equations on a daily basis – but it’s the fluency in quantitative concepts that counts.

    Then – suddenly – it all changes. Once you get to the next level in the organization it’s the soft stuff that counts. Can you communicate, write, lead? And these things are, by and large, unattainable. Either you can do it or you can’t. This is the skill set that will allow you to get to the executive floor, but unfortunately you’re not even going to get a try-out unless you can work your way through the middle-management gauntlet, which requires (in most industries) some numbers smarts.

    So, in my book – it’s not “either-or”.

  • I think math is an important indicator of MBA performance & more importantly, ability to do well in quantitative subjects – ceteris paribus.

    Given the huge pool of MBA applicants, it's not that hard for MBA schools to find someone who can do well in both math and verbal component. It's a crude proxy, but GMAT is one of the few ones test around that is well grounded.

    If i'm a bschool, i'd bet my money on students with high GMAT scores, than on those without a strong math background.

  • for me, I am not worry about the Math. I want to take the MBA because of relationship with some potential business partner.

  • for me, I am not worry about the Math. I want to take the MBA because of relationship with some potential business partner.

  • for me, I am not worry about the Math. I want to take the MBA because of relationship with some potential business partner.

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