What Do You Learn in Business School? A Look Beyond the Books

illustration of business students in a classroom on a stack of books

One of the most difficult choices people make in their education is deciding what to study. It can be a catch-22. You need to choose which field you want to focus on, but you might not know that much about a given industry until you are studying it. When you add the complexity of trying to find something suited to your interests and something that will offer you a return on your investment in education—well, it can feel chaotic, to say the least.

If you are leaning toward putting your educational focus on the area of business, you might consider the broad relevance of a business degree to be a plus. “I believe a business degree is one of the most transferable and applicable degrees,” says Kyle Klement, president of The Vet Marketing Firm. “Whether you want to work in tech, an office setting or become a consultant or an entrepreneur—this degree will help you!”

But what do you learn in business school? To help answer that question, we’ll highlight some of the key foundational areas of study in a business-focused program. We also asked business school graduates to describe some of their most important takeaways from their education.

What you learn in business school: Foundational business topics

While it’s true the courses and curriculum of individual business concentrations or programs will vary, most will typically cover a broad foundation of subjects like the following:

Accounting

It doesn’t take a degree to understand that a business needs to have a clear picture of its financial health. Knowing what’s owed, who owes you and how to appropriately value a business’s assets is at the heart of this foundational business subject area. The financial health of an organization has a massive impact on their business plans and decision-making process—so while not everyone needs a senior-level accountant’s knowledge of tax law or other in-depth accounting expertise, they do need a base level of understanding to operate well within a business.

Accounting also offers its own unique opportunities for those who discover they have a knack for it. Check out 9 Types of Accountants Who Do More Than Just Taxes.

Business management

Do you want to go into management? Do you understand the leadership structures out there? Business management represents a critical knowledge base for business students, offering deeper insights into how companies operate and what effective leadership looks like.

For a broader idea of this business specialization, check out What Can You Do with a Business Management Degree? Understanding Your Options.

Human resources (HR)

Companies depend on their people, so no business program would be complete without a foundational course on human resources (HR). Everything from recruitment and training to benefits packages and executive decisions about an organization’s overall direction are influenced by this discipline.

HR majors dive deep into these areas of study, and like so many business majors, they can specialize in myriads of options! Check out Should I Be a Human Resources Major? Everything You Need to Know to Decide.

Marketing

It’s hard to sell a product or service if your potential customers don’t know about it. Marketing courses focus on how to evaluate the competitive landscape, position your offerings accordingly and use the right tactics to ensure your future customers know you’re the best option. Marketing is a significant driver of growth in a business, so it benefits business professionals of all backgrounds to have a solid foundational understanding of the field.

And of course, many business students decide to major in this sector and gain more specialized expertise. Check out Is a Marketing Degree Worth It? 5 Factors to Consider.

What you learn in business school: Going beyond the books

While they’re undoubtedly important, the subjects and courses covered in business school often represent just a fraction of what you’ll truly learn from the experience. Throughout your time in business school, you’ll learn valuable lessons and skills that aren’t always specifically spelled out in a course syllabus. We’ve asked business professionals to highlight some of the less by-the-book skills and lessons that stuck with them from their time in business school.

The power of networking

“One of the biggest lessons in business school isn’t in the curriculum but in the power of networking,” says John Li, co-founder and CTO of Fig Loans. “During my MBA, I made personal and professional connections that have had a massive impact on my career.”

“Business is built on connections,” says Tera Broaddrick, client manager at All My Web Needs.

She explains that your education is a chance to expand your network. “You never know how a professor or classmate can help you in your future career.”

Those who fare best do what they can to make valuable connections—you never know how a good impression could potentially benefit you later.

How to apply creative thinking

Learning business concepts and their real-world applications is an undoubtedly useful part of business school, Klement says. “What’s less tangible in the curriculum is learning how to think outside the box.”

One thing Klement enjoyed most about his business school experience was the opportunity to get creative during projects and gain valuable feedback without the higher risk scenarios you will face in your future career. “While thinking outside the box is a valuable skill for any professional, it's confidence-boosting to learn how to execute that trait while you're learning.”

Refining your decision-making and critical-thinking abilities

“An important thing I learned was the ability to make proper and well-informed decisions,” says Eden Cheng, co-founder of PeopleFinderFree. She points out that success in business so often comes down to cost-benefit analysis. “Business school prepared me to manage critical business decisions in an efficient manner, as well as how to balance ethics into my decision-making process.”

Important business decisions are rarely simple. You’ll need to develop strong critical-thinking skills to effectively evaluate your options and navigate complex scenarios. Business school courses help you develop this skill and will often ask you to apply it to practical work situations. 

Understanding the psychology of business

“The most surprising area of study for me was business psychology,” Cheng says. She explains that the subject’s impact on market research, HR, advertising and even sales made it truly fascinating. The understanding of human behavior has so much relevance.

This is a subject that may have its own dedicated course, but understanding human psychology and group behaviors is a recurring theme across subjects. You need to know how people think and the mental motivations for their actions to be an effective business leader.

Becoming more confident in public speaking and communication skills

Whether you love it or dread it, being able to present your ideas confidently and clearly to a group of people is a critical skill.

“I can’t tell you how helpful it was having to speak in front of large lecture halls,” Klement says. “You need to learn how to become comfortable talking in front of people you might not know that well and asking them for money or a contractual commitment.”

Business school is the beginning

Earning a degree and completing business school is not the last stop on your education journey. The truth is that it really just marks the beginning of your studies. “Business school teaches you to be a continual learner,” Broaddrick says, adding that no curriculum could give you everything you need to know for a decades-long career. But when you have a solid foundation to build from, you can navigate the changing world of business with more confidence.

“Business is a broad area that essentially touches on pretty much every aspect of human society,” Cheng says. She encourages students to figure out what they enjoy doing most and use that awareness as a springboard into the areas of business most applicable to those areas.

But where to begin? Check out “The Beginner’s Guide to Different Types of Business Degrees” for a breakdown of your options.

About the author

Brianna Flavin

Brianna is a content writer for Collegis Education who writes student focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen University. She earned her MFA in poetry and teaches as an adjunct English instructor. She loves to write, teach and talk about the power of effective communication.

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