Returning to university to study for an MBA is one of the best ways to increase your earning potential. We look at the options available

If you want to get ahead in management, you should think about getting an MBA. As the only internationally recognised management qualification, an MBA is fast becoming a necessary rite of passage for specialists who aspire to be high-flying general managers. But, with about 1500 colleges that run MBAs around the world, how do you pick the one that’s right for you?

Not all are as well regarded as others by potential employers. Newspaper and magazine rankings can help here, but the Association of MBAs warns against using them as anything more than one factor in your choice. Accreditation by the association or by the European Foundation for Management Development is a good way of telling that a UK course has reached a high standard, and the AMBA produces a handbook with details of all its accredited courses. The American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) is the US accrediting body.

The content and focus of MBAs varies, so you should look at what will be taught and whether there are elective elements that interest you.

The website may help. Think about the teaching method that will suit you best – lectures at a college, or distance learning such as the MBA offered by the Open University?

The website MBA Info also suggests you find out what the other people in the programme will be like, because a lot of what you learn will come from interaction with other participants. Will they be at a similar stage in their careers to your own, and have worked at similar levels? Although it’s a mid-career qualification that requires you to have at least eight to 10 years’ experience under your belt before you even start, you won’t get as much from it if the other people on the course are much older or younger than yourself. However, you should also look for a course where the participants have a wide range of backgrounds, so that they have a breadth of experience for you to draw upon. Going overseas is one way to ensure this, and it needn’t be for the entire course: the London Business School, for example, offers an exchange programme.

With the increasing popularity of MBAs in mind, it is also worth investigating how important it is to the school that runs it. Is it

a new course that is little more than a fringe money-making activity, or is it an established programme that is significant to the institution where the faculty give their full attention and best effort? The amount of support you will get outside the course really matters: what practical help will be offered to you to help you get a job at the end of it all? Is there an appointments service or alumni network? What links does the school have with companies?

Last but by no means least, think practically.

As the careers advice website points out, as well as the course fees you must also take into account accommodation costs, loss of earnings, and extras such as whether you need to buy a PC. If you want to do a part-time MBA, can you guarantee that you will be available for any days when you must be in the classroom, and that you will have the time to fit the home-study element around your day job and domestic commitments? Most people study for MBAs in their 30s, when they may have young families; if that applies to you, think about the implications for you and your partner of taking on so much extra work. If you prefer full-time study, can you afford to leave your job?

These are all things to weigh up when making your decision, but remember that the average salary for someone with an MBA comes in at up to twice that of someone who doesn’t. So a little belt-tightening in order to get on a good course will be rewarded with some serious financial benefits in the future – as well as the chance to open the career doors that would otherwise remain shut.