Tell someone at a party that you are on an MBA and, if they are not in business, chances are they will look at you like you are the last word in conformity. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. No other qualification gives students such opportunities to tailor it to their needs.

The key to making what you want of an MBA are the electives on offer. Core courses provide students with a solid grounding in the common functions of any business. But beyond this schools offer specialised electives, which represent a chance for students to specialise in areas as diverse as sustainability, entrepreneurship, and mergers and acquisitions.

Now students have more choice than ever. London Business School, for one, has increased the number of electives it offers by nearly 50 per cent in the last 10 years.

Is there a danger that all this will prove a distraction from core teaching? Not at all, says Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs, which accredits MBAs. Any watering down of that core teaching would lead to a school being struck off the AMBA list, but Purcell says that electives do not detract from students understanding of business functions, but augment them.

AMBA expects schools to offer at least 10 electives, and many have more than double that. Oxford Saïd Business School has 32 and Warwick Business School has 37 on its full time MBA.

The London Business School offers perhaps the broadest range of electives in the country, with students choosing a dozen of 75 different courses, from old favourites like negotiation and bargaining to new courses this year in social entrepreneurship and sustainability.

"Electives are extremely important," says Gareth Howells, MBA programme director at London Business School. "They are an opportunity for students to tailor their course personally, with more in-depth, specialist knowledge which will have a long-term impact on their career."

Despite the extraordinary choice available, Howells says that over half of all elective choices are concentrated on just 10 of the courses and the school's growing portfolio is driven not just by student demand but faculty enthusiasm, an excitement that creates a particular buzz in the lecture hall. "You're getting that knowledge often before it's even published," says Howells.

New electives are often inspired by trends in business and government, such as Nottingham University Business School's corporate social responsibility elective.

Some electives reflect schools' environment and local resources – physical and intellectual. Both Oxford Saïd Business School and Cambridge's Judge Business School run technology entrepreneurship electives, while Imperial College Business School offers an elective that focuses on the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

This year Cass Business School has started a new elective in managing professional service firms. With the City on its doorstep it makes sense for Cass to have a specialist course in investment banks, management consultancy, advertising, accountancy and legal firms.

Location aside, firms such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, Accenture, and the investment banks still standing are the biggest employers of top MBA graduates. These companies are unusual: highly reliant on their employees' knowledge and often using relatively autonomous partnership structures, says Laura Empson, professor in the management of professional service firms at Cass, who developed the course.

Professional service firms do not easily fit into conventional management models, but they do offer a management template for developed economies, which are increasingly becoming knowledge economies. "A management role in this sector requires highly specialised skills," says Empson. "An MBA alone won't be enough to prepare you."

While the general trend is for more courses like Empson's, some academics warn that more choice does not necessarily make for better choices. Four years ago Cranfield School of Management offered 60 electives. Now it runs just 14. "It was very difficult to co-ordinate them," says Séan Rickard, director of the full-time MBA programme at Cranfield. "And students told us there was a large degree of overlap."

Rickard believes that Cranfield was not the only school with this problem. Even when courses are vetted to avoid duplication, different electives can cover the same ground from different points of view. At London Business School, for example, separate electives cover financing start-ups from entrepreneurial and accounting perspectives.

Cranfield now offers thematic electives, with major modules such as entrepreneurship and minor modules in more traditional electives like mergers and acquisitions and international strategy. "We're still covering a very wide range," says Rickard. "But now we're doing it in a more controlled way."

However electives are taught, no one doubts their importance. "Core courses provide an understanding of business functions," says Rickard. "Electives take that learning and apply it to the real world." Which is, after all, where most of us work.

'The entrepreneurial class was inspirational'

Daniel Hanna, 30, is studying for an MBA at London Business School.

"I looked at the depth and quality of the electives when I was deciding where to go. I looked at the whole structure of the course. It was definitely the best and most interesting set of electives out of any of the European business schools in terms of the range of electives, the topics, and also the quality of the professors. They have a really good mixture of well known academic researchers and, in the case of some of the entrepreneurial classes, people who have real world experience of going out there and setting up businesses.

Since I graduated from university I've worked for Standard Chartered in various locations across Emerging Markets, so I'm doing a fair amount of finance classes as electives.

I'm also doing a lot of entrepreneurial classes, as it's something I'm interested in over the longer term. I'm a fairly cynical Brit, but the entrepreneurial class, 'managing the growing business', was pretty inspirational. It really managed to capture the enthusiasm and challenges of setting up a new business and just how interesting and exciting it can be to take a start-up through to a $50m (£35m) business."

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