As you apply to MBA programs, you need to think about your past work experience and how it all fits into your overall story. Work experience is important because of what it reveals about you in terms of your character, maturity, and abilities. Even if your GPA and GMAT/GRE scores are spectacular, your work experience still needs to impress the admissions committee.
Post-college employment reveals that you have “grown-up” experience in taking direction, meeting deadlines, assuming responsibility, and working in teams. These are all highly relevant in a program where group projects are the norm. Developing a baseline track record in your field also gives you industry knowledge and the ability to contribute your insights to class discussions. Finally, recruiters prefer MBAs who have work experience.
What follows are some thoughts on how admissions committees think about different types of work experience, and how you might want to frame your work experience in your MBA application.
Traditional work experience
You might have worked in marketing but not at Procter & Gamble, worked in banking but not at Goldman Sachs, or worked in technology but not at Google. Will your experience at a modest, relatively unknown company count as much to the admissions committees as that of applicants who have worked for brands with cache?
Fear not! The quality of your work is much more important than being employed at a name-brand institution.
Brand experience can be a bonus.
Brand name experience might give you an edge, at least on the surface, especially if you are an international candidate looking for a job in the United States. For example, if you worked for a large company such as Infosys, Google, Goldman Sachs, or Bloomberg Financial, the adcoms are familiar with the typical path in these types of organizations. They will understand that you were a small fish in a large pond, and they will have more context about your work environment They will appreciate that you had to work harder to stand out, but they will also look for signs of your talent.
Advancement in large companies is often slow because such firms are highly structured and bureaucratic, with less room for employees to dazzle their supervisors with distinctive skills and abilities. If your talents were recognized, and you were given a project normally assigned to someone above your pay grade, or if you were fast-tracked for a promotion, this will add stature to your application. Additionally, the fact that a large company with a valued brand name hired you in the first place is another indication that you probably have at least some of what your MBA program is looking for.
Even at big-name companies, the substance of your work is still the most important ingredient.
There are a few things adcoms want to see to verify that the experience within the organization is strong as well.
- Longevity: If you were employed at a brand-name firm for just one year or less, there could be a concern that you did not thrive in that work environment. On the other hand, if you have been employed for two or more years, that duration signals competence, persistence, and hard work.
- Promotions: Were you promoted, or did you otherwise earn increased responsibilities? Ensure that the promotions are apparent, even if you haven’t been in your most senior position for long. Regardless of the company, those boosts are the best proof that you are considered highly capable by management and therefore have a great future ahead of you.
- Movement: If you have more than one brand name on your resume, that is a strong signal that you were able to successfully transition from one world-class firm to another – or perhaps were poached.
- Insight: Working at a major company provides an additional benefit: an admissions committee will see that you have experienced the inner workings of an organization that is best-in-class, and you can therefore provide valuable perspectives in class discussions. Top companies have done something right to earn their reputations, and you have used and internalized techniques and practices that have enabled their growth to the top.
For all these reasons, experience working with A-list companies can provide an edge in the initial review process. However, what really matters is the substance of your work rather than where you performed it.
Admissions committees seek students with as wide a range of experiences as possible, especially experiences that are relevant to an MBA curriculum. When faculty teach a particular subject and students have related real-world experience, the lessons come to life. This means that the skills and knowledge you gained from significant projects you managed from start to finish matter a great deal – involvement with strategic initiatives matters. You need not have been part of a multimillion-dollar deal to gain strong leadership and management skills.
Small projects can shine, too!
Even small projects that you “own” can be extremely valuable in providing expertise in particular areas. As you advance in your career, always be on the lookout for projects that allow you to take on a significant leadership role and provide you with a degree of autonomy.
Make the most of your resume real estate.
On your resume, you need to reduce notable achievements to one bullet point each and make every bullet point as impactful as possible. For example, “Led a team of eight to cut costs in the supply chain by 20% through strategic repurposing of older machines.”This example shows leadership, strategic thinking, and quantifiable results – all really important stuff! This is what admissions committees want to see. It doesn’t matter if the project size was $10,000 or $1,000,000, or whether it was done at Boeing or Jane’s Jewelry Creations. What matters is that you provided significant results to your company.
Can you show increasing responsibility?
In addition to looking for real-world experience that you can share in the classroom, admissions committees look for upward mobility. If you have a track record of promotions, your mobility will be immediately obvious on a resume. If your promotions have been quick because of extenuating circumstances, use the optional essay to explain the specifics.
Even if you don’t have that growth, you can still employ thoughtful wording to showcase how your responsibilities have increased over time: “Rewarded with project management of X following the successful implementation of social media planning schedule.” Essays also offer a place to highlight forward momentum, depending on the topic. Being trusted with greater responsibilities is the clearest signal of strong work experience for MBA programs that you can provide. It shows that you have what it takes to succeed in the program and in your career.
What about non-traditional work experience?
Applicants with non-traditional work experience often worry about whether their experiences will be considered relevant in an MBA classroom. I have even heard this from doctors, lawyers, military officers, and other people with impressive accomplishments. Believe it or not, the less traditional one’s work experience, the more an admissions committee might be interested!
When putting together a cohort, admissions committee members strive to make it as diverse as possible, in every way possible – job function, industry, culture, and so on. Imagine if a class was made up of only finance people? Or IT engineers? How rich would the discussion be across all courses? Not very! Individuals coming from a non-business background are assumed to have approached issues and problems with a different perspective and set of priorities that might allow for additional learning opportunities for their classmates – and possibly even the faculty! That’s why schools are delighted by non-traditional applicants, and you can be assured that your application will get noticed.
However, as a non-traditional applicant, you will need to have two things solidly in your profile to be seriously considered for admission:
- A top-notch GMAT or GRE score and/or stellar grades in a few courses that can indicate your ability to successfully manage the quant work (e.g., statistics, calculus) of a demanding MBA program
Because much of your degree’s coursework might not be directly relatable to a business program’s curriculum, the school needs assurance that you will be able to handle the MBA courses. If quant courses are missing from your transcript (and if you don’t knock the GMAT or GRE out of the park), you should consider taking a calculus for business or a statistics course at a local community college or online, aiming for a letter grade of B or better to alleviate any concern.
- A solid reason for needing an MBA
Believe it or not, there are serial degree seekers out there. Your reason for pursuing an MBA will most likely not be obvious based on your previous work experience, so you must do an outstanding job of presenting your career goals and objectives. Why is an MBA necessary to get you where you want to go?
A non-traditional background can give you a leg up with an admissions committee. But once you have their attention, you’ve got to make your case for acceptance with an impressive application. You’ll need to convince them that you will thrive in their program and require the education it provides to achieve your dreams.
Does entrepreneurship count as work experience?
Yes! If you launched an entrepreneurial venture or joined a start-up, you will have the opportunity to show how you survived and perhaps even thrived in those risky, exciting, uncharted waters. In a small company, you would have had more occasions to display your adaptability and versatility. You probably also handled a wider variety of roles and had more responsibility with less supervision.
Most applicants with these experiences have learned invaluable lessons on a faster track than if they had worked in established firms. Even if their ventures were short-lived, they wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. Not only did they have to toggle among many disparate kinds of tasks, ranging from sales to public relations to product design, but they also learned – sometimes the hard way – fundamental rules of business planning and formation.
If you write about being an entrepreneur, however, you will have to demonstrate that this was not a euphemism for “unemployed.” Your business might or might not have succeeded, but showing how you planned for it and executed that plan will speak volumes about you. You can write about how you strategized, determined the need in the market for your product or service, and employed a logical sequence of steps to launch and manage your enterprise. If you are leaving your own venture to go to business school, share what will happen to your organization while you are in the MBA program. Who will take on your responsibilities?
Presenting self-employment experience on a resume
Creating a resume as a self-employed individual presents some challenges. If you already have an established business, some of this information is superfluous, but if you have been doing contract work, there are details to manage beyond the summary of the work you have been doing.
If you own an established business, you probably already have a company name, but if you are doing freelance work or contract consulting, you might not. You should consider creating a purposeful, grown-up company name that helps the reader understand that you are indeed self-employed. It could be something as simple as “John Smith Media Consulting” or “E-Commerce Branding Solutions.”
If you are doing contract work or other freelancing, avoid putting “Self-employed” or “Freelancer” as your title. Consider “CEO/Founder,” or if that is overreach, something like “Senior Consultant” or “Senior Engineer.” Choose something that is as close to what your title would be if you were employed by someone else, but without sounding puffed up or self-congratulatory. If you have an existing business, the “CEO/Founder” designation is most likely an accurate depiction.
Describing your work experience
If you run a business with tangible goods or services, mapping out your experience should be fairly straightforward. Contractors should discuss projects you have worked on for various firms or individuals, listing details and successes of those projects as much as you can without violating any confidentiality agreements. Hopefully, you have some good, quantifiable results that you can point to. Here are some examples of how you could present projects:
“Overhauled payment system for $XMM automotive parts manufacturer, resulting in reduction of A/P by 20%.”
“Performed research and presented findings related to a proposed expansion of a nonprofit into a new territory. Research results were subsequently shared with existing donors, who then funded 100% of the planned expansion.”
“Designed website and implemented social media strategy and tactics for eight-member start-up in the energy industry.”
How much work experience for MBA programs is enough? How much is too much?
Most applicants to two-year, full-time MBA programs have three to eight years of experience. If you have been working longer than that, you should probably consider an EMBA or other program geared for more experienced professionals.
Unless a program actively courts younger applicants, two years of work experience is usually the effective minimum you will need to prove that you can contribute to and benefit from the program.
can contribute to and benefit from the program.
How do you handle being laid off?
With the recent waves of layoffs happening in the tech industry, you might wonder how adcoms will view this information. Business can be messy, especially during economic uncertainty. Use your resume and possibly the optional essay to convey what you have been doing to advance your skills during the time that you have been out of work.
What matters to MBA admissions committees is not just the quantity of work experience you have or whether you gained that experience in a small start-up or at Google, it’s the ability to show how much you have contributed and what impact you have had. In whatever work experiences you have had since graduating from college, if you can prove that your focus, determination, collegiality, initiative, and maturity paved the way for you to make an impact, you are several steps closer to a seat in your chosen MBA class.
Explaining the kind of work experience you have and your career progression in a meaningful way will help the adcoms get to know you better. Furthermore, even two years of full-time, professional employment can lend credibility and substance to your stated career goals. These goals will not seem to be based on a youthful, fuzzy, naive dream but on real-world business experience that has tested, refined, and clarified them as well as your roadmap to achieve them.
Want to make sure you present your work experience in the best possible way? Work with a seasoned consultant at Accepted to polish the presentation of your work experience and your entire application. Contact us today!
With 23 years leading admissions offices at Carnegie Mellon Tepper, Georgetown McDonough, and Pittsburgh Katz, Kelly has a deep understanding of what top MBA programs value in their students. In her last position at CMU Tepper as Executive Director and Assistant Dean of Admissions, she oversaw admissions committees for the MBA and master’s programs in Management of Information Systems, Computational Finance, Business Analytics, and Product Management. Want Kelly to help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!