“What Does Your Work Experience Reveal About You in Your MBA Application” is excerpted from MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools, by Linda Abraham and Judy Gruen.
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 readers.
Post-college employment reveals that you have “grown-up” experience in taking direction, meeting deadlines, 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 with work experience.
When thinking about your work experience, ask yourself the following questions:
1. How much is enough? Too much?
Most applicants for two-year, full-time MBA programs have from 3-8 years of experience. (If you have been working longer than that, you should probably consider an EMBA or other program geared for the more experienced professional.)
Unless a program actively courts younger applicants, such as Chicago Booth’s Early Career Candidate options or NYU Stern’s Berkley Scholars, 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. Stanford also appears to be more open to younger applicants. Its class profile shows an average of four years of work experience at matriculation, which is somewhat below most other programs that typically are closer to five years of work experience at matriculation.
2. Can you show impact?
It isn’t only the quantity of work experience that is significant – it’s the ability to show how much you have contributed and what impact you have had. If you have the focus, determination, stick-to-it-ness, collegiality, initiative, and maturity that MBA programs prize, chances are you will have found an opportunity to have an impact on the job by applying those skills and traits. And this is true no matter what sort of role you performed, or whether you worked for a large company or fledgling startup.
For example, if you worked for a large company, such as Infosys, Google, Goldman Sachs, or Bloomberg Financial, the adcoms will understand that you were a small fish in a large pond. 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 highly structured, bureaucratic, and possibly slow, with less room to dazzle supervisors with distinctive skills and abilities. The schools are familiar with the typical path, and if your talents were recognized in such a large organization and you were given a project normally given 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.
On the other hand, if you joined a startup or launched an entrepreneurial venture, 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 may also have handled more responsibility with less supervision.
Most applicants who joined startups or launched entrepreneurial ventures have learned invaluable lessons on a faster track than if they had worked in established firms, and wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything, even if their entrepreneurial ventures were short-lived. 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 may or may not have succeeded, but showing how you planned and executed it will speak volumes about you. It will show how you strategized, how you determined the need in the market for your product or service, and the logical sequence you applied in launching and managing your enterprise.
The kind of work experience you have, as well as your career progression, 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. They will not be based on a youthful, fuzzy, naive dream, but on some real-world business experience that has tested and refined those goals, clarified where you are heading, and how you will get there. Finally, work experience puts you at a competitive advantage to snag the best jobs after earning your MBA.
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