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Can I Get Accepted to an MBA Program Without Business Experience?

Jul 13, 2018
What non-traditional applicants should know about applying to business school

By Kara Sherrer

Business schools naturally attract many candidates with backgrounds in business who are looking to take the next step in their careers.  “A ‘traditional’ candidate is one who comes from a business background — in any function or industry — and may or may not have a business undergrad education,” explains Christie St-John, Director of Admissions for the MBA program.

Christie St-John

However, many applicants who don’t have traditional business backgrounds apply to (and get accepted at) business programs all the time. “The ‘non-traditional’ candidates…do not have typical experience in what qualifies as a ‘business’ job,” St-John continues. “For example, many of our military candidates don’t have a lot of experience in traditional business functions, although many have certainly managed hundreds of people, equipment, and million-dollar budgets.” Besides the military, other common non-traditional backgrounds for business school applicants include the Peace Corps, Teach for America, and the performing arts (just to name a few).

While these non-traditional applicants can (and do!) get accepted at top MBA programs around the country, they do have some special considerations they should keep in mind as they work through the application process. We talked with the MBA admissions committee at Vanderbilt Business to get the scoop on what non-traditional applicants need to know.

Business schools accept candidates of all professional backgrounds.

As to be expected, many MBA students do indeed come from traditional, “business” oriented positions consulting or finance jobs at firms large and small. But many others hail from other professions, including the military, law, education, and medicine. MBA students come from non-profits and small family businesses and the performing arts; even former poker players and ballerinas haven earned their MBAs.

“I think every school is trying to come up with a balance (in terms of background), so you have the basis for interesting discussions from other points of view,” said St-John.

Your unique perspective can actually be an advantage.

Rob Shickler

Many applicants with non-traditional backgrounds are apprehensive about applying to business school. But admissions committees are actively seeking student bodies with diversity; diversity of professional background, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and country of origin, among other designations. All MBA students benefit when they hear from peers from different backgrounds, and non-traditional applicants contribute fresh perspectives to class discussions and group projects.

“I think by having people who have not been (steeped in) in corporate America — it’s really helpful to have outside perspectives,” said Rob Schickler, Associate Director of Admissions. “The more diversity you have, the more groupthink can be avoided.”

Consuela Knox

“With our community being the way it is, you can come into Owen as someone who doesn’t have business knowledge and not be intimidated, because people really want to hear your unique perspective. They’re encouraging that,” added Consuela Knox, Director of Admissions Operations and Diversity Recruiting Manager.

Admissions counselors are looking for transferable skills.

In your application and interview, you still need to be able to articulate what perspectives and contributions you will bring to the classroom or a future employer. No matter your previous experience, admissions counselors will want to hear about times that you exhibited teamwork, leadership, management, communication, and other skills that are critical for MBA students to succeed academically and professionally, so have your examples ready to go.

Having a clear goal for getting your MBA is a must.

It’s not enough to say that you want to get your MBA to switch careers or make more money — you need to know what you want to do after graduating, why the MBA will help you get there, and how your background has helped prepare you to get that new job (however non-traditional that background may be). Of course, your plans might change once you get to school, but you need to show that you have thought through this decision and that getting an MBA is important to reaching your goals.

You should format your resumé the right way.

Zeke Arteaga

Just because your work experience has been non-traditional doesn’t mean your resumé should be as well. Business school admissions counselors are all looking for a relatively standard format and expect your resumé to highlight certain things, include those important transferable skills. If you did a lot of contract or freelance work, consolidate that into one section rather than listing out each client separately. If you have done a lot of job hopping and are struggling to streamline your resumé, a professional resumé writer or career coach can help you craft your narrative.

“You’re going to have to be able to tell that story and why you left each company…and be able to (convince me) if this is a story that employers are going to believe and feel okay about taking a risk on you (as an employee),” said Zeke Arteaga, Associate Director of Admissions.

Good grades and test scores matter.

Of course, a high GPA and GMAT or GRE score are necessary for all applicants at top schools, regardless of work background. However, stellar numbers are especially important for non-traditional applicants to show that they will be able to succeed at the quantitative, heavy academic load required by MBA programs. If you don’t have a lot of quant classes on your transcript, or if you didn’t score well on them in college, consider taking an online or community college class in business math, finance, or statistics to help bolster your skills.

Non-traditional applicants get accepted to and thrive at MBA programs around the country every year. The application process may take a little more work for those who don’t have a “normal” business background, but many business schools welcome non-traditional applicants. Good luck on your application process, and if you have questions about applying to the MBA program at Vanderbilt Business, feel free to reach out to the admissions team.

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