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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 MBA applicant has a degree in business or in some business function, and has experience in one of the traditional functions (such as) finance, accounting, marketing, consulting, or operations,” said Bailey McChesney, Senior Associate Director of MBA Admissions.

However, many applicants who don’t have traditional business backgrounds apply to (and get accepted at) business programs all the time. “The most obvious example is candidates who have served in the military. Just because they haven’t sat in an office cubicle doesn’t mean that they don’t have experience managing budgets operating in a human relations capacity, or been responsible for logistically moving millions of dollars worth of equipment,” said Rob Schickler, Associate Director of Recruiting and Admissions. “The same is true for people coming from Teach for America, the Peace Corps, and other non-profit settings.”

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.

Bailey McChesney

Bailey McChesney

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.

“Students in an MBA program learn so much from faculty and from the content that’s delivered within the program, but they also learn from their classmates,” McChesney said. “It’s really important to have a variety of experiences and backgrounds within the classroom and within the program, because candidates learn so much for each from each other.”

Your unique perspective can actually be an advantage.

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.

“You don’t have to fit a certain mold or come from a certain background. We look for somebody with potential who has an interest in coming into the program and being a part of our community,” said Mckenzie Mulligan, Assistant Director of Recruiting & Admissions. “We are looking at your application as a whole to see if you’re the right fit for us.”

Admissions counselors are looking for transferable skills.

Rob Schickler

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.

“When it comes to transferable skills… there’s a lot of ways to gain that experience, whether it’s in a traditional corporate setting or in a nonprofit or working for the military. Candidates need to identify the skills and strengths that they do have and be able to explain that to an interviewer,” Schickler said.

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.

“We’re trying to understand your story and why you want an MBA. What’s been your thought process? And what are your goals after (the program)?” Mulligan said.

You should format your resumé the right way.

Mckenzie Mulligan

Just because your work experience has been non-traditional doesn’t mean your resume should be as well. Business school admissions counselors are all looking for a relatively standard format and expect your resume to highlight certain things, include those important transferable skills. “When somebody looks at your resume, they should be able to see what your company’s function is and what you’ve been doing for them,” McChesney said. “Sometimes with a more non-traditional path, you might have to be a little bit more descriptive in the resume and actually showcase that.”

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 resume, a professional resume writer or career coach can help you craft your narrative. “Lay it out in a way that it makes it looks consistent, so it’s not concerning in that way,” Mulligan advised.

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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