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Applying to MBA Programs With Relatively Little Work Experience

As many of our readers know, it has become increasingly common for younger individuals to gain admission to the leading full-time MBA programs.  Whereas the average student age was once 27-28 at the leading business schools (meaning an average 5-6 years of full-time work experience), many programs are now carefully considering the more youthful end of the applicant pool.

Of course, the fact that admissions officers are taking a closer look at younger applicants does not mean that getting accepted to a top program is easy for this group.  In fact, it may be difficult for younger applicants to present themselves as fully prepared to contribute to an MBA program because they often lack leadership experience and extensive business exposure.  This is especially true when they are compared to their fellow applicants who have more years in the working world.  With this in mind, we’d like to offer a few tips that will help younger MBA candidates leverage the strengths of their candidacies and become increasingly competitive applicants at their choice schools.

Note: For the purposes of this article, we’ll define “younger applicants” as those with 0-2 two years of experience (i.e., undergraduate seniors and folks who are one to two years removed from their college graduations).

1) Have an exceptional academic profile. Ideally all MBA candidates will be able to present stellar GPA and GMAT scores, but for younger candidates this is especially crucial.  If younger candidates are likely to fall short in the “work experience” category, then their academic profiles are all the more important to show that they are prepared for the rigors of an MBA classroom.  Therefore, it’s best if one’s scores (GMAT and GPA) are above the published average for a school’s incoming class.  In addition, it will be to your benefit if you have received undergraduate scholarships and awards or graduated toward the top of your class, as this indicates that you excelled relative to your peers.

2) Demonstrate your leadership experience and potential. Younger applicants may have only limited full-time professional experience.  Without much time in the working world, there is often less opportunity to move up in a workplace and gain the responsibilities that lead to management and leadership experiences.  Despite this fact, one way to demonstrate your responsibility and management experience is through your participation in extracurricular and undergraduate activities.  In short, as a younger applicant, it is important for you to use whatever experiences you have had thus far (internships, collegiate activities, part-time work, community service, etc.) to demonstrate your leadership and responsibility, displaying your experience as well as your potential for personal growth and ability to benefit your target MBA programs.

3) Outline clear goals. Presenting a clear vision for the future is always a good strategy, as the majority of MBA programs are hesitant to accept students who they feel will get lost in the program’s available choices once they arrive.  For younger applicants this is even more crucial, as your relative lack of professional work experience could cause some concern about your ability to pinpoint your short- and long-term goals.  It is therefore important that you provide details about your planned career path, as well as demonstrate confidence that you will stick to this plan.  Applicants who have more years in the working world can draw on their experiences as proof that they understand their interests and work habits; as a younger applicant, you must demonstrate that you are able to do the same despite your relative inexperience.

4) Be able to explain why you are seeking an MBA now as opposed to later. It’s necessary for younger applicants to describe how the timing of their applications relates to their academic or work experiences to date as well as their future goals.  Your challenge will be to convince your target MBA programs that you are able to make a valuable contribution to their schools without further work experience.  In order to do this, you will need to demonstrate that continuing at your current job won’t advance you toward your professional goals.  You might also suggest that there is some degree of urgency related to your vision for your career, for example around acting on a closing market opportunity, taking advantage of an industry trend, or making a transition in your career. Having clear goals and a detailed career plan will help you explain why you must pursue a formal business education now in order to achieve your objectives.

5) Demonstrate your maturity. It’s important that younger applicants don’t let the adcom mistake their youth for immaturity.  One of the ways you can demonstrate your maturity is by showcasing your ability to analyze your actions, accept blame, and grow and learn from mistakes and failures, as these are trademarks of a reflective and mature individual.  An easy opportunity to do this is in essays that ask you to detail a challenge, mistake, or setback.  In these essays, it is crucial that you do not appear petty, arrogant, or defensive. Another way you can demonstrate your maturity is by focusing on your more recent work experiences and accomplishments. Some of these might be from college, as you may not have had time to prove yourself in the working world, though it’s generally best to use recent experiences. While it may be tempting to draw on high school or grade school experiences as examples of leadership, challenges, and accomplishments, highlighting these will make you sound even younger than you are, so it’s best to draw only from experiences since beginning your undergraduate studies.

Posted in: Planning Tips

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