When it comes to your career, experience matters. Whether you’re applying for a job, or graduate education such as an MBA program, you’ll always be assessed on your experience, and how it can be applied to your chosen program or career.
“Employers are looking for well-rounded MBAs,” explains Shadi Kelly, MBA careers director at Ashridge Business School in the UK.
“Work experience prior to an MBA provides the student with a platform to build on during their studies. Students benefit from being able to refer to their own experience during classroom discussions and apply management theory to their existing practical knowledge.
“As the job market becomes more competitive and employers have graduates from a wide variety of schools to choose from, organizations are looking very closely at MBAs work experience.”
According to the 2012 QS TopMBA.com Applicant Survey, global MBA applicants are gradually increasing their levels of work experience prior to applying to programs.
Across all regions, the ratio of applicants with five or more years of work experience has increased. Further, the age of MBA applicants has increased by 0.7 years in 2012, to a global average of 28.3 years.
As Kelly points out, for those enrolling on an MBA program, an increased level in the amount of work experience possessed by their cohort is certainly a good thing.
The opportunity for MBA students to learn from each other’s prior experiences is one of the primary reasons for the degree being considered so valuable to an individual’s career.
With an experienced and knowledgeable class, discussion elevates to the sharing and understanding of business from multiple industries and backgrounds.
As a result, in order to ensure high-quality learning for all, MBA admissions teams are particularly careful about who they admit to their programs.
“From an admissions perspective, when we look at how ‘place-able’ applicants are, we tend to look at the whole picture: the company where they worked (some of the larger, well-known companies have established training programs), their tenure at the company, the type of work performed there, their progression along with their leadership and team management,” explains Regina Regazzi, executive director of corporate relations at UCLA Anderson School of Management’s Parker Career Management Center.
Regazzi is clear to point out that in her experience, both recruiters and MBA admissions teams prefer quality over quantity. Quoting the number of years of experience in an industry might be impressive, but it’s what an applicant has done in those years that really matters.
At UC Berkley’s Haas School of Business, Lisa Feldman, executive director of the MBA Career Management Group, describes that she has seen the most successful MBA recruiters genuinely making an effort to understand their potential new recruits.
“A smart employer will look not only at the quality and quantity of a candidate’s work experience but also at his or her character,” Feldman says.
“Gone are the days of ‘placement’, when how a student looks on paper and the requirements of a job were aligned for a successful match. Employers who hire our MBAs are looking for high potentials, and to do that they have to go beyond the resume to see the candidate’s real talent.
“Communication skills, curiosity, strategic thinking, and fit are critical for success in today’s organizations, and that can only be demonstrated through direct interaction.”
Feldman at Haas also draws attention to the changing needs and ideals of both businesses, and MBAs. As career plans amongst MBAs have become more diverse and all-encompassing, the spread of industries that recruit MBA graduates has also widened.
“It used to be that a student worked for two years as an analyst in a consulting firm or bank and then attended business school to achieve the next level of that same career path. The primary recruiters of these students were the same professional services firms, who did not expect more than two years of prior experience.
“Banks and consulting firms continue to look to MBA talent, but our MBA is valued by a great variety of types of employers – large and small, high tech and low tech, domestic and global.
“Don’t forget that today’s students have visions of their careers that are more multifaceted and less linear than ever before. As a result, the decision making process is far more complex than it was 30 years ago.
“Economic uncertainty could also be a factor. If an employer is going to take a risk on hiring a candidate, the longer the track-record of success, the potentially safer the hire.”
For MBA applicants, students and graduates alike, the need for professional experience is clear. But for those who feel their levels of experience might be lacking in comparison, it does suggest that gaining career enhancing professional experience is a difficult goal to achieve.
“Companies really want to see passion about the industry, company, and an interest in and love for particular products,” says Regazzi. “It is one reason that we think club participation at UCLA Anderson is a must, especially for someone who doesn’t have much experience in their field of interest.
“For example, if a student wants to pursue a career in entertainment, but lacks time spent in the field, being a member of the Entertainment Management Association can help illustrate their industry interest.
“With investment management, managing one’s own portfolio and keeping track of it can be helpful. An individual needs to go both deep and wide around that stock, its industry, the macroeconomics surrounding it, etc., which can help demonstrate a conviction when making a stock pitch.”
Internships, whether prior, during, or after an MBA can be extremely useful in not only gaining professional experience within a specific industry, but also making valuable contacts and impressing senior levels.
Common in North America during the summer break period of the two-year MBA format, many schools also advise students that feel they might be lacking professional experience within their ideal industry to consider arranging an internship outside of their MBA program.
“Internships can help students on multiple levels and provide assistance for those who are looking to switch careers,” says Regazzi. “We encourage all students to seek summer internships to gain additional experience.
“It can be especially advantageous for those interested in areas such as private equity, investment management, or entertainment, as it’s a great way to get a foot in the door.”
However, as Kelly at Ashridge notes, while internships can be extremely useful in gaining the initial industry knowledge required to understand a potential new role, they can’t be compared to genuine industry knowledge gained from years of professional experience.
“They [internships] can't make up for a shortage of experience, but they are certainly very beneficial. An Ashridge MBA project or internship provides practical work experience for graduates to show relevance to the industry, function or country they wish to work in post-MBA. This type of experience is particularly important when an MBA is looking to make a career change.”