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Tuesday, April 21, 2015 at 10am

Are You Experienced? How to Determine if You Can Get into an MBA Program

work experience

Many recent grads wonder if they should pursue their MBA right away or wait until they have more work experience. When it comes to what experience you need to get into the program of your dreams, the answer really depends on your personal qualifications – but the underlying concept is relatively simple.

The criteria that most MBA programs are looking for in applicants can be summed up in two basic propositions. The applicant should be able to confidently say:

  • I have a solid and demonstrable level of leadership experience.
  • I have a compelling reason for applying for an MBA right now (i.e. career goals that require an MBA).

If you feel you can sufficiently speak to these two ideas, you have a good chance for admission. Of course, there are many other factors – and the law of averages counts for something, too.

The Work Experience Sweet Spot

Many programs require (or might as well require, based on their acceptance statistics) a few years spent in the workforce. Elite schools, in particular, generally ask for more than others. Wharton, for example, claims that an average student has five years of work experience, while Harvard Business School’s average is closer to four. Three has been recognized as pretty standard among most schools, as long as the work experience includes leadership experience.

However, there are still some excellent reasons to apply for an MBA program right out of undergrad – not the least of which is if your desired career goals pretty much require the degree right away. After all, doctors and lawyers feel no compunction about moving toward higher education without a three-year break to work as a lab tech – so why should you have to wait?

That being said, if you are going to apply to an MBA program right out of academia, there are a few things you will want to consider.

1. Find the school that’s right for you.

Targeting the right schools is your best option, and there are many that do not require work experience as part of their application. Also, there are specialized MBA programs to check out like Harvard’s 2+2Yale Silver Scholars, and Stanford Deferred where elite programs offer special dispensation for young hotshots.

2. Consider your relevant undergraduate leadership experience.

Can you point to that all-important leadership experience within your undergraduate career? Was your academic record exceptional? If not, the best advice may be to wait a few years and build up the experience you need.

3. Can you answer the ‘why now’ question?

Is there a reason (besides your drive and desire) to get an MBA at this time? Maybe you are working on a project or already have a connection with a company that needs you to have an MBA in order to progress. Without a compelling reason to further your career goals, however, your chances of admission are markedly slimmer – no matter what your academic record looks like.

4. Do you have ‘too much’ experience?

There are metrics that point to the idea that too much experience can lessen your chances of admission. But keep in mind that these statistics are skewed by the fact that not as many applicants are older, and therefore, naturally, fewer are admitted.

If you are an older student or your path has been non-traditional, do some research on the schools to which you are applying and see what their approach is to more mature candidates. Harvard, for example, trends younger, while Yale seems open to an older demographic.

Ultimately, no matter your experience level, if you can point to leadership experience and give a good explanation for your pursuit of an MBA to further your career goals, then you have an excellent chance of getting in – regardless of your current career level. 

If you can answer ‘why now’, then apply now!

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Ryan Hickey is the managing editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants.

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