Over the past 10–15 years, top MBA programs have accepted more students from untraditional backgrounds, including education (e.g., Teach for America), the Peace Corps, PR/media/communications, and the government/public sector. Having students from a range of different backgrounds adds to the diversity of the classes that business schools are seeking. In all types of programs, but especially those that use the case method, including perspectives from multiple areas adds a richness to discussions that results in a stronger learning experience for everyone.
If you are working in one of these nontraditional areas—or in another one, such as the arts—pursuing an MBA might be the right path for you to reach your goals. Here are some things to think about as you consider how to accentuate your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses as an untraditional candidate.
Your work experience
Consider the skills you’ve gained in the roles you’ve held since college, and figure out how to highlight them in the most compelling way. There’s a high likelihood that even if those skills don’t seem directly applicable to an MBA program, they are still useful and necessary, such as collaboration and project management skills. If you’re in a government role, think about the intersection of business and policy that you might encounter on a day-to-day basis and how your seat at the table could offer valuable insight to those sitting on the other side. Or maybe you’re in a creative role, such as in advertising, where you can focus on ways you’ve helped your clients design innovative solutions. If you’re in a global role, such as in the Peace Corps, you’ve probably learned valuable lessons about other cultures that you can share. Consider your untraditional work as a strength to emphasize and then connect it to your career goals.
Your future goals
Like all MBA applicants, you’ll need to answer Why an MBA?, Why now?, and Why at the particular school you’ve chosen? Every candidate should be able to connect the dots between where they have been, where they are now, and where they want to go in the future. If an MBA is necessary to progress toward where you want to be in your career, you’ll make a good case for yourself if you can show that you’re ready for the demands of the program. For example, let’s say you’re working at a governmental healthcare agency now but want to move to healthcare consulting or a biotech organization, and perhaps in the long term, be a leader in healthcare or start your own company. You can demonstrate that you need the leadership skills, cross-functional business skills, and entrepreneurship skills that only an MBA can offer to make that pivot. Check out this article to learn more about using an MBA to change careers.
The biggest reason an admissions committee might hesitate to admit someone from an untraditional background is that the candidate is less likely to have demonstrated the quantitative skills that applicants with more traditional work experience might have. If you’re a humanities major who is now working at Teach for America, you might not have had exposure to a quantitative subject for 5–10 years. The way to minimize this weakness is to show the admissions committee that you are ready for the rigor of an MBA curriculum. Scoring well on the quant section of a standardized test is also a good way to demonstrate your readiness. Another option is to enroll in a graded quant course so you can show not only your dedication to the MBA as the right path for you but also your ability to do the work once you’re there. This article explores ways you might build your quantitative profile for MBA admissions. In addition, you can highlight any quant courses on your college transcript in which you performed well, and those can substantiate your ability to work with numbers. Pointing out tasks at your job that are quant heavy, such as budget setting, would be helpful, too, if applicable to your role.
You should choose your recommenders wisely. Ideally, at least one of them could speak to any quantitative work you’ve done in your job to help mitigate what the admissions committee will likely view as a weaker area of your application. If you analyze and crunch numbers in your day-to-day role, your recommender can highlight this by presenting specific examples. Or maybe you do work in an extracurricular role that is quant heavy, and you could have a recommender from that organization speak to your abilities. It’s not necessary that your recommender be in business to write a good recommendation. What’s important is that they know you, your work, and your personal traits, which can be demonstrated in positions outside of work as well. Look to your recommenders to showcase your strengths in leadership, teamwork, cultural awareness, and ability to negotiate or work across the aisle.
Your school selection
Some schools might be more open than others to candidates from untraditional backgrounds. Review the class profiles of the schools you’re targeting, and learn what percentage of people do NOT come from finance, consulting, and other more common backgrounds. For example, Cornell’s most recent class profile shows that 11% of students came from the government/nonprofit sector, and another 25% came from the “other” category, which includes consumer products, real estate, and education. Although this does not mean that schools with lower such percentages would not be interested in your profile, it might signal that they are more open to individuals who have had different work experiences before the MBA. It’s a good idea to reach out to students or alumni with backgrounds similar to yours to learn about what support they had transitioning to their MBA programs. For example, Teach for America and Peace Corps alumni who have moved on to get an MBA could share valuable insight and lessons learned with prospective students.
Paying for applications and the MBA
Embarking on an MBA is likely the biggest investment you’ll make for yourself aside from buying a house. The cost of submitting applications and financing the MBA experience is prohibitive for many people without some level of aid. Some schools offer fee waivers for applicants from programs such as Teach for America, Peace Corps, and Americorps, and there are scholarships that specifically target nontraditional candidates. To start learning about such options, check out the following: