One question that MBA candidates often ask is how admissions committees will view employment gaps on their resume. Given that the power of an MBA program lies largely in the opportunity to learn from your peers, admissions committees value candidates with strong and unique work experiences. Therefore, committees will first focus on the quality and scope of your experience. However, an employment gap longer than two or three months generally will be considered a negative—unless you get ahead of it, explain it, and connect with the admissions committee at a human level.
Some aspiring business school candidates may have found themselves unemployed during the global pandemic through no fault of their own. However, many young professionals were applying and getting accepted to MBA programs while unemployed. Therefore, an employment gap is not necessarily a fast pass to the ding pile!
If you have a gap, face this weakness head on and do not leave the admissions committee guessing why. Committee members have very active imaginations; they will try to fill in the blanks in your application, and this may not always reflect positively on your candidacy. If you actually sat on the couch binge-watching Netflix for months, be honest. You may have needed a mental break after a particularly grueling work or college experience.
On many schools’ applications, and certainly in the interview, you will be asked point blank to explain those vexing gaps. Use these opportunities to your advantage. First, describe why you were not working and what you did with your time, and then take it one step further and share what you learned from the experience.
Tactically, you can explain a gap in a variety of ways on your application. You can use the optional essay to very directly address why there was a gap and what you learned. Don’t make excuses; simply explain what you did with your time and how it set you up for what came next. You might also weave your rationale into the main essay and focus on how the experience shaped your perspective or informed your next move.
Often, companies hiring college graduates will assign their start date, leaving some who had a job offer at graduation several months to fill before they begin their first job. I worked with one client whose start date was eight months after graduation. After graduating in May, he traveled for a few months, did a three-month internship with a nonprofit, and then joined his start group in January. Another client was given a September start date and spent the summer with her mother, who had recently been diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder and was learning to navigate an entirely new diet. My client did a ton of research and basically ran a test kitchen, which she highlighted as an interest on her resume.
I recently collaborated with a client who worked on long-term consulting environmental impact engagements for government agencies. As she was wrapping up a project, she realized that she had hit a plateau and could be doing more of the same work for years if she didn’t leave. When her project wrapped up, she left the company without another position lined up. Shortly after leaving her paid role, the executive director of the nonprofit for whom she volunteered asked her to step in temporarily as director of operations. Over the next few months as she was looking for her next professional position, she helped the nonprofit improve its processes and revamp its operations, and she also implemented new software, developing new skills she would leverage in her next role. What might have been a five-month gap on her resume was actually accounted for with community engagement, which was supported by a recommendation from the executive director as part of her business school applications.
Another candidate was let go from her job as she was about to submit her MBA applications. Because she was planning to use an MBA to make a career change, she had been exploring positions in a new industry and had made connections with leaders in a few companies. Within a few weeks, this candidate was able to secure a role as chief of staff to the CEO of a small company in her target industry. Although being fired is never a fun experience, her dismissal created an opportunity to become familiar with players in her target industry through which she could demonstrate her commitment to the career move. The know-how this candidate developed in the months leading up to matriculation in business school gave her industry insights which she has drawn on to start her own company in this space during her MBA.
Consider another candidate who was forced to take extended time off immediately after college to care for her parents, both of whom were undergoing surgeries. Although the experience may not have had an obvious connection to getting an MBA, it provided the candidate with unique insights into patient care, health-care privacy laws, hospital management, insurance policies, and integration across the health-care landscape. Each parent’s situation was slightly different in terms of what went well in the health-care system and what could have gone more smoothly. In addition to getting to spend time with family during a difficult period, this candidate decided to build upon the lessons she learned by pursuing an MBA with a health-care focus. She leaned on the personal experience gained during her employment gap as a core component of her narrative for essays.
I have spoken with a number of aspiring business school students who decided to leave their jobs so they would have time to prepare for their standardized test and work on MBA applications. However, this tactic is not advised. During business school, you will need to juggle classes, group projects, extracurricular involvement, and recruiting. Excelling at your job while preparing compelling business school applications demonstrates your ability to find the right balance while you are enrolled in an MBA program. For years, outstanding candidates have figured out how to navigate work, life, and applications. If you can’t, then you are unlikely to secure a coveted seat in your dream business school program.
By giving admissions committees the full, authentic picture of your employment gap, you take control of your narrative. So, be sure to deeply reflect upon your experience and explain it. Don’t make excuses; make your story specific and meaningful. It goes without saying that you should not lie. Keep in mind that most top programs will hire a third party to conduct a background check before you matriculate; they will likely uncover any inconsistencies, and the school could rescind your acceptance.
An optional essay is often the best place to explain an employment gap. See “MBA Admissions Tips: Optional Essay Do’s and Don’ts” for more insight on this component of the MBA application process.
Applying to an MBA program with an employment gap? Get in touch with Stratus, and we will help you increase your chances of being accepted.