Traditional vs non-traditional MBA candidates

MBA admissions
By Rahima

What are business schools really looking for?

I get this question from my clients a lot, which often leads to the follow-ups: Will I be able to convince an MBA program that I am a good candidate even if I haven’t been doing something very “traditional?” And what is traditional, anyway? Historically, individuals in the finance and consulting industries tended to comprise the majority of business school candidates. Many people from investment banks, hedge funds, and private equity firms were amongst the leading candidates for business schools, as well as people from top-tier consulting firms or those who had line management experience in a private sector multinational or other corporation. International students who had a stake in large family businesses or military candidates were also candidates with high acceptance rates to MBA programs. And the majority of these candidates were, of course, men.

The 2008 financial crisis and other high-level scandals (e.g., Enron) involving graduates of top-tier business programs has prompted a shift in the mentality of many MBA schools. Gradually, more and more schools are seeking to attract candidates of diverse backgrounds (particularly women and minorities) and from different industries or with varied life experiences. Harvard Business School’s mission statement is “We educate leaders who make a difference in the world,” and they now explicitly acknowledge that they want to educate leaders who "create value before they claim value." HBS notes that there are many ways of making a positive difference in the world – not just as a hedge fund manager or an investor. Business schools are increasingly accepting many more candidates who want to create social impact, set policy, run non-profits, or generate change in their local communities. And they are more interested in fostering a diverse and inclusive cohort each year, with people who seek to correct systemic inequities in society or in their home countries.

Although many business school applicants still hail from finance, consulting, or corporate jobs, anyone who wants to use business skills to enhance their career or make a difference in the world can and should apply. As long as you can show how you’ve used business skills in your career, whatever that work might be, you can appeal to a business school. And business skills are far more widespread than you may think – it doesn’t just have to be finance, accounting, or using Excel. For example, all of the following are business skills:

  • Any kind of strategic thinking, critical thinking, or problem-solving skills to break down a problem into discrete parts and address it
  • Quantitative or data analysis of any kind
  • Stakeholder management, client management, or people management
  • Any situation or role where you have used leadership or management skills to mobilize people to get something done
  • Managing or executing operations of any kind
  • Persuading a person or group of people to do something, or creating strategic communications
  • Framing, creating, or developing content for presentations or trainings

As you can imagine, these skills or experiences can be useful in any job in just about any industry. I have coached business applicants from all backgrounds: fundraising for an educational non-profit, failed technology startups, communications for an animal rights organization, a Peace Corps stint in an isolated village in Niger, distributing food stamps for the local government, a PhD program in microbiology, and myriad others. I've seen applicants who have been graphic designers, musicians, servers or hostesses in restaurants, or any number of jobs. And many of these applicants were more successful in garnering MBA acceptances than the “traditional” finance and consulting candidates. It’s all about how you craft your narrative and build a case to show an MBA program how you have used business-related skills to solve problems in the past and why you need a formal business education to elevate your career and get you where you want to go: that is, so you can have the kind of impact you crave.

Business schools are no longer seeking only “traditional” candidates. Rather, they are looking to build a deeply diverse and unique class who come from all kinds of backgrounds, skillsets, and industries. As long as you can convince them of the value that an MBA would add to your field, your career, and your life – and be super clear on the difference you seek to make in the world – you are a viable candidate.


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