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Applying to B-School: Do You Have the Right Work Experience?

MBA applicants are evaluated according to a variety of factors, many of which are common to nearly all admissions processes – grades, test scores, personal statements. Unique to the process, however, is the significant role of work experience. But what particular kind of work experience are B-Schools looking for? And how much? Do my internships count? What about my time at graduate school? Or the year I spent in the Peace Corps? Why do I have so many questions?

Take a deep breath. Collegiate Gateway is here to help you make sense of it all.

What is the desired length of work experience MBA programs like to see in candidates?

Though seemingly a basic question, there really is no straightforward answer – how much work experience you’ll need will depend a great deal on who you are, and how your experiences contribute to the total picture of you as an applicant. For the purpose of the MBA application, you’ll want to evaluate your work experience qualitatively, rather than quantitatively. The question is not so much “ how many years have you worked?” but “what have you accomplished?” and “how has your work experience helped you define your future career path?” There is no universal “right time” to apply. In the words of Wharton’s admissions office:

“[W]e evaluate work experience not in terms of years, but the depth and breadth of an individual’s position, his or her contributions to the work environment, and level of responsibility and progression.”

That said, students at top business schools typically matriculate with at least one or two years of professional experience in the form of full-time, paid positions, though different programs will have different norms and standards. While there are some schools that have hard-and-fast requirements, like Fordham, which requires at least two years of work experience, most impose little or no formal requirements. The Class of 2015 at Stanford Business School ranged from 0-12 years of work experience, with an average of four years. The average student admitted to Wharton has worked for five or six years, but the program does accept exceptional early career candidates with limited or no experience (provided they exhibit strong managerial and professional potential).

Harvard’s MBA program, on the other hand, encourages college seniors to apply, but with the expectation that they will be offered deferred admission, conditional upon acquiring full-time work experience. In fact, Harvard has recently developed a special “2+2 Program” for a group of 100-125 students who are graduating college or graduate school without having had full-time work experience. The program especially targets students who have majored in areas such as science, technology, engineering and math, holding about half of the 2+2 spots for such students, with the remainder open to a broad range of undergraduate majors.

In an interview with US News, Graham Richmond, a graduate and former admissions official at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and co-founder of MBA admissions consulting firm Clear Admit, encourages students to think less about the number of years they’ve worked, and more about the quality of their “professional profiles” as a whole:

“In all cases, candidates should ask themselves several key questions: Have I made a significant impact on my company, clients, or co-workers? Have I been recognized in some way for my efforts on the job? Have I learned all that I can in my current role? Are other areas of my candidacy (academic profile, community service, etc.) strong enough such that I may be relatively less reliant on my work experience in the admissions process?”

What qualifies as work experience? Are there specific kinds of experience that MBA programs prefer?

In almost all cases, work experience is fairly broadly defined. Harvard states that work experience consists simply of “opportunities in which students have been able to develop their professional and leadership skills.”

The truth is, top business schools seek a well-rounded student body, and regularly accept students from a wide variety of both traditional and non-traditional backgrounds, from Peace Corps workers, to venture capitalists, to brand managers.

Rather than focus on specific categories of work experiences, programs are more interested in applicants’ roles, responsibilities and achievements. According to Richmond, “…work experience—whether full time, part time, interning, etc—doesn’t have to be paid work experience in order to be valuable in the admissions process per se. It’s more about what you have accomplished, how you have led, who you have collaborated with and how you have grown.” And leadership can certainly be demonstrated by a variety of extracurricular and community service activities in areas you are truly passionate about.

Generally, however, full-time work is valued more highly than internships. But exceptions may be made for younger applicants with zero to one year of full-time work experience. For these students, summer internships can be helpful, and reflect a student’s accomplishments and dedication to a certain career path.  It’s also important to note that graduate school is universally not regarded as a substitute for professional work experience.

For more guidance or information regarding MBA admissions, contact Collegiate Gateway. As always, we’re happy to help.