Riddle Me This: The MBA and work experience

By admin + updated on March 6th, 2015

There was an old TV commercial where a Yogi sat cross-legged and pondered the age-old question: “How to get a job without experience, but how to get experience without a job.” It’s so lost to history I can’t even find it online (or remember what it was for), but the paradox is a familiar one when considering your MBA.

How do you get the right kind of experience without your MBA and how do you get your dream job without one? Don’t worry! Meditate on the subject and there will be a number of ways you can decipher this sphinx-like riddle.

How much experience is needed to apply for an MBA?

You’re right to think that most applicants to a MBA program will have a few years work experience and it’s a number that has grown recently. Something to consider is WHERE you want to go. Elite schools generally require more experience. Wharton, for example, claims that an average student has five years of work experience, while Harvard’s average is closer to four. That being said, three has been recognized as pretty standard as long as it is “the right kind of experience.”

What is the “right kind of experience”?

Quality experience boils down to two things, work that demonstrates leadership and a job with a level of prestige. However, leadership trumps cache’. If you are doing low-level work for Goldman it might look good, but running your own start-up gives you better application fodder than drone work in a big firm.

Can you have “too much” experience?

Demographics tend to seem a little disheartening for older students. However, these are often skewed by a few factors: A) not as many applicants are in the targeted age range B) certain schools have different “images” – Harvard tends toward young hotshots, Yale is more conservative, etc. When applying, make sure to do your research on this to maximize your probability for potential acceptance. That being said, the big question older students need to answer is “Why Now?” If you feel you can answer that adequately you have as much of a chance as any whippersnapper.

What if my path is non-traditional?

Studies show that this does not have as much bearing on admission as you might have thought. Your English Degree and non-profit life can pay dividends as long as you keep in mind the crucial aspect of leadership experience.

How to apply with less experience?

One thing adjudicators are looking for is “sense of purpose” and it’s helpful if you have worked in the same job or area for a long time. If you have switched jobs every six months it is going to be tough to demonstrate that commitment. Package yourself like a product and show how your every move has been toward the same goal. Demonstrate maturity, leadership, and the “Why Now?” and you’ll be ahead of the game.

What programs should I be looking for if my experience is “not so much”?

Targeting the right schools is an option and there are specialized MBA programs to check out like Harvard’s 2+2, Yale Silver Scholars, and Stanford Deferred. However, the best advice is likely just to wait two years and get the experience you need.

Ultimately, it’s up to you if you feel you are ready to move into a MBA program. Assess your resume and see if there are places you can shore up with a new position or improved skill set. If you feel good about it then go for it. If you can define your “Why Now”… then why not?

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