By Kim Clark

MBA programs place great value on their applicants' work and leadership experience.

If you're considering pursuing an MBA, it's integral that you amass work and leadership experience that will stand out to business school admissions counselors. Graham Richmond -- graduate and former admissions official at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and co-founder of MBA admissions consulting firm Clear Admit -- provides his take on how to use work experience to get a leg up when applying to business school.

1. Do MBA programs place much value on internships, or should applicants seek full-time positions before applying to MBA programs?

Students at top business schools typically matriculate with at least one to two years of professional experience. As far as the nature of that experience is concerned, it's usually in the form of full-time, paid positions.

Regarding internships specifically, admissions officers do look at them as a part of the applicant's profile, but given that most applicants also have full-time, paid positions to showcase, internships often take a bit of a back seat.

For younger applicants with zero to one year of full-time work experience at the time of application, summer internships can be useful in terms of demonstrating the exploration of a career path or even specific accomplishments.

Keep in mind that work experience -- whether full time, part time, interning, etc. -- doesn't have to be paid work experience in order to be valuable in the MBA 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.

2. How much work experience should someone have before applying? Does it vary greatly from school to school?

While it varies, most full-time MBA programs prefer candidates with at least one to two years of full-time work experience. In fact, the average amount of experience among students entering top-tier business schools is typically three to five years.

As to how long a candidate should wait before applying for an MBA, this really depends on the quality of his or her professional profile. I've seen wonderful candidates with just one to two years of experience and others that clearly would benefit from more 'seasoning' in the professional world. In all cases, MBA 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?

3. What type of jobs and job functions most impress MBA admissions officials? How important is it that the applicant has some form of leadership experience?

The beauty of MBA admissions is that there truly is no single professional profile that schools are seeking. At Clear Admit, we regularly see Peace Corps workers, family-business entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, strategy consultants, accountants, doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, technology professionals, and brand managers all head off to top schools.

While the programs do not explicitly prefer one sort of job or job function over another, they do seek a well-rounded student body. As such, if candidates come from over-subscribed professions (financial services, strategy consulting, IT), they often need to work very hard to stand out from other similar applicants in the pool.

Of course, when assessing an applicant's background, factors like leadership and teamwork play a major role. Having said that, there are many ways to demonstrate leadership and teamwork -- be it in the professional domain or in one's outside activities. In other words, applicants do not have to be formally managing a team of 10 people in order to have an impressive leadership or teamwork profile. A lot of candidates have less formal leadership experience where they have influenced outcomes by 'managing up' and persuading senior colleagues to adopt an idea, etc. Similarly, many applicants can point to substantial leadership and team experiences in community service activities or during their undergraduate years.

In the end, while the schools have a broad definition of leadership and teamwork experience (e.g. not strictly limited to the professional domain), successful applicants typically need to have some evidence of their impressive capacity in these areas.

4. What kinds of jobs or job functions are of little value for MBA applicants?

I wouldn't say that there are specific jobs or job functions that are of little value because I've seen applicants find success from virtually every possible background. In other words, for most applicants, it's not really the job or job function -- it's what they have been able to do with it.

Having said that, there are some positions that lend themselves to greater opportunity for leadership and accomplishment. For example, working in marketing and strategy at Starbucks' headquarters is likely to afford an applicant more opportunity for growth than taking a post as a cashier at the local Starbucks cafe. Similarly, working for the consulting firm that helps a major Fortune 500 company to conceptualize and set up a technical support call center in Bangalore, India, might offer more leadership opportunities than taking a post in said call center.

5. How much does work experience tend to matter when compared to other aspects of the MBA application?

The MBA admissions process is truly a multi-variable equation where a number of factors come into play. On the surface, this 'equation' is comprised of academic qualifications, work experience, outside activities, and personal background. But each of those core areas can be divided into numerous sub-categories. For example, one's academic background consists of things like undergraduate GPA, GPA trend, caliber of undergraduate institution, quality/rigor of coursework, class ranking, GMAT results, experience with quantitative subjects, outside coursework/other degrees earned, TOEFL score (if required), etc., etc. ...

Beyond that, across the core areas of the admissions equation candidates are constantly being measured in terms of their leadership capacity, emotional intelligence, and ability to work in teams.

In short, work experience is clearly an important piece, but I wouldn't necessarily give it more value than any of the other core areas. Of course, this is often candidate-specific as well, such that the candidate with six years of experience might be more heavily judged on their professional background than their academic profile -- just as the younger applicant may be judged a bit more carefully around academic metrics since there may be less data to work with in the professional component.




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