MBA work experience is a subject that can raise a lot of questions for you. While there are typically no set limitations on how much or how little experience that you need to gain admission to business school, there are various seemingly “unspoken rules” surrounding the topic.
When researching programs and structuring your resume, you may have some questions about MBA work experience. Which work experiences should you include in your application? How can you know what kind of experience a business school seeks? Do you have enough work experience, or do you have too much?
This article will answer these questions and more, giving you insight into the best way to present yourself and your professional background to an MBA admissions committee.
What is the Purpose of MBA Work Experience?
The work experience that you include in your MBA application can tell an admissions committee a lot about who you are. Not only can it portray how you’ve grown throughout your career, but it can also present the ways in which you’ve taken initiative, the impact you’ve made on your company, and the skills you’ve obtained from your profession.
According to Valeria Wiens, Associate Director of Evaluation, Admissions, at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, “The Employment History section of your application allows you to demonstrate that you are accomplished.” It is an essential aspect of your MBA profile and can make an extensive impression on admissions committees.
How Important is Work Experience to Admissions Committees?
MBA work experience plays an essential role in the business school application process. Most top business school admittees have at least some professional experience, and many programs are designed for people who have had at least some full-time experience.
However, it is not impossible to get into business school without a post-graduate career, especially if you apply for a deferred MBA. In this type of program, you can gain admission to business school as soon as you finish your undergraduate degree, take a few years to start your career, and then start working toward your MBA.
Too much experience, or not enough?
You might be wondering how much professional experience is required in order to get accepted into a top MBA program. However, every program varies slightly in its recommendations and requirements for work experience.
If you have less than two or three years of work experience, you could be at a severe disadvantage at many top business schools. Harvard Business School (HBS) is an example of a program that tends to exclusively admit students who have two or more years of experience.
The HBS website states that “The HBS MBA Program is designed for students who have full-time work experience before matriculation.” By stating this, it is clear that the admissions committee at Harvard is looking for more professionally experienced MBA candidates rather than new graduates. However, HBS offers their “2+2” program, which is “a way for current students, either in college or a full-time master’s degree program, to apply to Harvard Business School on a deferred basis.”
This deferred degree program “is comprised of at least two years of professional work experience followed by two years in the regular HBS MBA Program.” If you want to apply to HBS yet do not have much work experience under your belt, this can be a great option for you.
On the other hand, there are some schools that stress how work experience is not a defining aspect of their admissions process. One such program is the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, which states that “The Wharton MBA program does accept early career candidates with limited or no experience who exhibit strong managerial and professional potential … we 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.”
Ultimately, if you have fewer than three years of work experience, it is up to you to use your best judgment in applying to MBA programs. Maybe you need to make up for this experience deficiency in other aspects of your application or prove your capabilities and potential during your interviews. If you think that you can effectively exhibit your potential and growth in ways other than through a post-graduate career, then you may be able to earn a spot in one of your top programs.
However, if you aren’t confident in your chance of admission without a full-time career, there are other options available. You can wait a few more years to grow in your profession, or you can apply to a deferred MBA program. As mentioned before, deferred MBA programs allow you to apply to a business school before you’ve started your professional career. Once admitted, you have the ability to gain a few years of experience before starting your MBA.
If you know that you want to earn your MBA yet are unsure about your current qualifications, this is a great option for you. The specific years of experience you will need to gain during deferment will vary from school to school.
There is also the concern of having too much experience. Generally, for full-time MBA students at the top business schools, the range in years of work experience is about 2-8 years. If you have over eight years of experience, it is possible that you may face a disadvantage in the admissions process.
Full-time MBA programs typically look for students in the earlier stages of their career “because they have just the right amount of experience in the world of work to make valuable contributions in class yet are not entirely set in their ways.” This is not a set rule in the admissions process, but it is possible that you might find more success in pursuing an Executive or Part Time MBA.
These programs are geared toward those who are further along in their profession and can prove to be significantly more suitable for more experienced candidates.
Average Age and Years of Work Experience at the Top 10 Business Schools
You might be wondering where you stand in relation to other MBA candidates’ work experience. The following is a layout of the average age and years of work experience for students in the top 10 business schools. This table will be utilizing the MBA program rankings from US News & World Report.
According to these statistics, it is clear that students at the top business schools are typically around 28 years old with around five years of professional experience. These numbers are only averages, not absolutes. However, it might prove beneficial to compare your own age and years of experience to those of your target schools. Doing so will help you determine how well you would fit into an MBA program and if it is the best choice for you. If you are outside of the listed ranges, do not worry. There are cases of MBA success later in life.
Best Types of MBA Work Experiences
When it comes to deciding which work experiences to include in your MBA application, there are a few important things to consider. By researching your target programs and properly exhibiting what you gained from your professional experiences, you can make the most of your career background in your MBA applications.
No Business-Related Experience? No problem.
You might think that not having a business-related career, such as in the fields of finance, accounting, or management, could put you at a disadvantage in the MBA admissions process. However, that is not the case. There are people from all walks of life in every MBA program, including those with non-business degrees and professions.
Many business schools value diversity among their students’ backgrounds, as having a variety of different perspectives can maximize the learning experience. Yale’s School of Management is an example of this; among their MBA students, there are people with backgrounds in Human Resources, Information Technology, and Media and Entertainment. So, even if you do not have a background in a typical “business” field, don’t let that discourage you from applying.
Your MBA work experience should demonstrate an array of desirable skills, particularly leadership, teamwork, and communication. In the MBA application, it isn’t about the type of work you have done, but rather, it’s about what skills or lessons you gained from your experience.
For example, Harvard Business School’s website states that “rather than focus on specific categories of work experiences, applicants should focus on their roles, responsibilities, and what they have learned from the types of work experiences that they have been involved in.” Even if you don’t have an extensive background in a business-related field, that’s okay. Just make sure that your experiences demonstrate that you are ready for the fast-paced, rigorous curriculum that these top business schools have to offer.
Acceptable Work Experience
When you think of “work experience,” the first thing that comes to mind is probably part-time or full-time paid positions. Maybe you think of a desk job or administrative work. However, this type of background, while completely valid for the MBA application, is not the only acceptable type of experience.
Maybe you haven’t held a typical nine-to-five job, or you have been involved in a unique profession; it’s still okay to include those positions in your application. For example, Wharton accepts a variety of unique backgrounds and positions, including time in the military, the Peace Corps, on a Latter-Day Saints’ Mission, or in other voluntary or internship positions.
Regarding these types of professional experiences, Wharton says, “As with all work experiences, we are interested in the skills acquired on the job and level of progression (measured by scope of responsibilities, job title, salary).” If you have a unique background, don’t be afraid to include it in your application. What is important is that you make sure that you are demonstrating how you grew and learned through the opportunity.
However, make sure that you know what exactly your target programs count as work experience. For example, unlike Wharton, NYU Stern considers certain positions, such as full-time work, as “professional work experience” and others, like internships, as just “work experience.” These distinctions are important to keep track of when filling out your application.
Furthermore, Wharton does not consider graduate education as work experience, yet Stern accepts academic projects. Make sure that you check what each of your target schools considers to be work experience before filling out your applications.
Different Schools, Different Values.
Different programs have different values, and you should make sure that those particular values are visible through your work experience.
For example, Kellogg School of Management outlines specific qualities that it looks for in MBA applications, including students who “can motivate a team to drive impact, are not afraid to question the status quo and seek the non-obvious solutions, [and] approach business problems with a mix of intellect, energy, and creativity.” If applying to Kellogg, you would want to make sure that these qualities are evident when you are discussing your work experiences.
If you are unable to demonstrate your target school’s qualities through your professional background, then you may want to consider a more fitting school or gather experience that provides you more of the necessary qualities and skills.
Quality, Not Quantity.
Don’t worry about not having an abundance of experiences or professional positions to discuss in your application. The key is to make sure you can draw from those few experiences and exhibit the skills you gained, the lessons you learned, and the successes you brought to your industry or organization.
1. What is the best kind of MBA work experience?
Generally, there is no particular field or industry that will definitely get you into business school. Rather, the “best” kind of experience is any work that can portray your growth and capabilities. Whether it’s an internship, volunteer work, or a full-time job, any position that your target program deems as “work experience” and portrays your most impressive qualities will be the “best” experience that you can offer.
2. Does time in the military count as MBA work experience?
Generally, military service can count as work experience in the MBA application. If you plan to include this in your application, be sure to highlight any leadership roles you held or communication and teamwork skills that you gained during your time in the military.
3. Do I have to have work experience to get into an MBA program?
While it is not a requirement for some programs, it is typically beneficial in the admissions process to have at least two years of professional experience. This is because admissions committees are looking for students who can contribute to discussions and activities in the classroom.
There are students with no post-graduate work experience who gain acceptance to top MBA programs, but this is a very small percentage of admittees. It is typically more beneficial for new graduates to apply to deferred MBA programs in order to find their way into the professional world before undertaking an MBA education.
4. How old do you have to be to apply to an MBA program?
While there is not a specific age requirement for MBA applicants, at the top business schools, students are about 27 or 28 years old on average.
5. Should I include undergraduate work experience in my MBA application?
Unless you are newly graduated or applying to a deferred MBA program, you probably should not include work experience from your undergraduate years in your application. Unless you had a particularly impactful opportunity or position, try to focus on your post-graduate positions.
6. Can you have too much work experience for an MBA?
Generally, there is no set maximum work experience limit for traditional MBA applicants. However, the average MBA student at the top schools has 4-5 years of experience. If you think that you might have too much experience for admission, you may want to apply to Executive MBA programs instead.
MBA work experience is one of the most critical aspects of your business school application. Not only can it show your professional achievements, but it can also display your best qualities, how you’ve grown professionally, and the areas in which there is the opportunity to expand your knowledge. The MBA work experience section shows an admissions committee your potential and how you will contribute to their program.
Make sure you do your research, as different programs have different definitions of “work experience” and different values that they are looking for in MBA candidates. Also, make sure that you understand how having either too little or too much experience can impact your application.
By making sure that you know what qualities your target schools are looking for, you can gain a better understanding of how to structure your resume to highlight those attributes within yourself. By taking the time to understand your target schools and accentuating your best qualities, you can use your work experience to your advantage in the MBA application and show schools why they need your perspective in their class.
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At Inspira Futures, our sole focus is to get you accepted at your dream business school. Our team of experts consists of former admission committee members and alums from Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB, and other M7 schools. Our goal is to help you write great essays, ace interviews, and win scholarships. Without any stress or hassle. Our clients have gone on to secure admits at the world's top business schools while also being winners of some of the most prestigious scholarships like Stanford Knight Hennessy, HBS Baker Scholars, and many others.