Unlike many other graduate programs, most business schools expect their applicants to have work experience. Because companies increasingly want to hire people who have an MBA and work experience, the people typically admitted to graduate business schools are older and have more significant leadership experience than those admitted in the past. The average age of a first-year MBA student is 28 years old. Just 10 years ago, it was 25.
Work experiences provide rich subject matter for an MBA program. It is much easier to teach concepts and approaches to solving business problems to students who have had some experience in the business world. Courses in many business schools rely heavily on class participation and group work. The more experience you have in a business environment, the more you will be able to contribute.
Prior work experience need not be in a corporate setting. Remember that business schools accept a wide array of students with varying academic and work backgrounds. Your nonprofit or other employment experience may help to make you a very attractive applicant and a valuable member of a class.
What Your Work Experience Says about You
Admissions professionals use accomplishments at work to predict future performance and career longevity. You should always be prepared to discuss these accomplishments in admissions interviews and essays.
Your work experience should demonstrate:
- an influence on your current MBA goals
Focus on Results
In measuring the value of your experience, admissions professionals will look carefully for evidence of results and accomplishments. Make sure the résumé or work summary you provide in your application focuses on results rather than the activities themselves. Evidence of leadership, project management, and other management skills are also helpful.
Work Experience—Quality Versus Quantity
If the quality of your experience is good, the quantity of it (in years and types) may not be as important. The duration of your work experience becomes less important if, for example, you have reached a plateau because you lack an advanced degree but can demonstrate significant leadership skills.
But if the quantity of your experience is greater than the quality, your experience may be considered weak. Frequent job changes may expose you to a variety of experiences but may not enable you to develop leadership skills. Be prepared to explain if you have changed jobs frequently.
Schools vary widely in the quantity of experience they require or encourage. Check with individual schools to find out their requirements.
Full-Time Work Matters Most
When admissions professionals consider the experience levels of applicants, they primarily look at full-time work. When a school publishes the "average work experience for the entering class," the figure represents only full-time work experience.
Summer internships and part-time work may expose you to the work environment, but they do not provide the kind of experience, responsibility, and accountability schools tend to look for. Therefore, unless you also have full-time work experience, you may not be viewed as favorably as a candidate with similar academic credentials and more full-time work experience.
If You Lack Full-time Work Experience
If you have not worked full-time, you should look for schools that do not have absolute requirements for work experience. Those schools will still expect to see strong internship experience (more than one summer’s worth).
Keep in mind that most business programs draw from and build upon students’ work experiences. MBA recruiters also expect experience for entry-level positions. To make a wise choice about whether to attend business school without significant full-time experience, even if you are admitted, you should inquire about placement statistics or profiles of graduates without experience.
To see whether a relative lack of experience will hurt your application, ask a school:
- What kinds of jobs are held by MBAs without work experience?
- What kinds of employers recruit MBAs without work experience?
- What was the placement rate (timing and average salaries) of MBAs without experience, compared to MBAs with experience?
How does the average number of employment offers extended to MBAs without experience compare to the number offered to MBAs with experience?
Ask yourself whether the answers to these questions suit your needs.