How do I give myself the best chance to get into business school?

I’m about to enter my senior year and am planning on obtaining my MBA in the near future. Is it better to get work experience first or will I have a better chance of getting in if I apply directly after my time as an undergrad?


Stacy Blackman, MBA Admissions Expert

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There are some programs that accept applicants directly from college (for many of these, you would've needed to apply during your junior year), but most of the top programs strongly favor applicants with at least two years in "the real world" (and many people wait until they're 3-5 years out of college to apply). If you look at the "Class Demographic" sections of most major MBA program sites, you can usually find the average number of years people worked before matriculating. That will give you a good idea if the program puts a lot of weight on work experience.

As many MBA programs encourage students to learn from each other based on their life and career experiences -- meaning that each class is really a discussion rather than a lecture, with people offering their perspectives based on their own experiences -- you'll want to be able to prove in your application that others will have a lot to learn from you and that you'll be an asset to the class in that way. It's much tougher to do that when you are coming straight from college.

If you want to set yourself up for success when you apply in the future after gaining some work experience, here are some things you can do in the meantime to strengthen your application: 1) Don't slack off your senior year. Keep your grades up. Your GPA is important to MBA programs.

2) Get involved in a cause or a nonprofit organization you are passionate about... and STAY involved, eventually taking on some sort of leadership position in the group, like spearheading an event or overseeing a certain committee. You'll want to show that you have a life outside of school and work, and you'll want to be able to explain WHY you care about the cause/organization you got involved with.

3) At work, always be looking for ways you can take initiative to do something that helps you stand out in your role. Understand what you need to do to get promoted -- showing a clear trajectory is important, even if you change companies along the way. Take on as much responsibility as you can. And keep track of everything you've achieved and worked on... you'll want to remember all of those details to use for stories in your essays, and you'll be shocked at how quickly you'll forget them if you don't write them down.

4) Seek out a mentor -- someone who really wants to see you succeed. They'll be invaluable as both a career coach and potentially a recommender later on.

Hope that is helpful -- best of luck!

Nedda Gilbert, MSW, Educational Consultant, and Author

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Several answers have been posted that thoroughly address this question. However, I wanted to add some insights into how you might win admission at a range of schools based on their rankings and reputation. The decision to go straight to Business School or get some solid work experience first, is in many ways dependent on this. In fact, what gets you into one school may be different than what you need to impress at another. Filing a winning application at programs like Harvard, Stanford or Wharton require standout credentials and work experience. This may not be as important at schools on the next rung down, and even lower. This is not to suggest you wont get a quality education at the top fifty or so business schools in the US. I feel certain you will. It's just that the competition to get into the very best programs is undeniably fierce. And to get into them, you will have to work two to four years before applying.

Alternatives to this are to apply to Harvard's 2+2 program (incredibly competitive and selective) which admits college juniors and defers their admissions to 2 years later while they obtain work experience, (see that work experience is the sticky wicket). Another approach if you are still in college, and this is even an option, is to matriculate as a senior directly into their MBA program. The ability to do this, and who is eligible will vary by school.

To answer your question directly I would need to know what schools you have targeted. At a sizable majority of schools, getting several years of work experience first is preferable. My suggestion is that you do this. That's because the average age of Business School students is 27. By design, business programs want a more mature, experienced student who has spent some time getting real-world experience professionally. Whether you are shooting for the venerable Harvard or a regional powerhouse in your own state, knowing what the school requires from it's applicants will make all the difference in how you prepare. Here are some additional thoughts.

  1. As several experts mentioned in their answers, your grades matter. If you think you might want to attend graduate school - actually any graduate program - and are still enrolled in college, don't slack off. Work for that strong GPA. As for the reputation of your undergraduate college, or it's ranking, don't worry that the top Business School's prefer students from equally ranked undergraduate institutions. They do not. Students at the top ten or so Business Schools come from a varied group of colleges. State colleges. Private colleges. Even some I-never-even-heard-of-that-school, colleges. Many candidates hail from the military; Harvard is known for admitting a number of students each year from our armed forces. You may get bonus points for having gone to lets say Princeton. But only if you did well. Most important are your grades and accomplishments, not where you went as an undergrad. Unsurprisingly, the very best Business Schools will expect the very best grades.
  2. Do you what you can to get a high score on the GMAT or GRE. Your scores are an important part of your application. To find out which test is most appropriate, contact the prospective B-School you are applying to. Again, it's just common sense - at the top-flight schools you will need a top score. But at almost any Business School, your math score will be particularly important. A solid math score shows you can handle the heavy quantitative work that dominates Business School study. If you studied a softer subject as an undergrad, for example Anthropology or Russian History, then demonstrating you have the mental crunch power to handle higher levels of math will be helpful. If your score is weak, or just needs bolstering, present compelling evidence of quantitative acumen in your current or former job. Weak quantitative skills, or a lack of evidence that you have them can be problematic in your application.
  3. Seek out leadership positions in your professional and personal life. Anything that shows you know how to lead others, and work well with teammates will impress a Business School. That's because Business School is an incredibly collaborative and social place. At the best schools, pretty much every candidate comes in with amazing grades, scores and work experiences. What helps distinguish candidates from one another - and makes them likely to be admitted - are their soft skills and interpersonal qualities. Increasingly programs are looking for those candidates who possess social/emotional intelligence.
  4. Achieve some level of professionalism, identity or responsibility at your job, And work for two to four years. If you spent two to three years floundering around in a low level job, it may be tougher to sell that work experience to a top flight Business School. Of course, many candidates applying to Business Schools expect the MBA to allow them to change careers entirely, or advance. But in terms of getting in, what you did before applying really matters. At schools like Yale, Stanford, Kellog and Kenan-Flagler, the expectation is that your prior work experience will allow you to make meaningful contributions to high-level classroom discussion and study. If your prior work experience is ho-hum, it could mean a particular school does not see you as a good fit. That does not mean you don't belong at Business School; it simply means you need to target those schools more accepting of your background. Whether you had an amazing job or a horrible job, Business School should advance your career. It's very important you communicate why now is the right time to get the degree and how it will help you meet your career goals.
  5. Present interesting, compelling stories as you answer all those required essay questions. The fastest way to doom a Business School application is to present boring, typical answers that quickly have admissions officers yawning. Try to find new and interesting ways to tell an otherwise predictable story. Also, use examples rather than just provide a monotone-ish narrative of who you are. In other words - show - don't tell. Also avoid excessive use of business jargon, and avoid bragging. The bar is quite high for essays at the most competitive Business Schools. Knowing what makes for a compelling story, and also knowing how to tell it - are what elevates an essay and an applicant from just good - to great. And in all likelihood, admission into their first choice school.

I hope the above helps you in making the best decision and winning admission at the right school for you. Best of luck!

Michael Schoch, Noodle Intern

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Great question and fortunately Noodle has a ton of resources on the subject. An excellent starting place is this introductory video that details some important factors to consider when applying for business school.

Your concerns regarding work experience sound as though they are well-founded--work experience is a pretty crucial component in your business school application and many of the competitive programs seek candidates with strong job histories. Here is an article that goes into more depth specifically on this subject.

From the sources I've read, it sounds like a prudent idea would be to gain at least some work experience before applying to an MBA program. You can then bolster your application with phenomenal essays and strong test scores.

That said, there are Early Career MBA Programs catered towards recent graduates. If you are committed to the idea of getting an MBA as soon as possible this may be an option to consider.

I hope that gives you a basic sense of your options and how to move forward!

Anonymous, Garadyn

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Parke Muth, Over 30 years in education and admission

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You have already received some great advice from others who have answered this question. I will simply mention one program I know of, but also say that it is exceptionally difficult to get accepted to. Harvard offers a 2+2 program in which students are accepted to HBS but do two years of work prior to entry. For the last two years, I have helped helped two students who were offered admission--one last year and one this year. The one from two years ago was a philosophy major with remarkable grades who had already done a lot of work in his field of interest--bridging the gap between eastern and western medicine. He is remarkably bright but also has great soft skills and is currently a part of a start up addressing the gap. The other student I know very well. I wrote one of her recommendations. She is brilliant, committed to helping others, and has the ability to do very well in interviews. I conducted an interview with her that I have posted on my blog that will give you some idea of what she is like and what it would take to be able to compete for a spot for the 2+2 program. She gives some great advice about finding mentors, developing skills that transcend academic disciplines, and demonstrating a love of learning and an ethical approach to living.

Best of luck.

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