MBA Applications: What to do About Low Work Experience

Business schools don't like to admit students with less than two years of experience--but they will if a candidate really shines.

As an undergrad, Nik Hazell was attending Oxford University as a rower and engineering student when he was injured during the Oxford Cambridge Boat Race.

Hazell suddenly found himself with more time in his schedule. He wanted to stay at Oxford for his masters, and he cast around for the right academic path for him. An MBA from Oxford's Saïd Business School sounded appealing, but Hazell had a problem: he had never worked in business, save for one week at a finance firm.

Less than one percent of students admitted to Saïd have under two years of work experience, but Hazell says the admissions committee was impressed by his ability to balance rowing and engineering during his prior Oxford career.

"Without juggling the extracurricular activity and his academics, they wouldn't have considered me," says Hazell, who ended up earning a place in the course and is now pursuing his MBA. "It showed that I could juggle a lot."

Many MBA programs do not publish hard and fast rules about minimum full-time work experience, but most internationally accredited business schools say they prefer at least two years, and many schools admit classes with average overall work experience of five to six years. Hazell's story is an illustration of a principle espoused by MBA admissions directors: if a student with less than two years of work experience wants to apply for an MBA, he or she must be exemplary.

Anna Farrus, head of admissions at Oxford - Saïd, says a strong academic background, scholarships like the Rhodes, internships and part-time work experience can help sway an admissions committee towards accepting a student with lower-than-average work experience.

Regina Regazzi, assistant dean and director of career services at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, says that her school sometimes accepts students directly out of undergrad--but that those students must be outstanding.

"We had a student a few years ago who was really smart," Regazzi says. "The lowest grade on his undergrad transcript was an A. He was young, coming straight out of undergrad, and we interviewed him from an admissions perspective. He was so wonderful, he had a great personality, the right spirit and attitude. I thought, we can't lose him, let's take him and we'll figure it out."

Why work experience is important in an MBA program

Exceptions like Hazell and Regazzi's student aside, admissions directors say they're often leery of accepting students with limited work experience because a huge part of an MBA involves learning from your classmates. Dee Leopold, Managing Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard Business School, says students with less work experience should figure out whether they have anything to contribute to that invaluable symbiotic relationship with other students.

"There's plenty of ways to get to know people at Harvard Business School and say, ‘gee, would I be able to make a contribution in this classroom?’" Leopold says. "That's what it's all about. Certainly not to think about just what you're going to get but what you're going to give to this two-year conversation."

Students with less experience might also encounter problems after they finish their MBA. UCLA’s Regazzi says that companies in certain industries balk at hiring candidates with only a few years of work experience; consulting companies, for example, are often nervous about putting an inexperienced candidate in front of a client.

Regazzi says that students with less work experience who want to attend an MBA now should use their resume to emphasize their specific experiences.

"Put one or two bullet points on the most recent job that you had. That could be really helpful," Regazzi says. "Did you help write a business plan? Did you write a marketing plan? Did you do financial modeling?"

Regazzi also says that when UCLA accepts students with less work experience, the school often encourages them to pursue academic internships, bolstering their attractiveness to employers upon graduation.

Harvard’s Leopold says that students with low work experience who feel strongly that they're ready for an MBA should consider applying.

"There's not a prescription that one size fits all," Leopold says. "Some people are really ready after two years."

But Regazzi says students should think twice before heading down this road.

"It's possible to get into school with no work experience if you're a great candidate," she says. "But if I were that person, I would probably try to go get a few years of experience."

MBAs right out of undergrad

For business-minded recent graduates, a masters in management program—often referred to as "MiM," or MSc—is often a good choice, since these programs are generally aimed at those with little to no work experience.

However, for those who are sure they want to pursue an MBA at some point in their twenties, schools like Harvard, Yale’s School of Management and the Stanford Graduate School of Business offer programs where college seniors can apply, then defer enrollment for several years. For example, Harvard's program, called the “2+2” MBA, accepts students directly out of college, then requires them to work for two years before matriculating at the program.

Leopold says Harvard uses the program to recruit talented and promising college seniors.

"[Recruiting for] MBA programs can be a challenge; where do you find large groups of people?" Leopold says. "Colleges are one place to do that. They're also inexpensive to visit, versus renting hotel ballrooms in big cities. But you have to go to college with a product. What are you going to tell the college students if you have to be 27 to enroll?"

And the advantage of the 2+2 program for students, says Leopold, is that it provides two built-in years of exploration, followed by a guaranteed spot in a prestigious program at age 24.

"[Millennials] have been on achievement treadmills for an awfully long time, trying to get that next accolade or honor or stepping-stone to something," Leopold says. "What would it feel like if for the next couple of years, you didn't have to do that?”

“What would you do if you had the gift of two or three years to really explore what you really love?"

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