OK, an MBA application checklist: Good grades from university - check. Strong GMAT score – check. Three years of work experience – d'oh! Really? Is work experience that important?
Yes, the harsh reality is that most good business schools require applicants to have at least a few years of work experience. One reason for this – the schools say – is that a cohort of experienced students simply make for a better MBA program.
“We believe that applicants who have professional experience will not only better understand the material they’re studying, they will also be able to contribute to the class discussions by providing their own opinions and practical experience,” says Christie St. John, Senior Associate Director of Admissions at Dartmouth University's Tuck School of Business.
Students enrolled in Tuck's MBA program bring an average of five years to the table. Most full-time programs require at least two or three years. There are the exceptions, of course: students straight out of university who manage to woo the admissions boards with superb grades, astronomical GMAT scores, and spellbinding ambition and charisma. But bold defiance of work experience requirements is most often met with something akin to “come back in a year or two.”
The logic is that students with more experience feel more comfortable speaking up in class and engaging in deeper discussions with classmates, while using concrete examples, which can naturally lead to better insights.
After all, one of the main benefits of an MBA program is peer learning, according to Ralf Bürkle at Mannheim Business School in Germany.
“But this is only possible if all participants are nearly on the same level, and can share their professional experiences with their fellow students,” says Bürkle.
“Work experience is definitely one of the most important factors in the application process,” says Lee Milligan, director of MBA admissions at Copenhagen Business School. “We require at least three years, but the more the better.”
“Our opinion is that without the experience, the program becomes far too academic,” adds Milligan.
Of course, it's not all about numbers; the quality of experience also plays a large role. A person with less experience, but who has a variety of responsibilities under their belt is also considered a strong candidate.
Prospective students with little to no work experience might consider a Master in Management program, instead.
At Mannheim, applicants who have already gained substantial work experience have an advantage in the admission process, through personal interviews and other factors also weigh into the final decision.
In the United States, alternatives to work experience do exist. Some schools admit students fresh out of university, enrolling them in “bridge” programs that specifically target students transitioning out of the liberal arts field. Students attend a “business boot camp” where they are introduced to b-school basics as preparation for careers in business.
At Stanford University, the Summer Institute for General Management offers college juniors, seniors, and recent graduates an opportunity to build critical business skills, while the Summer Institute for Entrepreneurship helps graduate students develop their ideas into successful business ventures.
At the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management in Nashville, Accelerator is a summer business program for undergraduates and recent grads that bridges between the academic world and the business world. Even Tuck offers the Tuck Business Bridge Program, which is an intensive, career-focused program for university juniors and seniors, as well as recent graduates of arts and sciences colleges.
But collecting work experience isn't just about getting into business school; it's also about succeeding once you're back out in the business world.
Corporate recruiters expect MBA graduates to have ample work experience, so they often hire based on that expectation.
“They have no reason to pay an MBA salary to someone who has never been put to the test in the real world, regardless of the educational background,” explains Christie St. John at Tuck. “There is really no substitute for practical, hands-on experience.”
Lee Milligan agrees. “For us, the MBA is not just about grades. It’s about what you learn and how you apply that in the business world after the MBA. The more practical their experience, the more relevant it is for them when they gain employment again.”
Previous skills from the workforce can be transferred to the program, which will likely propel students to the top of the class (or to the top of the job search afterward). Of course, it’s up to the student to then refine, employ, and sell those skills, in addition to the valuable knowledge acquired during an MBA.
So for any person looking towards b-schools, it’s wise to cultivate a few years of quality professional experience in the sector of choice. Have a story to tell both the MBA admissions people and your classmates.
Work experience for an MBA: How much do you need?
- For most MBA programs, you'll need at least 3-4 years of work experience
- To be competitive at an MBA from a top business school, you'll generally need between 4 and 7 years of work experience
- Most MBA program recruit students who are between 27 and 30, although this range can vary dramatically
- For an MBA program to receive AMBA accreditation, all admitted students must have at least 3 years of work experience
Photo: Lilly_M / Creative Commons