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Get Into Business School: Work Experience

No matter what kind work you do before you apply, be a leader.

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Business schools place great value on their applicants' work and leadership experience. If you're considering pursuing an M.B.A., it's integral that you amass experience that will stand out to business school admissions counselors. U.S. News asked Graham Richmond, graduate and former admissions official at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and co-founder of M.B.A. admissions consulting firm Clear Admit, for his take on how to use work experience to get a leg up when applying to business school: 

1. Do M.B.A. programs place much value on internships, or should applicants seek salaried/full-time positions before applying to M.B.A. programs? 

Students at top business schools typically matriculate with at least one to two years of professional experience. As far as the nature of that experience is concerned, it's usually in the form of full-time, paid positions. 

Regarding internships specifically, admissions officers do look at them as a part of the applicant's profile, but given that most applicants also have full-time, paid positions to showcase, internships often take a bit of a back seat. 

For younger applicants with zero to one year of full-time work experience at the time of application, summer internships (from one's college years) can be useful in terms of demonstrating the exploration of a career path or even specific accomplishments. 

Keep in mind that work experience—whether full time, part time, interning, etc.—doesn't have to be paid work experience in order to be valuable in the admissions process per se. It's more about what you have accomplished, how you have led, who you have collaborated with and how you have grown. 

[Get advice on writing your b-school admissions essay.] 

2. How much work experience should someone have before applying? Does it vary greatly from school to school? 

While this varies, most full-time M.B.A. programs prefer candidates with at least one to two years of full-time work experience. In fact, the average amount of experience among students entering top-tier business schools is typically three to five years. 

As to how long a candidate should wait before applying, this really depends on the quality of his or her professional profile. I've seen wonderful candidates with just one to two years of experience and others that clearly would benefit from more 'seasoning' in the professional world. In all cases, candidates should ask themselves several key questions: Have I made a significant impact on my company, clients, or co-workers? Have I been recognized in some way for my efforts on the job? Have I learned all that I can in my current role? Are other areas of my candidacy (academic profile, community service, etc.) strong enough such that I may be relatively less reliant on my work experience in the admissions process? 

[Get more advice from business school admissions officials.] 

3. What type of jobs and job functions most impress admissions officials? How important is it that the applicant has some form of leadership experience?  

The beauty of business school admissions is that there truly is no single professional profile that schools are seeking. At Clear Admit, we regularly see Peace Corps workers, family-business entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, strategy consultants, accountants, doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, technology professionals, and brand managers all head off to top schools. 

While the programs do not explicitly prefer one sort of job or job function over another, they do seek a well-rounded student body. As such, if candidates come from over-subscribed professions (financial services, strategy consulting, IT), they often need to work very hard to stand out from other similar applicants in the pool. 

Of course, when assessing an applicant's background, factors like leadership and teamwork play a major role. Having said that, there are many ways to demonstrate leadership and teamwork—be it in the professional domain or in one's outside activities. In other words, applicants do not have to be formally managing a team of 10 people in order to have an impressive leadership or teamwork profile. A lot of candidates have less formal leadership experience where they have influenced outcomes by 'managing up' and persuading senior colleagues to adopt an idea, etc. Similarly, many applicants can point to substantial leadership and team experiences in community service activities or during their undergraduate years. 


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