According to Veritas Prep's annual survey of M.B.A. applicants, which the Calif.-based GMAT test prep and M.B.A. admissions consulting company plans to release the latest edition of on Sept. 26, the number of people who applied to M.B.A. programs in 2011 with fewer than three years of work experience declined since 2010.
In 2010, 29.8 percent of 1,721 surveyed M.B.A. applicants had fewer than three years of professional experience and 52.5 percent had worked three to seven years. In 2011, according to the study of 867 participants, just 23.5 percent had up to three years' experience and 58.2 percent had worked three to seven years. In both years, about 3.5 percent reported applying to M.B.A. programs with no work experience, and more than 17 percent for both years had worked for more than seven years.
"Admissions officers love the energy, smarts, and chutzpah of young applicants, but unless they can convince admissions officers that they need to go now—and that they'll fit in among their older classmates—schools will likely turn them away," says Scott Shrum, director of M.B.A. admissions research at Veritas.
But though it's common for budding M.B.A.s to get "real world" experience before applying to business school, some students go directly from their undergraduate studies to business school, and some schools recommend that academic path.
Chris Perry, founder of the personal branding blog Career Rocketeer doesn't regret going straight from his B.A. at the College of William and Mary to the M.B.A. program at its Mason School of Business.
As an undergraduate, he believed his internships and freelance work—which included marketing for a plumbing supply wholesaler and tutoring French—armed him with the tools he'd need for business school. Two years after earning an M.B.A., he still thinks so. "I feel my performance is competitive among my peers despite not having had two to five years of full-time work experience prior to going to business school," he says.
J. Bart Morrison, director of the M.B.A. program at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., says his school actually encourages business and accounting students to apply directly to its M.B.A. program.
"Many recent graduates waste several years in jobs that fail to provide useful developmental opportunities," he says. "Young workers often learn habits and attitudes that hinder rather than advance career development."
[Read why you're never too old or too young for business school.]
About 40 of the 140 M.B.A. students at Assumption are "early career," according to Morrison, who says those students chose that path because they had unsatisfactory job prospects, wanted to land a job with attractive development opportunities, or feared a dead-end career path. "They recognize that they will reap more benefits over time when they earn their degree sooner [in their careers]," he says.
Pamela Ellis, founder of the consulting firm Compass Education Strategies sees things very differently, and calls her choice to enroll at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business immediately after graduating from Stanford University "definitely one of these worst decisions I've ever made."
Like Perry of Career Rocketeer, Ellis thought that her work experience—at several start-ups in Silicon Valley—was sufficient to navigate the M.B.A. curriculum. But it took working at Citibank her first summer in the program for her to shake the feeling of being too inexperienced.
Even if she had worked three or four years before applying to business school, Ellis still feels she would have been too young at 24. "The M.B.A. curriculum is better understood and applied later through the lens of experience," she says. "Entering the workplace without that immediate application was a lose-lose for me and the company."
[Thinking of applying for an M.B.A.? See our Best Business Schools rankings.]
Many business schools agree, which is why so many clearly state on their websites that early career students need not apply. But there are exceptions, such as Assumption.