Top MBA programs are filled with students who have a traditional business background in fields like management consulting and finance, or with experience in large corporate environments. Applicants who pursued nonprofit or social enterprise work after undergrad are often less likely to return to school for a high priced professional degree like an MBA, though top MBA programs are always interested in the diversity of experience offered by nonprofit applicants. If you are approaching an MBA application with a nonprofit background, Peter’s story might help you think about how to approach your own application strategy.
Peter signed up with Stacy Blackman Consulting seeking advice about how to frame his nonprofit arts management background for HBS, Tuck, Kellogg and NYU applications. His degree was in Art History from a small liberal arts college on the west coast, and most of his classmates had pursued PhDs for a career in academia. Peter had always been interested in combining his creative approach with a team based environment, and didn’t see a future researching and teaching at the University level. Through a family friend he was able to land an entry level position at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the arts education group. Though he enjoyed spending time with art lovers and learning the museum business, he used his free time to explore his desire to lead teams to a common goal. Peter started a small collective with some of his artist friends, who were not established in the art world. The purpose of the collective was to promote the artists’ work as well as outreach programs to NYC public school kids as the city’s budget cuts impacted arts education.
Peter’s background and initiative was impressive. His career was on a strong trajectory within MoMA and his volunteer activities were going well, but Peter wanted to pursue entrepreneurial activity within the arts world more aggressively and decided to pursue an MBA.
Our challenge with Peter’s application, like many non-traditional applicants, was that we needed to highlight how well Peter would fit in with his peers, despite a very different career thus far. While many traditional MBA applicants need to differentiate, Peter needed to demonstrate how well suited he was for a competitive MBA program.
The first hurdle was to overcome Peter’s less quantitative academic background. He had achieved a 3.8 GPA and a 690 GMAT score (after three tries), which we decided was a good academic profile for his demographic and background. We did want to make sure there were no questions about his ability to perform in a quantitative program. Rather than advising another try at the GMAT we suggested he take calculus and statistics. He did so and was able to earn As in both and submit those scores with his application to create a solid academic profile.
The softer aspect of fitting in was personal qualities and goals. Sitting down with Peter and discussing his leadership track record and aspirations, it was clear that Peter was a highly motivated, organized and ambitious person who was a clear fit for a top MBA program. Now we just needed to work on showcasing these traits and his fit with each specific school.
For his career goals essay we outlined Peter’s vision for his volunteer organization: to work with corporate arts programs and grow his collective into a social enterprise that created value for artists (allowing them to live on their work) while also providing arts education for urban children.
A natural network of people who have MBAs or are in MBA programs happens less frequently for applicants from a nonprofit background. We encouraged Peter to use his contacts in traditional business roles, who he had met in his volunteer activities and at MoMA, and to find alumni from each of his target schools to meet with. Peter spent several months working his network, and was able to meet with alumni from his target schools to discuss his goals and fit with the programs. This research was incorporated into his career goals and “why MBA” essays and made a huge difference in his results.
Peter was able to demonstrate leadership effectively by discussing how he formed and led his collective to achieve an impact in NYC schools and for its members, and he used his experience within a large museum to discuss his view of organization dynamics in nonprofits and how he wanted to use an MBA to design his own future organization.
Because of Peter’s drive, ambition, networking and strong story he ultimately gained admission to Tuck.
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