Applying to Business School With Limited Work Experience

Without an established career trajectory to highlight, younger applicants must be able to point to a stellar academic record.
Without an established career trajectory to highlight, younger applicants must be able to point to a stellar academic record.

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on

There is no single right time to go to business school. Every MBA applicant has his or her own unique professional goals and timetable, and while the vast majority of candidates still log three to five years on the job before applying, required work experience has been trending downward over the past decade.

We’ll likely see age and work experience requirements continue to shift, as data show that test-takers under 24 have been the fastest-growing demographic for the GMAT exam.

There are, however, certain types of applicants that set their sights on an MBA right after graduation. Some applicants do so because they don’t want to have to leave the workforce and put their life on hold for two years. The opportunity cost is the largest cost component of an MBA, and that financial sacrifice is lowest in the early career stage.

Other candidates may be thinking about when to start a family, and early entrance to business school would allow many women to establish their careers before having children. Female enrollment in elite business schools lags significantly behind men and tops out at around 40 percent in this year’s incoming class?, but the number of men and women enrolling in medical and law school is fairly evenly split, partially because both of these graduate programs continue straight after university.

Those thinking of applying to business school immediately after college or those with less than three years of work experience, should make an honest assessment of their academic profile, career goals and most crucially, examples of leadership. Also, research which business schools are open to younger, less experienced applicants.? Not all are welcoming to this group, and you don’t want to waste time applying to MBA programs that really value significant work experience.

School websites typically state their preference where work experience is concerned. Additionally, the class profile may also include data on where students fall in terms of their professional background.

Without an established career trajectory to highlight, younger applicants must be able to point to a stellar academic record that includes an exceptional undergrad GPA and GMAT or GRE scores that are through the roof. Any noteworthy scholarships or awards received in college should be included as well.?

The MBA is often used as a way for people to switch careers. Since younger applicants aren’t yet on a firm path, those with little experience need to be able to clearly articulate both short and long-term professional goals, and convince the admissions committee that the degree is critical to helping them reach those goals.

MBA programs that court younger applicants do so because they know that the degree is an excellent way to accelerate the development of rising leaders. Early-career applicants may have fewer work experiences, but the admissions committee is more interested in the quality than the quantity.

Leadership examples should therefore be exceptional. Maybe you worked for the family business in a pivotal role, started your own company or have shown strong leadership in an extracurricular setting.

When we first met our client Anita, she was a college senior at Northwestern University and thought that Harvard Business School‘s 2+2 program for younger applicants was perfect for her, as she would get two years of real-world work experience before returning for a two-year MBA program.

As an economics major, Anita knew that she would be competing with other students with great stats, so she and her consultant chose to emphasize her leadership experiences instead. While in college, Anita had organized a casual group of fellow long-distance runners to raise money for charity, and after several successful runs, she joined up as a local chapter of a national charity running organization.

Anita and her consultant created a narrative of leading younger people that started with Anita’s time as a Girl Scout leader, followed by her Big Sister mentorship, and continued with her resident adviser and orientation leader positions as a college junior and senior.

By highlighting Anita’s leadership qualities and showing how Harvard’s 2+2 program would help shape Anita’s future in the business world, she and her consultant created a strong application that ultimately earned her admission at her dream program.

While younger, less experienced candidates have a tougher time landing a seat at a top business school, MBA programs are definitely becoming more open to including them in the mix. Admissions committees put much consideration into who they will admit each year, and these days, creating a rich and diverse classroom experience often means including the voices of strong early-career students as well.


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