Truthfully, getting into an MBA program without significant work experience is quite difficult, and for good reason: arguably half of the knowledge gained during an MBA program comes directly from other students, not from academic content or professors.
That’s why it’s immensely important for admissions committees to build classes of students who can impact their cohorts with unique perspectives and knowledge, both of which are most often developed in the workplace.
With the right mindset and strategy however, you can make the key benefits of work experience materialize for you regardless of having spent fewer years in the working world—especially if you’ve done the following five things:
1. You’ve experienced conflict
The ‘real world’ is something that is difficult to fully prepare for during undergraduate studies. No matter how many books you read or how many leadership courses you take, it’s rare to feel totally primed for handling that first big ‘lesson’ from screwing up a project or experiencing moral discomfort with a request from a supervisor. After managing uncomfortable circumstances like these head-on, you’ll likely be more apt to handle tough situations in your MBA program, like difficult team members or heated open-forum discussions.
Without years of work experience to learn from, you’ll have to strongly demonstrate how you’ve developed an arsenal of conflict resolution strategies in alternate environments (i.e. sports teams, volunteer projects, etcetera). It will be crucial to articulate how those strategies can be applicable to the MBA program and the business world beyond.
2. You’ve developed unique expertise
After four-to-five years in the workplace, you’ve likely developed some sort of niche that others will find fascinating, useful, or both. For example, I had a classmate who knew everything about cryptocurrency; we all eventually learned that for anything related to Bitcoin—he was our guy. Imagine having hundreds of these knowledge experts constantly at your disposal, and you’ll see why substantial experience is so attractive to admissions committees.
My advice to those who do not yet have specialized knowledge from work experience is to take the initiative to ardently learn independently: attend events and seminars, meet people in your field(s) of interest, have evocative conversations, and read as much as possible – you don’t need to get paid to develop a niche.
3. You’ve already started building your network
After a few years of working, you’ve probably developed a considerable network, which is useful not only for you, but also for any classmates interested in your career area. If you’re looking to exit your current industry and someone else is looking to get in, it’s useful to have a cache of contacts to offer up in exchange for someone else’s.
To build a meaningful network without work experience, you’ll need to dedicate more time, try harder, and educate yourself further. It won’t happen by accident, so you’ll have to be prepared to enthusiastically seek relationships and avoid being passive while maintaining sincerity. Demonstrating that you’ve made an effort to grow your network will reveal your potential value in an MBA program, so don’t be shy about showcasing your involvement with key organizations.
4. You’ve had ‘life experience’
There’s nothing MBA professors like more than bringing up something that actually happened (or is happening) in the business world and leaving it to MBA students to discuss how they would handle it as future leaders. Being able to apply your past experience to these case studies is incredibly valuable since you’ll have a meaningful point of reference; without it, you’ll need to clearly communicate during the application process that you’ve had significant life experience you can extrapolate from instead in order to provide valuable insights to case study discussions.
5. You’ve matured
It doesn’t necessarily happen with age, but it often happens with experience: after years of proving yourself and gaining confidence in your field, you’ll become more poised and prepared to tackle what the world has to throw at you. A deterrent from admitting inexperienced candidates is the high possibility that they will be fearful, unconfident, naïve, or unwilling to get their feet wet with unfamiliar problems. The interview is an opportunity to demonstrate your composure in a tangible way and overcome any doubts admissions has on your maturity despite your age or experience level. Prepare by concentrating not only on the content of your interview responses, but also by working on how your presence comes across to interviewers.
If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this: you don’t need a paycheck to gain valuable experience. The more you can demonstrate that your volunteer work, internships, athletics, or other life experiences have given rise to the same personal development benefits as traditional work experience, the better your chances of overcoming your limited time in the working world and getting into a top program.
MyGuru is currently offering a unique, free GMAT skills webinar. Attendees can submit their specific GMAT or b-school admissions questions in advance and have them answered during the webinar on 7/2 from 6:30 to 7:15. Everyone who signs up will receive a link to a video of the webinar as well.
Andrea Coulis is a senior tutor for MyGuru, a provider of online GMAT tutoring. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Finance from Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business and an MBA from the University of Oxford, Saïd Business School.