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The Right Work Experience For MBA Applicants: What Is It?

Professional background means a lot for MBA applicants. Melody Jones of Vantage Point explains what business schools are looking for

Thu Oct 10 2019

In this Applicant Question, Melody Jones, co-founder of Vantage Point Admissions Consulting, explains how you can get the right pre-MBA work experience under your belt.

How many years' work experience do I need?

I know there’s a lot of conflicting information out there about what the top MBA programs are looking for in applicants. So, I’m excited to shed some light on this!

Students in the top 10 MBA programs have four to five years of work experience at matriculation, which means they had closer to three to four years of work experience when they were applying. 

Keep in mind, however, that those numbers represent the average. Each admitted class is comprised of students who are both less and more experienced. 

Most schools look for a minimum of two years of work experience and on the higher end, we’ve worked with successful applicants who applied with six or seven years of experience. 

That said, those lucky applicants tend to be the exception to the rule and have extenuating circumstances in play⁠.

One example is the client we worked with last year who was admitted to Harvard Business School with two years of work experience. 

She was promoted to lead a team of 12 engineers during this time, as the first international hire at her Japanese manufacturing employer. 

Our advice is to apply when you have the strongest application but don’t ignore the class averages–they are indicative of the schools’ preferences. 


Can I have too much experience?

Why do business schools prefer some experience but not too much experience? 

The first reason is because MBA programs are designed to be hands-on, experiential learning experiences, where students draw from the context of their past professional experience, and their peers' experience, to enrich the learning environment. 

Take the Harvard Business School classroom as an example. The case method, where students debate and solve real-world problems by putting themselves in the role of a business executive, would be far less effective if students had no real experience to draw from. 

If you want to coach football, you need to have played football first, right? The second reason why business schools typically require some work experience is recruiting. 

Companies that hire MBA students aren’t hiring them into entry level positions; they’re typically placing them in the next level up. 

They expect a certain degree of maturity, skillset, and managerial ability that comes with experience. Too much experience can backfire, though, since those candidates are more likely grow restless in their roles, if they’re hired at all. 

What kind of experience are schools looking for?

In terms of what kind of experience business schools are looking for, they truly have no preference on industry or sector. 

In fact, diversity of experience and professional background are what make MBA programs so unique. Admitted classes across the top schools are comprised of former bankers and consultants (of course!) as well as military veterans, engineers, tech product managers, non-profit program managers, and everything in between. 

What admissions committees will be assessing, however, is the rigor of your work experience. Were you challenged? Did you develop a varied skillset? Were you a star performer? Did you contribute to your organization in a meaningful way? And just as importantly, admissions committees will be looking for evidence of leadership

How have you stepped up in your role to solve a problem, for example? I worked with a client this past year who created a formal mentorship program at his company, a bank, after noticing the high analyst turnover rate on his team. 

Whether you’re just starting out in your career or you’re considering applying in round two of this application cycle, it’s never too late to seek out these experiences within the context of your job and your organization.

Can my experience be outside of work?

If opportunities for leadership seem limited at work (or even if you have a resume full of them), you should absolutely look outside of work! 

Robust extra-curriculars, hobbies, and community service involvement can certainly strengthen your MBA applications. 

The same as with work experience, admissions committees aren’t looking for any particular kind of activity outside of work–they’re looking for initiative, risk-taking, and impact. 

We’ve worked with clients who have written entire essays about co-founding an angel investing group, creating a fundraiser for breast cancer research, doubling the footprint of an underprivileged boy’s organization as board chairman, and countless other examples. 

Extra-curriculars not only give you a chance to showcase your leadership aptitude, but also reveal your values and interests. 

All those things will make the case for the valuable contribution you’ll bring to an MBA program. My advice is to find something you’re passionate about and get involved⁠—you won’t regret it!

Next Read:

MBA Rankings: Comparing The World's Best Business Schools