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MBA Application: Do B-Schools Prefer Work Experience With Startups Or Big-Name Firms?

Susan Bershaj, founder of Sia Admissions, explains what MBA admissions committees think of work experience with a startup compared to big-name firms

Tue May 19 2020



Should I take a startup job or a role with a large firm to build my pre-MBA experience?

Dear BusinessBecause,

In two years, I will apply to MBA programs at US colleges. RIght now, I have the choice of working at a higher post in a startup, or a lower post at a well-established firm.

Which position will be better for my MBA application?

The Answer

This week's Applicant Question is answered by Susan Bershaj, founder of Sia Admissions.

While I never recommend a prospective applicant take on a role for the sake of an MBA application—mainly because an MBA should be viewed as a tool that helps your short and long-term career goals, and not the end itself—there are elements that you must be mindful of as you make your next move. 

Startup vs established firm

Remember, the admissions committee looks for employability. Deciding to work for a well-established firm or a startup must include a consideration of their pros and cons as they relate to your immediate, post-MBA goals. 

A well-established firm carries brand recognition. Furthermore, their proven training programs typically make you more marketable post MBA. That said, the safety that comes as a result of working for a well-established firm may hinder the depth of your exposures and may mean slower career advancement opportunities. 

The startup world, while riskier, will most likely offer a depth and breadth of experiences and exposures which may lead to speedier advancement and, as a result, a potentially more well-rounded application. 

Discovering long-term career goals

Careers are dynamic, and, for that reason, your next steps must enable you to move your goals forward, regardless of an MBA. Therefore, the next job must support your long-term ambition in some way.

Clearly articulate how each potential path may move you closer to your goals. Are there particular elements in your profile you must develop now, and how will each opportunity advance that required development? 

Having a clear answer to this two-part question and choosing a path that best leads to building-up your skillsets will help strengthen your candidacy.  

When it comes to business school applications, the admissions committee looks for professionals with demonstrated leadership abilities, whether that’s evident in their role or through self-imposed initiatives that lead to successful outcomes.  

Therefore, as you evaluate each opportunity, examine the types of experiences you foresee being involved in, the probability for a leadership role, or available opportunities to show initiative.

Having a repository of experiences to draw from and clearly articulating them in your applications will enable the admissions committee to visualize your contributions to your team and your organization, making you an obvious choice for their program. 

Got a question of your own?


What experience are admissions committees looking for?

Since a typical applicant will have about five years of work experience by the time they begin their MBA studies, the admissions committee also expects advancement or added responsibilities over time. 

Therefore, ambitious applicants showcase consistent progress, which demonstrates their drive and seriousness with which they take their roles as exacters of change, helping move the company’s mission forward. 

If you have not asked your potential future employer about career advancement opportunities or possibilities for project work beyond your job description, now is the time to do so.

As you consider both options, it is pivotal that your next steps help, firstly, to develop skills that move you closer to attaining your long-term career goals and, secondly, enable opportunities for demonstrated leadership. 

The role should also offer possibilities for formal or informal career advancement. That said, at the end of the day, you must also evaluate your aversion to risk. 

If you can tolerate risk, then the drive that comes from being in the unknown may make your startup experience that much more stimulating. In turn, this will lead to more meaningful experiences that will translate well into your business school applications.  

If you are risk-averse, the benefit of a structured process gives opportunities to learn from proven methods that may be invaluable to your cohort.  

Ask an admissions expert a question

Next week, you'll have the chance to ask Claudia Lucas, marketing and admissions director at the Lisbon MBA, anything you want about getting into business school. 25cb7edb1c9ce7302f440d2d3cec47d9729ff89a.jpg

Prior to her work with the Lisbon MBA, Claudia worked in marketing with fast moving consumer goods giant, Colgate. Here, she discovered a passion for helping others succeed as leaders.

With this realization, she left Colgate to become an executive coach, and continues to support professionals through their careers as they set out on an MBA. 

Got a question you'd love Claudia to answer? Submit your question