Applying For An MBA From A Nonprofit Background

It’s not your traditional MBA background, but Aaron Firestone says his experience in nonprofits got him accepted into the full-time MBA at Berkeley Haas

If you’re coming from a non-profit background, the application process for top-ranked MBA programs might seem especially challenging. Yet some of the world’s best business schools are known for their focus on social impact.

Aaron Firestone, an MBA graduate from the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, says his experience in advocacy work and focus on advancing non-profit management helped him gain admittance to the top-tier MBA.

After graduating with a BA in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Swarthmore College in 2001, Aaron worked with environmental justice non-profits for several years before enrolling in business school.

He explains that while those organizations were doing great work, he began to believe that “by applying some of the thinking and management practices at work in the for-profit sector to the social sector, you could really enhance the degree of impact.”

While this idea may have felt innovative at the time, Aaron soon learned that social enterprise theory and practice was well at home with some of most elite MBA programs.  

In pursuit of his aspiration to interject business sense into non-profit management, Aaron moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco where he worked with an environmental group while he applied to MBA programs. These included Wharton, Harvard, Ross, Yale, and Haas.

He was accepted by the latter three and chose Haas for the combination of location (his wife-to-be lived in the Bay Area) and for “the school’s strength in corporate social responsibility, social enterprise, and non-profit management,” he says.

On why he chose to pursue an MBA over other courses of study, Aaron explains: “My head was really on business practices and non-profit management. I was looking for a professional degree, not a PhD program. And, while some Masters give you certain subject matter expertise, an MBA comes with the knowledge of how the whole organization functions.”

Aaron wanted to be a practitioner, not someone who only studies the field. While he was working with environmental groups at the time, he wasn’t solely interested in that work and didn’t know yet know where his interests would lead. “I was looking at social impact broadly speaking.”

For this reason, Aaron chose the MBA degree.

For those at the early stages of the business school application process, Aaron emphasizes: “If you’re serious about applying, take a GMAT or GRE class. There’s no shame in it. I always performed well on standardized tests, but I still took a class. It increases your scores, and you’re not even going to have your application read at top schools if you don’t score well.”

Aaron also highlights the importance of matching your personality and purpose to corresponding schools. “If you look at the schools I got into—Yale, Ross, and Haas—my background and my reason for applying made sense to those places.”

Just because you are a high-performing candidate doesn’t mean you should indiscriminately apply to all the top schools. And how does one reflect this in essays and interviews? Aaron offers a suggestion:

"Make your story make sense. Real people will be reading your application and asking 'Is this a person who will fit at our school and be a credit to our program?' So, think about the character of a school and find the programs that will actually want you."

A common-sense consideration—but one that may be overlooked by some in the pursuit of prestige over function—is how your target program will prepare you on a practical level. Aaron notes, “For me, an MBA was very valuable. It increased both my impact and my earning capacity.”

He acknowledges that he may not have been able to land his current position—director of business development at a healthcare tech firm—without an MBA.

“The connections that I made and the skills I acquired were a match with the organization where I work now. I went from being a post-MBA fellow to (now) a director level running a group.

“I probably wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t gotten and MBA.”

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