As the old saying goes: “It’s easier to get a job when you have a job.” With unemployment at an all-time high in the age of COVID-19, and even some of the most impressive professionals forced to deal with lay-offs, we’re hearing unemployment-related questions more and more often in our conversations with prospective MBA applicants. Does not having a job at the time of your application cripple your chances for admission? How can an otherwise qualified candidate put their best foot forward in spite of an employment gap?
In this article, we’ll answer those questions and provide unemployed MBA candidates with strategies for turning what (at first glance) looks like a blemish into an opportunity.
Positives and Negatives
First the obvious: Any substantial employment gap needs to be explained, especially when that period happens to coincide with application season. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some positives to the situation. The most obvious is having more time to devote to preparing for your GMAT, doing necessary research into MBA programs, and writing those all-important application essays. You also have some freedom—which you could potentially use to do something far more impactful for your application than simply punching in and out of a job every day.
The bad news: “taking time off to get into an MBA” is not a good explanation for a current employment gap, at least not in the admissions committee’s eyes. After all, if every other applicant can handle balancing multiple commitments (including work, life, and the grueling MBA process) throughout the application season, so should you, right? It’s important to remember that MBA programs don’t exist to jump-start your career from zero. They’re career accelerators designed to leverage what you’ve done to help you get where you’re going, and as such, your past work experience is a core part of who you are as an applicant.
Not having a job at the time of your application could look to the admissions committee as if you’re using their program to run away from a bad situation, rather than running toward a goal – which is, we should say, THE goal. Despite traffic into business school historically increasing during times of economic downturn, MBA programs don’t want to be seen as a safe harbor from a rough job market. They want to be treated as a challenging, deliberate, and confident next step in a well-planned career trajectory.
For these reasons, you should try and avoid being unemployed at the time of your application if at all possible. You’ll almost certainly increase your chances if you wait a year or two. And two years may be the best choice: MBA programs know that matriculating to their program will require you to leave your current position – that’s kind of the point of getting an MBA! – so, seeing a brand-new job on your resume could actually be a red flag. A new job begs the question, “shouldn’t she stay in this new position a little longer before jumping ship for an MBA? Has something gone horribly wrong there?”
But if, for whatever reason, waiting is not an option, there are some strategies you can take to make the best of this situation in your applications. It is possible to get into even elite B-schools without a job—we’ve seen it happen with our clients—but only if the application and explanation are pitch perfect.
Addressing unemployment in your application
Nearly every MBA application will ask about gaps in past employment, and our admissions consultants have written a guide for how to best utilize this prompt in your application essays. For schools that don’t explicitly ask you about employment gaps in a separate essay, we advise that you address this issue in the “additional information” section that can be found tacked on to pretty much every MBA application. Now, the remaining question is… “How?”
DO Focus on a GROWTH STORY
How this time has made you better prepared for your future goal? There’s a ton you can do during your application cycle year that isn’t rooted in your past career experiences. Many MBA applicants use their degree to pivot careers, and if that’s the case for you, use this period of unemployment to test out that next career pivot! Especially if income isn’t a major issue at the moment, you can be free to explore your future goals in new and exciting ways that a full-time career would not have allowed.
- Volunteer, intern or work at an NGO in your future field – though not a paid position, by demonstrating to the admissions committee that you’re passionate enough about your long-term goal to take the time before you MBA to explore the new field and gain hands-on experience, you could potentially use this time of unemployment to make a larger impact toward your overall application argument.
- Start a business – Do you have entrepreneur long-term goals but no experience starting a business from the ground up? Use this time of unemployment to do that leg work. The great part about starting a business during the application cycle is that you don’t have to grow it to fruition in order to use this influential experience your essays (though they might ask for a progress update in your interviews!). Done right, this can even count as employment and paper over your entire gap.
- Become a global citizen – In an ever-globalizing economy, pretty much any long-term professional goal would be benefited by more nuanced cultural/international exposure. Use this period unemployment to advance toward global citizenship by living in a foreign country and learning a new language. This works best for candidates interested in a specific region—for example, one of our clients intentionally took the year before going to INSEAD off to learn French, because they planned to make their career at a big French CPG firm. (It worked—they got the admit!)
- Do something memorable – MBA programs will receive thousands of applicants who’ve worked in finance, consulting, etc. Standing out can be the toughest challenge in an MBA application, so use this downtime to do something truly memorable! Hike Kilimanjaro, scuba dive with whales, build a sounding rocket – the possibilities are endless.
This is far and away the biggest“don’t.” Don’t be negative! At all. No matter how unfair or bad the situation was. Maybe you hated your last job and had to get away from it for your own sanity. Maybe you feel bitter that you got laid off due to COVID. Resist the urge, however fair, to complain. Always err on the side of a “growth story” rather than dwelling on the negatives. Adcoms want to see resilience and persistence in the face of challenges, not fatalism.
DO Focus on Practical Steps You’ve Taken to Overcome Adversity
COVID? Make lemonade! Show how you handled these curveballs. Overcoming adversity is a major tentpole in MBA applications, and there is no adversity more relevant than professional adversity. If you’re struggling to spin this hard time into a growth story (though it’s great if you can,) then focus on the straightforward, practical reasons for your unemployment. Maybe you can use how you’ve handled this experience as your response to the common “challenge/adversity” essay prompt!
DON’T Say That You Needed Additional Time to Focus On Applications Requirements
Even if it’s true that you’re using your extra time to study for the GMAT or work on your essays (a good idea!) don’t emphasize that. Most applicants will be applying while also doing a full time job, and your needing extra time will look like a weakness in comparison. You should be doing things that make your application better—not because you NEED to do them, but because you’re just very passionate about whatever volunteer/extraprofessional projects you’re working on.
You’ve (for once!) got some free time on your hands! That doesn’t mean you should spend it playing Call of Duty. Instead, hit the pavement! Reach out to current MBA students at your top-choice schools or find alumni in your area and ask to meet. These connections can come in handy when name-dropping in a “why this school” essay prompt or figuring out how a program can best meet your goals.
DON’T Stop looking for jobs
Even if you don’t get the new position until after you’ve submitted your application, sending an update letter with the news may still be valuable to your application. The last thing an MBA admissions committee wants to see is that you’re a quitter. If you’re truly passionate about your goal (as you’ll argue you are in your essays) then the adcom wants to believe you’ll strive to reach that goal whether or not you get into business school. If it’s truly meaningful to you, you’ll get there, no matter that path. There’s no better way to prove this commitment than continuing to advance toward your goal even when life gets in the way. Keep looking for jobs in your desired field – that way, even if you don’t get accepted to your dream MBA, you’ll be that much closer to your goal anyway!
MBA admissions consulting
A situation like this is one where the quality of your application is even more crucial than normal. If you have professional or personal contacts you can trust to review your application materials, do so. Even better, reach out to our MBA admissions consultant team for professional help!