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3 Tips for Non-Traditional MBA Applicants

April 27, 2024 :: Jacob Allison

Most MBA applicants come from traditional “business” backgrounds, that is, accounting, management consulting, sales, or finance and investment banking. However, a lot also come from non-traditional backgrounds, including nonprofit work, government, military, and many others. These applicants are often nervous that their non-traditional background makes their candidacy less competitive. In the majority of cases, however, that’s just not true. 

The Challenges of Non-Traditional MBA Applicants

You’re the non-traditional bschool applicant. Maybe you’re a doctor looking at a career change. Maybe you’re an IT guy interested in non-profit. Maybe you’re a mango farmer sick of picking fruit, but you’ve been running the family business for a few years. The point is that you don’t “fit the mold.” You’re coming from a different angle.

The simple fact is that this can be either an advantage or a disadvantage, all depending on how you approach it. Even the mango farmer has MBA-relevant skills: leadership, management experience, teamwork, even problem solving. At the same time, chances are you’ll be short on “finance” experience that those private equity people will have TONS of in their applications. So, what can you do?

Well, the good news is, while you may be non-traditional… you’re not the only one. There are plenty of other people out there getting worried about their background just like you. It’s something we see around these parts all the time. Schools want to diversify their student bodies so they’re going to be excited about people who don’t fit the mold. Your job is to convince them that you have something to offer the traditional business students. 

Tips for Non-Traditional MBA Applicants

Recognize Your Skills Gaps

Coming from a non-traditional background when applying for an MBA program does mean that you’ll probably have more fundamental business skills gaps that need to be filled through your MBA experience. There’s nothing wrong with that, and as long as you briefly recognize these skills gaps in your essays and lay out your plans for using your target school’s resources to fill them, then they shouldn’t be an  impediment to your competitiveness. Remember, just like any other skills gaps you write about in your essays, the resources you plan on utilizing to fill them should be unique to your target school’s program.

Showcase Your Unique Experiences

As exciting as work in finance and management consulting can be, it’s safe to say that biz school adcoms that read thousands of apps each year have probably heard about every conceivable situation and challenge that can occur in those industries. As a non-traditional applicant, you have the exciting opportunity to tell the adcoms a story they probably haven’t heard before. Whether you’ve drilled holes beneath the ocean floor on an oil rig hundreds of miles off the coast of Russia or started a malaria prevention non-profit in rural Zambia, you’ve probably got interesting, unique stories to tell the adcoms about how you’ve used leadership to overcome challenges in interesting situations.

After all, an MBA is at its core a leadership training program. Yes, quantitative skills are important, but these programs trust that applicants are talented enough to catch themselves up on these fundamental skills. What is harder to teach are leadership instincts and an ability to thrive in diverse, uncertain situations. If your non-traditional work history shows that you can do that, then it doesn’t really matter if you’re a pro number cruncher.

When describing your leadership experiences in your MBA essays, focus on the words and actions you used to motivate and inspire others to overcome unique challenges. The more dramatic and interesting the challenge is, the more the adcom’s eyebrows will be raised, and the more likely it is that they’ll remember your application.

Share Your Unique Goals

You wouldn’t believe how many applicants we’ve worked with whose initial short-term and long-term goals were: Short Term – work at a Big 3 firm, Long-Term – start their own boutique consultancy. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to work in management consulting, but making that goal feel authentic, unique, and interesting to an adcom that reads about those same exact goals from hundreds of other applicants every year is a big challenge. You’re essentially a very determined fish in a school of hundreds of very determined fish.

Just like your experiences, if you’re a non-traditional MBA applicant, your short-term and long-term goals could also be something that adcoms may not have seen before. This can be a huge competitive boost if leveraged effectively in your admissions essays.

When talking about your goals, make sure to describe them in your own words, not words you think a businessperson might use. Adcoms read terms like “value added” and “efficiencies” all the time. Instead, be personal and authentic. Why is your long-term goal creative, innovative, and addressing a unique problem that you’ve identified? Why hasn’t someone already started a company that brings digital education to the steppes of Mongolia and the rainforests of the Amazon? Why is your company going to do that in a way that seizes on a huge market opportunity? If you tell the adcoms something new, they’ll definitely remember you over cookie-cutter Wall St. aspirant #55/500.

If you can make a convincing argument for why you need an MBA to accomplish your goals, chances are it’s not too important that you don’t have typical business experience on your resume. Keep that in mind as you’re crafting this season’s MBA applications.