How an Admissions Committee Views MBA Work Experience

By - Aug 19, 06:30 AM Comments [0]

How an Admissions Committee Views MBA Work Experience

You have made the decision to apply to an MBA program (or two, or 10). Now you need to think about your past work experience and how it all fits into your story. What follows are some thoughts on how admissions committees think about certain types of work experience, and how you may want to approach the application process depending on your own experience.

Traditional work experience

Some of you may think that because you have worked in marketing but not at P&G, worked in banking but not at Goldman Sachs, or worked in technology but not at Google that your experience may not count as much to admissions committees when compared against applicants who have worked for brands with cache. For those of you with those assumptions, fear not. The quality of the work that you do is much more important than working at a name-brand institution.

If you have brand experience

That being said, brand name experience might be viewed by members of an admissions committee and potentially give you an edge, at least on the surface.

Brand names like P&G, Goldman Sachs, or GE have instant recognition. They are world-class institutions, and as a result have the luxury of an extensive candidate pool to choose from. Therefore, if you have worked for one of these firms, it means you probably beat out some pretty stiff competition to get your job. That alone warrants a second look at your candidacy.

Brand experience +:

With that second look, there are a few things admissions committees will want to see in order to “verify” that the experience within the organization is strong as well.

  1. Longevity: If you only were employed at a brand name firm for a brief period of time (one year or less), there could be concern that you weren’t able to take the work environment. If, on the other hand, you have been with the firm for two or more years, that employment duration signals competence, persistence, and hard work.
  2. Promotions: They will look for evidence of increased responsibilities and/or promotions. Regardless of company, that increase is the best indication that you are seen as highly capable by management and therefore have a great future ahead of you.
  3. Movement: If you have more than one brand name on your resume, that is a strong signal as well. You were able to successfully transition from one world class firm to another, or perhaps were poached.
  4. Insight: Working at a brand-name company provides an additional benefit too: an admissions committee will see that you have experienced the inner workings of an organization that is best-in-class, and therefore can provide some valuable perspective in class discussions. Top companies clearly have done something right to get that reputation, and while you may not even realize it, you have been exposed to and internalized techniques and practices that are beyond reproach.

While brand name matters less than work experience, it does have the potential to provide an edge in the initial review process. If you don’t have brand name experience, however, fear not! Bottom line, what really matters is the substance of the work rather than the name itself. What you’ve done is still more important than where you have done it.

Admissions committees are looking to fill their cohorts with individuals having as wide a range of experiences as possible, and especially experience that is relevant to an MBA curriculum. When faculty are teaching a particular subject, the lessons come to life when students have real world experience pertaining to the topic. As such, the skills and knowledge gained from significant projects managed from start to finish matter. Involvement with strategic initiatives matters. You don’t have to have been involved in a multi-million-dollar deal to gain strong leadership and management skills.

Small projects still matter!

Even small projects that you “own” can be extremely valuable in providing expertise in particular areas. As you advance in your career, always be on the lookout for projects that allow you to take on a significant leadership role and provide you with a certain degree of autonomy.

When it comes time to reduce the work you’ve done to one bullet point on your resume, you want to be able to make that bullet as impactful as possible, for example, “Led a team of eight to cut costs in the supply chain by 20% through strategic re-purposing of older machines.”

This example shows leadership, strategic thinking, and tangible results, all really important stuff! That’s what admissions committees want to see. It doesn’t matter if the size of the project was $10,000 or $1,000,000, or that it was done at Boeing or Jane’s Jewelry Factory. What matters is that you provided significant results to your company.

Increasing responsibility

In addition to having tangible real-world experience to share in the classroom, admissions committees are also looking for upward mobility. With any luck you have a strong track record of promotions, as that is the easiest way to signal that mobility, and would be immediately obvious on a resume. Even if you don’t, however, you can still showcase the fact that your responsibilities have increased over time through thoughtful wording in your resume, such as, “Rewarded with project management of X following successful implementation of social media planning schedule.” Essays might also be a place to show the upward movement, depending on the topic. Being awarded by your company with greater responsibilities is the clearest signal you can give that you have what it takes to succeed in an MBA program and in your career thereafter.

Non-traditional work experience

A common concern from prospective clients with non-traditional work experience is whether or not that experience will be considered relevant in an MBA classroom. I have heard this from doctors, lawyers, military officers, and more. Believe it or not, the less traditional one’s work experience, (often) the more an admissions committee is interested!

When putting together a cohort, admissions committee members strive to make it as diverse as possible, in every way possible – job function, industry, culture, etc. Imagine if a class was made up of just bankers? Or IT engineers? How rich would the discussion be across all courses? Not very! As such, schools are delighted when non-traditional applicants apply, and you can be assured that your application will get noticed. The assumption is that individuals coming from a non-business background will approach issues and problems with a different perspective and set of priorities that may allow for additional learning opportunities for their classmates (and possibly even the faculty!).

There are a few things to be cognizant of as a non-traditional applicant. While generally speaking an admissions committee will be interested in you simply based on your background, there are two things you need to have solidly in your profile in order to be seriously considered for admission:

  1. Stellar grades in a few courses that can indicate your ability to succeed with quant work (e.g. statistics, calculus) in a demanding MBA program, and/or a top-notch GMAT or GRE scoreSince much of your degree’s coursework may not be directly relatable to a business program’s curriculum, the school needs to be confident you will be able to handle the MBA courses. If quant courses are missing from your transcript (and if you don’t knock the GMAT or GRE out of the park), you should consider taking an algebra, business math, or statistics course at a local community college or online to alleviate any concern there (aim for a B or better).
  2. A solid reason for needing an MBABelieve it or not, there are serial degree seekers out there. Since the reason you are interested in an MBA will most likely not be obvious based on your previous work experience, you need to do an even better job of presenting your career goals and objectives. Why is an MBA necessary to get you where you want to go?

Bottom line, you are going to attract positive attention from an admissions committee based on your non-traditional background. Now that you have their attention, make your case for acceptance with a mind-blowing application that shows them you fit in, i.e. that you will thrive in their program and need the education their program provides to achieve your dreams.


Creating a resume as a self-employed individual presents some challenges. If you already have an established business, some of this information is superfluous, but if you have been doing contract work, there are details to manage beyond the summary of the work you have been doing.

Company name

If you own an established business, you probably already have a company name, but if you are doing freelance work or contract consulting, you might not. You need to put something in for company name that helps the reader understand you are indeed self-employed but also has some gravitas to it. It could be something as simple as “Jane Doe XYZ Consulting” (assuming your name is Jane Doe, of course!).

Job title

If you are doing contract work, you want to avoid putting, “Self-employed” or “Freelancer” as your title. While this may technically be what you are doing, again you want to label yourself in such a way as to lend credibility to the work you are doing. Consider “CEO/Founder,” or if that is overreach, something like “Senior Consultant” or “Senior Engineer.” Choose something that is as close to what your title would be were you employed by someone else without being too self-congratulatory. For those of you with existing businesses, the “CEO/Founder” designation is most likely an accurate depiction.

Work experience

If you are running a business with tangible goods or services, it should be fairly straightforward to map out your experience. Hopefully you have been keeping careful tabs on the successes you have had. For contractors, you should discuss projects you have worked on for various firms, listing out details on those particular projects as much as you can without risking the breach of any confidentiality agreements you have in place. With any luck you have some good, quantifiable results that you can point to as well. Here are some examples of how you could present projects:

“Overhauled payment system for $XMM automotive parts manufacturer, resulting in reduction of A/P by 20%.”

“Performed research and presented findings related to a proposed expansion of a non-profit into a new territory. Research results were subsequently shared with existing donors, who then funded 100% of the planned expansion.”

“Designed website and implemented social media strategy and tactics for eight-member startup in the energy industry.”

Bottom line on self-employment

Admissions committees want to admit people who have interesting experience to share with classmates. Review the core and elective course offerings at the schools you are looking at, and think about how the work you have done on your own could allow you to contribute to class discussions. Take those examples that come to mind and present them in your resume, and possibly later on in more detail in essays.

Want to make sure you present your work experience in the best possible way? Work with a seasoned consultant at Accepted to polish the presentation of your work experience and your entire application. Contact us today!

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Jen Weld is a former Assistant Director of Admissions at Cornell’s EMBA program. She has an additional 10 years of experience in higher ed and corporate marketing. Want Jen to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!

Related Resources:

• Leadership in Admissions, a free guide
• 7 Tips for MBA Applicants from Family Businesses
• Work Experience in Your MBA Admissions Profile

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