MBA admissions officers covet applicants who expect to lead significant family businesses because, simply put, they have a higher likelihood of career success. However, family business applicants do not get a free pass. They must still show that they have the professional skills and strong determination to do well in their long-term career. Here we share our top advice for MBA applicants who expect to run a family business after graduating from business school.
Show that you can earn it.
Top MBA programs might have a slight bias in favor of candidates who have a clear path to the CEO’s chair, but they absolutely have a bias against entitlement and privilege. Family business applicants need to demonstrate that they have not simply been handed one opportunity after another but can actually earn such opportunities on their own merits. Candidates who have worked outside the family business prior to applying to an MBA program can often establish this fairly easily, but those who are still working within the family business need to be sure that they can detail accomplishments that are independent from a family member. If you are currently working in your family business, you must be able to say you “owned” this accomplishment and can substantiate your depth of commitment in your interviews, essays, resume, and other parts of your application. In addition, maintaining significant engagement in community activities and pursuing personal goals can be quite important and helpful for individuals in a family business—including pursuing entrepreneurial ambitions—because doing so sends the message that they are capable of achieving success on their own.
Have your own vision.
The MBA admissions committees are less interested in applicants who plan to become CEO and then simply put the family business on autopilot. They want to see that you can honor the past while having your own ambitions and growth agenda, and that you intend to take what you learn from your MBA experience to propel your family business to the next level. The schools want to know that you can be a catalyst, not just a caretaker. So keep this in mind when sharing your goals in your personal statements or when responding to questions about your aspirations in your interviews. Never disparage the past, but clearly show that you have a personal vision for growth in a new area or a plan to change the company in an exciting way. Hypothetically, if you were in a third-generation manufacturing business, you could discuss anything from reinvesting in robotics to developing new product lines to diversifying profits into entirely different industries. The admissions committee will be less concerned about the specific path you describe and more concerned that the idea you have in mind is exciting and, most of all, yours.
Consider recommenders carefully.
That you should not ask a family member for a letter of recommendation should go without saying, but this does not mean that you lack strong options. Instead, you could ask, for example, a client, supplier, mentor, independent board member, or advisor to the family business to write on your behalf. What is most important is that whomever you ask to write your recommendation, you must advise them to not just be a cheerleader but to write a thoughtful and even critical letter, just as they would for any applicant. Your letter must clearly be objective because anything else could seem disingenuous and damage your candidacy. As long as their letter comes across as honest and thoughtful, your recommender can establish credibility and help your chances.
If you are a family business applicant and you have questions about how to manifest an “earn it” identity, how to communicate your vision for your firm, or whom to choose as your recommenders, we encourage you to sign up for a free consultation with an mbaMission admissions expert. We have worked with many family business applicants over the years and can answer your most pressing questions during this complimentary half-hour session.