MBA Application Tips for Nontraditional Candidates

If you want to go to business school but do not have a “traditional” background in consulting or finance, you might be worried that you will not be accepted to a top MBA program. Maybe you are a teacher, an athlete, or a journalist. Perhaps you are in the military or have a background as a chef. Nontraditional applicants like you are different, and believe it or not, admissions directors love that!

If you are a nontraditional MBA applicant, here are a few tips to help you navigate the application process and give you some confidence about your candidacy.

1. Do not try to be something you are not.

Although a large percentage MBA applicants come from finance and consulting, your unique background helps you stand out. Highlight what you are good at, and showcase accomplishments you have had in your field. No professor wants to be in front of a class that is made up entirely of bankers and consultants. Your experience adds diversity to the class and allows you to look at situations from a different perspective than that of others. Emphasize your distinctiveness!

Need more proof? Every year, schools release their Class Profiles, in which they present a breakdown of incoming students’ statistics and pre-MBA backgrounds. According to Harvard Business School’s Class Profile, for example, the program drew 44% of its Class of 2025 from consulting (17%), financial services (10%), and venture capital/private equity (17%). That means that the rest of the students in that class (56%) came from other industries, including technology, military service, consumer products/retail, healthcare, and nonprofits. 

When you look at the numbers this way, “nontraditional” suddenly looks pretty traditional.

2. Showcase your quantitative or analytical skills.

Business schools want you to succeed, and to succeed, you need to be able to handle the rigor of the MBA program. Most schools require heavy quantitative and analytical work, especially in classes such as “Corporate Finance,” “Statistics,” and “Data Analytics.” Even if such skills are not a major part of your work experience, showing the admissions committee that you can manage the quantitative demands of an MBA program is crucial. 

One way to do that is by performing well on your standardized test. A strong quantitative performance on the GMAT, GRE, or EA can help prove you are ready for MBA academics. You can also build an alternate transcript by taking quant-focused courses, such as HBS CORe or MBA Math, or a college class in statistics or economics. 

Also, look for opportunities to showcase your experiences. For example, a recent applicant who worked for a TV station had little quant experience, but she conducted an analytical study of the station’s social media impressions, which led to some programming changes and ultimately resulted in a boost in advertising sales. That story became an important part of her applications! 

3. Be clear about why you want an MBA and where it will lead you.

The good news if you are a nontraditional applicant is that you most likely do not have an undergraduate degree in business, so your reasons for needing an MBA are easy to establish in your applications. Still, articulating career goals that make sense for your specific background and skill set is important, meaning you want the admissions committee to feel confident that you will get a job after business school without a struggle. For example, a client who worked as a chef and TV food stylist built her career goals on moving into consumer products marketing, with a focus on food. This path made perfect sense to the admissions committee.

4. Highlight your best traits.

As a nontraditional applicant, you bring different experiences and skills to the table than others in the class, and that is something the schools like! Think about what sets you apart and how you can highlight these qualities in your applications.

For example, almost every career requires teamwork, so make sure that the admissions committee knows how well you work in a group or team setting. Think about your experiences in your work environment and extracurricular activities, and tell stories about times you have engaged positively and productively with others. For example, a teacher might write about how they collaborated with fellow staff members to develop programming that raised students’ test scores school-wide.

Another thing that might set you apart is your global experience. Business schools love to see applicants who have broad outlooks and perspectives, and who relish working alongside people who are different from them. Consider highlighting international opportunities and exposure you have had, whether via working abroad or on teams with members located around the world, and share how those experiences have enriched you.

If you have questions about your nontraditional background or wonder which schools you would be competitive at, sign up for a free 30-minute consultation with an mbaMission Consultant.

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