Business Administration

Why Work Experience Matters on MBA Applications

Why Work Experience Matters on MBA Applications
Work experience lays the foundation to build business savvy in preparation for the next phase of your career. Image from Unsplash
Courtney Eiland profile
Courtney Eiland April 5, 2023

If you’re hoping to submit your business school applications anytime soon, you’ll need to start by thinking about where you want to apply, and what it will take to get in.

MBA/Business Programs You Should Consider

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Are you seeking a senior-level or executive role, a diverse professional network, and increased marketability? A Master of Business Administration (MBA degree) can help you achieve your goals.

However, you’ll first have to prove to MBA admissions officers that you’re ready. Whether you’re just starting your professional career or have gained experience in the business world, MBA programs require a résumé detailing work experience and showcasing leadership potential.

When applying to an MBA program—especially a top MBA program that only admit the highest-qualifying applicants—a certain amount of experience may be required. And for good reason: experience enables students to better contribute to classroom discussions..

The MBA admissions process weighs multiple factors. Even if you have years of experience, admission committees want to see evidence of growth through promotions, increased responsibilities, or solid references showcasing your employee performance. They will also consider your letters of recommendation, standardized test scores, and personal statement.

Students understand that work experience is required for an MBA to achieve maximum impact. According to the 2022 Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) Prospective Students Survey,more than 25 percent of candidates did not consider pursuing an MBA until they had at least five years of work experience.

If you’re wonderingwhy work experience matters on MBA applications and what types of work experience look best on an MBA application, read on. This article addresses these questions as well as some others, including:

  • Why do some MBA programs require applicants to have work experience?
  • What kind of work experience do MBA programs typically require?
  • Why executive MBA programs require more experience
  • How will work experience benefit me in my MBA education?
  • What is the optimal amount of experience to have before starting an MBA?

Why do some MBA programs require applicants to have work experience?

The average MBA candidate has three to five years of post-college professional experience. Work experience demonstrates professional maturity to admission officers, indicating your commitment to a business career and your ability to contribute to the class. Work experience can also help MBA hopefuls compensate for subpar GRE or GMAT test scores.

Not all programs require work experience. A significant number of MBA programs consider candidates fresh out of college. This includes some highly selective programs, although as a rule such programs are more likely to require work experience.

Why do some programs admit candidates who lack work experience?

Some programs want to serve their university’s undergraduates who hope to advance directly to graduate business study. Others simply don’t see why students must bring work experience to their MBA classrooms. And some simply seek a competitive advantage. If some programs won’t accept candidates who lack professional experience, that creates an opportunity for those that will. It’s business, pure and simple.

There are advantages to pursuing an MBA immediately after college. Recent undergraduates are used to a full courseload. They have relatively little trouble adapting to the academic demands of a full-time MBA program. You’ll also earn your MBA sooner in your career, allowing you more time to maximize your return on investment.

While most MBA programs prefer prospects with a history of solid work experience, not all students have it. In that case, these other factors could help sway an admission officer’s consideration. These include:

  • Clear career goals
  • Professional maturity
  • Leadership and management potential
  • Career progress in a short time
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What kind of work experience do MBA programs typically require?

Some MBA prospects assume that experience in a business-related profession is the only pathway into business school. However, non-business careers in finance, accounting, economics, government, information technology, management, and other disciplines also comprise the MBA student profile. In addition, business schools look for leadership skills, quantifiable performance examples, impact, teamwork, and other management skills that aren’t only obtainable in a business-related role.

Why executive MBA programs require more experience

Executive MBA programs are designed specifically for experienced business people. They tend to be fast-paced and intensive, with courses year-round and no time off. Most students attend while continuing to work at demanding high-level managerial and executive jobs.

Admissions requirements vary. The EMBA program at Howard University requires at least five years of leadership experience and seven years of overall professional experience. The EMBA program at the University of Pennsylvania requires at least eight years of work experience for prospective students. There are programs that require as many as ten years experience; few require less than five.

Executive MBA programs typically bypass the fundamental coursework and take less time to complete. These programs can take as little as 16 months full-time and up to two years if studying part-time.

How will work experience benefit me in my MBA education?

Work experience lays the foundation to build business savvy in preparation for the next phase of your career. The courses you’ll take during an MBA program can help you polish your decision-making, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills and learn to lead, manage, and apply strategy in every business decision.

Context

MBA programs include introductory and advanced courses in leadership, finance management, managerial economics, accounting, entrepreneurship, and more. Professional experience provides valuable context in which to frame this essential academic content.

As Texas-based executive Will Schneider told U.S. News & World Report, “There are so many things that you learn having real-world experiences that can be applied using principles learned in MBA programs.” He adds that, while anyone can understand these concepts in theory, “they don’t ‘stick’ as well as they do when you can truly apply them from life experiences.”

Professional progress to build on

Early-to-mid career professionals make up the typical MBA student profile. This range consists of professionals early enough in their careers to have gained professional maturity, clear career goals to take them to the next level, and some advanced business tools and skills.

For MBA candidates interested in pivoting from the corporate world to entrepreneurship, programs like Butler University offer an entrepreneurship track. This pathway can build upon your professional experience and teach you how to apply those skills in your new business venture.

Varied experiences of students result in richer in-class conversations

The beauty of MBA programs is that they attract candidates from diverse backgrounds with diverse work experiences. MBA candidates include individuals from business and non-business backgrounds. The 2022 GMAC Prospective Students Survey notes that the global makeup of MBA candidates in 2021 consisted of business or economics majors (61 percent), humanities or social science majors (38 percent), and STEM majors (40 percent).

MBA programs also vary in demographics. For example, the Yale University student profile for the class of 2024 consists of 43 percent women, 17 percent first-generation college students, 54 percent U.S. students of color, and 48 countries represented. Students’ industry experience included financial services, technology, health care, consulting, and many other disciplines. This student profile also has an average of 4.7 years of work experience.

What is the optimal amount of experience to have before starting an MBA?

There is no magic number of preferred work experience. This requirement varies by MBA program. Most schools required from three to five years. While some MBA programs do accept students right out of college, it’s a rarity, with admission officers gauging potential candidates to determine whether the student has clear career goals, exceptional grades, and leadership potential to gain entry into the program.

If you’re still on the fence about where to take the next level of your career, spending a little more time in the workforce, developing your business acumen, and discovering your niche is likely in your best interest. Once you have a clear vision of what you want from your MBA, the opportunities are endless.

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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