How to Succeed as a Non-Traditional MBA Applicant

Padya Paramita

How to Succeed as a Non-Traditional MBA Applicant

Maybe you are a dad in his mid 30s or a school teacher looking to change career paths. Either way, you would be considered a non-traditional MBA applicant by today’s standards. As a result, you might feel like you’re at a disadvantage if you don’t have the support of a consulting firm or your experience doesn’t match up with the majority of applicants. Don’t get too overwhelmed - it’s not uncommon for applicants to come from different industries, and it can even work to your advantage. 

Deciding to apply to business school mid-career or after a few years at another job can be a big decision. With the application process getting more competitive due to the economic effects of  COVID-19, the question is, how do you use your non-traditional status to help you stand out? In order to guide you through successfully strategizing your application, I have outlined who qualifies as a non-traditional MBA applicant, how admissions officers view such students, and strategies to strengthen your candidacy.

Who is a Non-Traditional MBA Applicant?

Before we dive into the strategies, you need to familiarize yourself with the term “non-traditional MBA applicant” and determine whether it applies to you. According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, “by definition, a nontraditional MBA student is someone whose profile is distinct from the majority. If you don’t have a background in consulting or finance, you might consider yourself nontraditional. Or if you’re planning to pursue a less typical career path after business school, you might identify as a nontraditional MBA candidate.” Non-traditional applicants generally fall under the following four categories:  

  • Older applicants - The average age of MBA students varies, but is generally around 27-28. If you’re in your early 30s, you qualify as a non-traditional MBA applicant. Even if you have always been interested in business, you might have taken more than a couple of years off to travel or try out other careers. Even if you come from a more traditional job like consulting, , you’ll still count as non-traditional just by dint of your more circuitous route to business school
  • Recent Graduates Who Worked in a Different Industry - You might still be a year or two out of college but have only recently made up your mind to attend business school. Your experiences could include a music degree and a job managing a record store, or a psychology degree and experience working at a nonprofit for youth. Either way, you don’t have consulting or finance jobs under your belt, but you want to take the step towards an MBA to drive yourself more towards a business direction. In such cases, you are also a non-traditional MBA applicant.
  • Career Changers - Another kind of non-traditional MBA applicant is someone who is more established in their career in a non-business profession, such as a chef or a fashion designer. You might have had a sudden revelation that you’re actually not as invested in your current profession and instead want to go into consulting. Unsurprisingly, you are not a typical candidate that business school admissions officers come across every day!
  • Students with Different Post-MBA goals - Many students apply to MBA programs because they want to transfer to higher-paying jobs or to more business-centric careers such as becoming an entrepreneur or receiving a promotion at their finance job. However, if your career goals are different — for example, you want to become a film director and want to go to b-school to better manage the more business-like sides of your future industry — you count as non-traditional.

      How do Business Schools View Non-Traditional MBA Applicants?

      You may be wondering whether being a non-traditional MBA applicant puts you at an automatic disadvantage. The answer is no - you’re more than encouraged to still apply. Wharton for example states that, “One look at our MBA class profile will show you that many of our MBA students have educational and professional backgrounds that don’t fit the mold of the “traditional” business school student. Being a nontraditional MBA student at Wharton is more common than you might think.” 

      If you look at the class for any top MBA program, you can see Wharton’s statement coming to life. For example, at Stanford, 14% of the Class of 2021 has come from tech backgrounds, 10% of students have had jobs in the government, education, or nonprofits, while 5% have worked in the arts, media, or entertainment. If you have a few years of work experience under your belt, taken the GMAT or GRE, polished your resumé, and worked on writing compelling essays, you are giving yourself a fair chance as you enter the applicant pool. 

      Business schools are actively looking to create dynamic classes made up of individuals who bring something different to the table. They seek people with diverse personal and professional backgrounds in order to keep class discussions engaging and interesting.. Being a non-traditional candidate can really be a positive at a time when admissions officers are making a concerted effort to admit people with varied experiences. 

      Strategies for Applying as a Non-Traditional MBA School Applicant

      It’s time to think about using your background as a non-traditional applicant to your advantage. If you’re considering applying to MBA programs and haven’t worked directly in a business-related field, here are some ways to best prepare your profile to ensure you present the best version of yourself: 

      • Carefully explain why you’re applying to business school: One of the most effective ways to succeed as a non-traditional MBA applicant is to make sure you’re aware of your goals, both short-term and long-term, as well as exactly why an MBA is necessary to get you there. Check that you’re not taking this route because you don’t have a better option or because you are trying to time the post-COVID-19 economy. If you truly believe that an MBA is the right path for you, you’ll be able to express yourself more authentically in your application.
      • Get the standardized test out of the way: Once you’ve decided that business school is the next step for you, you should waste no time dedicating yourself to registering and studying for the GMAT or the GRE. In almost all instances, we recommend you take the GMAT. You can check out the difference between the two tests here to determine which one is right for you. This way, you won’t have to save the academic components for the last minute. If you’re not happy with your GMAT/GRE score the first time, you can focus on your problem areas and retake the test.
      • Take advantage of business school essays: As I’ve mentioned previously, it doesn’t really matter which industry you’ve previously worked in as a non-traditional MBA applicant as long as you make it clear why you need an MBA for your next steps. It might be hard for admissions officers to connect the dots right off the bat if you come from an unusual background. Business schools don’t have a set “personal statement” but rather a series of shorter essay prompts that you need to answer for each school. Take advantage of these essays to explain why you decided to pursue your previous path and how the skills/qualities that you have gained in your professional roles can help you on your way to business school.  Some examples of questions where you can easily explain why you’re applying for an MBA are:
      • UPenn (Wharton): Describe an impactful experience or accomplishment that is not reflected elsewhere in your application. How will you use what you learned through that experience to contribute to the Wharton community? (400 words)
      • Columbia: Through your resumé and recommendations, we have a clear sense of your professional path to date. What are your career goals over the next 3-5 years and what, in your imagination, would be your long-term dream job? (500 words)
      • Duke (Fuqua): Why is pursuing an MBA the right next step for you?

        These questions provide you with a chance to look ahead, as well as potentially reflect on your experiences to explain why you’ve applied for an MBA. Even if it might seem like being an artist or a chef has no immediate connection to attending business school, you can describe your interest and goals to elaborate on what the connection is specifically for you. Whether you wish to take advantage of courses taught in the MBA program, or learn from a certain faculty member’s vast experience, make sure each essay is specifically tied to what appeals to you about the institution. 

        • Use your resumé to highlight your skills: As a non-traditional MBA applicant, one way to show that you’re equipped to take on classes at business school is to demonstrate your quantitative and analytical skills. You can highlight roles where you’ve had to demonstrate such abilities in past jobs when modifying your resumé for your application. Your resumé can also highlight traits that business schools value, such as the leadership roles you’ve held and the impact you’ve made at your previous jobs. 

        When you’re a non-traditional MBA applicant, you might feel you have your work cut out a lot more than the typical candidate. But, since MBA admissions committees value diversity in their classes, don’t stress yourself about the disadvantages and instead leverage your unique background to highlight why you can bring an exceptional perspective to the classroom. Good luck!

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