Work Experience for Business School: What the Top Programs Look For

Padya Paramita

Work Experience for Business School: What the Top Programs Look For

You might be almost done with college and wondering when it’s time to apply to business school. Or, you have been working out of college for a couple of years and aren’t sure if you’re ready to pursue that MBA you’ve always wanted to. Either way, when looking at the business school application requirements, you find yourself confused about the resumé component. Exactly how much work experience for business school do you need?

Almost every applicant at the top schools has some level of work experience before they apply, whether the school requires it or not. Although Columbia does not enforce a work experience requirement for applicants, 99% of its 2018 incoming class had worked before applying to b-school. To go up against the tough and experienced applicant pool, you should definitely plan on heading into the workforce and taking at least a couple years off. Only a handful of few lucky students - with outstanding academic records - are accepted to the top business schools directly out of college.

So what exactly does work experience for business school entail? To answer this question, I have outlined the average age and number of years of work experience at each of the top business schools, the kinds of work students go into before business school, how work experience factors into your application evaluation, and what is important to gain when seeking work experience for business school.

Age and Years of Work Experience at the Top Business Schools

The top business schools typically expect candidates to have approximately 3-5 years of work experience before applying. Often, work experience for business school is one of the recommended criteria to apply. Some schools, such as Northwestern Kellogg, state the exact amount of work experience they seek in applicants (at least two years), while others, such as Harvard Business School, say that the school simply requires work experience. HBS also offers an early assurance program, which allows current undergraduate students to enroll in the MBA program, but requires them to gain at least two years of work experience before heading to the MBA program. Other top b-schools which offer a similar program are Yale, Stanford, UPenn, UChicago, University of Indiana, UT Austin, and NYU. Even through early acceptance programs, work experience is still valued and prioritized!

In the table below, I’ve provided the average age of students from US News’ Ranking of the Top 30 Business Schools, along with the average time in years they spent in the workforce.

School Name Avg. Age Avg. Years of Work Experience
University of Pennsylvania (Wharton) 28 5
Stanford Graduate School of Business 27 4
Harvard Business School 27 4.2
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sloan) 28 4.9
University of Chicago (Booth) 28 5
Columbia Business School 28 5
Northwestern University (Kellogg) 28 4.2
University of California - Berkeley (Haas) 28 5
Yale School of Management 27.5 5
Duke University (Fuqua) 29 5.6
University of Michigan - Ann Arbor (Ross) 28 5
Dartmouth College (Tuck) 28.5 5.3
New York University (Stern) 28 5.3
University of Virginia (Darden) 27 4
Cornell University (Johnson) 28 5
University of California - Los Angeles (Anderson) 29 5
Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper) 28 5.7
University of Southern California (Marshall) 28 5
University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill (Kenan-Flagler) 27 5
University of Texas - Austin (McCombs) 28 5.8
Emory University (Goizueta) 26 4
Indiana University (kelley) 28 5
University of Washington (Foster) 28 5.7
Georgetown University (McDonough) 28 5.4
University of Florida (Warrington) 27 4
Rice University (Jones) 28 5.6
University of Notre Dame (Mendoza) 29 5
Washington University in St. Louis (Olin) 28 4.8
Georgia Institute of Technology (Scheller) 28 5
Vanderbilt University (Owen) 28 5.4

As you can see, most candidates at the top institutions had multiple years of work experience for business school, and mostly applied in their late twenties, as opposed to immediately after college. The average age of applicants at the top 30 schools is 27.9, while the average work experience they had is 4.95 years. As you build your business school list, remember that even if it’s not a requirement, most students spend their time out of college working in different fields. Business can be applied in a multitude of areas and you should consider getting a feel of the “real world” to enhance your application. Besides, if you’re trying to go to business school straight out of college, your application will look comparatively weaker alongside other applicants’ tremendous breadth and depth of work experience.

Exactly What Kind of Work Experience are Business Schools Looking for?

Long story short, applicants from all areas and backgrounds have the potential to succeed in business schools.

Although a lot of students work in investment, consulting, and other business-based jobs before applying to b-school, the incredible thing about getting an MBA is that it leads to one of the most flexible career paths. Attending business school prepares you for more than just finance, investment, or consulting - you can work in education, economics, healthcare, government, tech, and more. Business schools have students in a varying degree of pre-MBA industries, as shown in the table below for the top 15 schools:

School Name Top Pre-MBA Industries
University of Pennsylvania (Wharton) Consulting, private equity/venture capital, tech, investment banking, nonprofit/government, finance, healthcare, consumer goods, real estate, media/entertainment
Stanford Graduate School of Business Investment management, private equity/venture capital, consulting, technology, government/education/nonprofit, consumer goods, finance, arts/media/entertainment, health care, clean tech/energy
Harvard Business School Consulting, high tech/communications, private equity/venture capital, finance, government/education/nonprofit, healthcare/biotech, consumer goods, energy/extractive minerals, military
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sloan) Consulting, finance, technology/media/telecom, government and public sector, industrials, energy, healthcare/life sciences, consumer goods
University of Chicago (Booth) Finance, consulting, technology, private equity/venture capital, healthcare, consumer goods, nonprofit/government
Columbia Business School Finance, consulting, marketing/media, technology, private equity, nonprofit, real estate, healthcare
Northwestern University (Kellogg) Consulting, finance, tech/communications, government/education/nonprofit, consumer goods, health/bio, manufacturing, energy, military
University of California - Berkeley (Haas) Consulting, banking/finance, high tech/electronics, nonprofit, healthcare/pharma/biotech, consumer goods, energy
Yale School of Management Consulting, finance, nonprofit, technology, government, healthcare, manufacturing, media/entertainment, consumer goods, energy, retail
Duke University (Fuqua) Consulting, finance, healthcare, technology, nonprofit/education, energy, sales/business development, marketing/PR/advertising
University of Michigan - Ann Arbor (Ross) Finance, consulting, technology, healthcare, education/nonprofit, military, government, auto/transportation, engineering/manufacturing, consumer goods
Dartmouth College (Tuck) Finance, consulting, nonprofit/government, technology, consumer goods, retail, energy, health/pharma/biotech, media/entertainment, manufacturing
New York University (Stern) Finance, consulting, technology, media/entertainment, military/government, consumer products, retail, nonprofit/arts/education, healthcare/pharma, advertising/PR, Manufacturing, Law, Energy

As you can see, the background you bring to the table can be versatile. If you’ve always wanted to work on a film or TV crew after college, do so. If you’ve wanted to join the Peace Corps, go ahead. If you’ve wanted to train as an amateur athlete but couldn’t because of academics, right after college is the time. Pursuing these passions will also make you a more dynamic candidate down the line! Whatever you do, find a way to connect your experience and goals back to business. Business schools are looking at your commitment, your skills, and your concrete achievements. The hard work you put in and experience you gain will be integral to your application.

While there isn’t one particular career that business schools look for, they do want to admit a well-rounded class and student body. If your background is pretty typical for top b-schools (graduated from a top school, worked at Goldman or Bain), you’re going to have to think critically about how to differentiate yourself from candidates with similar experiences.

You don’t have to wait to become the vice-president or president of your company in order to apply to b-school. Business schools understand that you haven’t had too much time to develop an executive resume before applying - especially if you’re still in your early or mid-20s. Business schools know that receiving an MBA is part of growing your career! Having said that, leadership and teamwork are crucial to succeed in business, and admissions officers will look to your application for evidence of that. There are other ways to demonstrate leadership than having a formal leadership position - you could pitch an idea for an app at your IT startup and work with your team on it. You could be punctual when showing up to work every day. You could offer your voice to higher-ups when you have concerns regarding the company culture and become a reliable employee whom they turn to for feedback.

Seek work where you will find more opportunities to become a leader, and gain quantifiable and recognizable achievements. Business schools look for applicants who aren’t afraid to step up, and the workforce is a great venue to hone these skills and showcase them in your application.

How is Work Experience Valued Compared to the Rest of Your Application?

Like with any other kind of school, your business school application is a combined picture painted by your academic record, essays, test scores, letters of recommendation, and yes, your resumé. To get into top business schools, you need more than just work experience. The difficulty of your college coursework and your undergraduate GPA matter, especially if you’ve recently graduated. Your GMAT score should be in the mid-high 700s for top schools, and if you take the GRE, your score should be 160+. Your essays should delve deeper into your background and your goals, expressing more than just an interest in making the money. Strong performances at work result in strong letters of recommendation. Excelling at all the components with intriguing work experience for business school can result in an application that admissions officers find difficult to reject.

All of this, of course, varies from case to case depending on the individual. If you’ve worked for seven years before applying to business school, your professional experience will be regarded with more scrutiny than someone who has worked for two to three years, because you’ve had more time to excel professionally. If the other candidate has achieved greater results and asserted themselves as more of a leader in a shorter amount of time, then their application reads as more impressive.

Admissions decisions can change entirely based on what schools seek each cycle and the qualifications of the current applicant pool. If the majority of the candidates have backgrounds in investment banking, MBA programs will be looking for applicants from different fields to balance the class.

What Work Experience is Most Crucial for Business Schools?

Always remember, quality is better than quantity. As mentioned in the previous example, you can spend all of your time working, but if your results are less impressive than someone who has achieved more in a shorter time, your chances of getting accepted into a top school are slim. Prioritize working hard and unlocking your potential as a leader wherever you work. Spearhead initiatives instead of waiting for a second promotion that might not come for another five years. Assertiveness and increased responsibilities during your time at work reflect well on your application. Business schools value ambition and achievements, and there are ways to demonstrate them other than waiting for what’s beyond your control.

When thinking about gaining work experience for business school, you should look toward full-time and paid positions. These are valued far more than internships during the years right after college. However, if you think you’re absolutely ready immediately after graduation, business schools do look at your summer internships with greater emphasis. At the end of the day, business schools place more importance on your accomplishments, initiatives and tangible achievements, such as projects you’ve led, sales you’ve made, or how your supervisor views you as an asset in the company.

So, how can you be sure that you’re ready to leave your current workplace and go back to school? Evaluate what you’ve achieved at your current workplace. Have you accomplished everything you possibly can in your position? What have some of your milestones been? What have you learned in the last few years about yourself? What kind of impact have you made at work, on your supervisors and your coworkers? Would business school help you advance your goals? The answers to these questions can help you determine if it’s time for the next step. If you haven’t been working for too long but want to apply to school as soon as possible, make sure the other components of your application are strong enough that they can make up for the relatively shorter work experience for business school compared to other applicants.

Although work experience for business schools isn’t a requirement, it will put you ahead of the pack if your time after graduation is used right. A resumé that conveys your passion and ambition, built steadily over a few years, can hold a lot of value when it comes to business school applications. Plus, you can work in almost any field and have admissions officers find value in the perspective you bring. You’ve got nothing to lose in stepping out of the academic grind to work and hone your leadership skills for a while.

General FAQ

Is work experience required for business school?

This depends on the institution. But whether it is required or not, the majority of applicants have work experience before applying. At Columbia, for example, 99% of the 2018 incoming class had experience even though it is not required.

How many years of work experience should I have being going to business school?

Top schools typically expect candidates to have 3-5 years of work experience. Some schools, such as Kellogg, state the exact amount of work experience they seek (at least 2 years).

How many years of work experience does the average MBA applicant have?

MBA applicants at the top 30 business schools have an average of 4.95 years of experience. On average, they are 27.9 years old.

How important is work experience in the MBA admissions process?

Your work experience obviously isn’t the only part of your application. However, strong performances at work can produce strong letters of recommendation, which are important. Unique or impressive work experiences can make up for weaker parts of your application, or make an already impressive application irresistible.

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