How to Apply to Business School as a Nontraditional Candidate

Guest Post from Lin Yang, consultant for The Art of Applying 

How to Apply to Business School as a Nontraditional Candidate

Self-doubt can be unnerving and abundant when you are a non-traditional applicant to a top business school. The term nontraditional applies to those who did not follow a typical, private sector career path before their MBA.

I’ve been there. As a former high school teacher and journalist, nothing in my resume screamed that I knew how to work in the corporate world. After having gone to business school, however, I can offer some advice to those who face a similar predicament.

The good news is: business schools want you. Admissions offices are always looking for high-performing candidates who can bring a diverse perspective to the incoming class. Nontraditional candidates tend to have unique knowledge and a certain “street cred” that only comes from working in environments, and with customer segments, to which typical business school candidates lack exposure. It is no wonder that Kellogg, for example, admitted 9% of their 2018 class from the public sector, with 28% of their class studying the humanities as their undergraduate major. However, in order to be a compelling applicant, you must alleviate two of the greatest admissions office concerns:

Admissions Will be Wondering About:

  1. Will you be able to find a job after graduation?
  2. Will you bring relevant skills and experiences to your class and fit into the school’s culture?

Point #1: Convince the Admissions Committee That You Have a Plan

Your career goals essay is critical here. You must weave a compelling narrative that tells the admissions office who you are, what you have accomplished, what you want to do next, and how business school will help you get there. This essay has to be convincing. You have to convince the admissions committee that you can successfully pivot to a career in business without abandoning the achievements and motivations of your past. Perhaps it was something in your past experience, or your desire to have a greater impact in an industry you are interested in, that prompted you to apply. It is important for nontraditional candidates to link their nontraditional past to their future career aspirations.

Ask yourself these questions before you write:

  • Considering the career that you’ve had so far, why do you want to go to business school now?
  • What industry and function do you want to go into after business school?
  • How will your prior career influence and/or help you make this career move?

Point #2: Emphasize Your Universal / Transferable Skills

No matter what you did before, you likely have relevant skills for the business school. Business schools crave candidates who can thrive in teams, communicate with ease in front of an audience, juggle multiple academic and extracurricular responsibilities, and possess a sharp analytical mind when looking at data.

Schools also want candidates who are fun, and have interesting hobbies. Therefore, you should talk up some of the special skills you have that other candidates who have stuck to a more traditional business path may not have. Identify the specific classes, programs, and clubs to which you would contribute your time and talents. Talk to current students and alumni to get the inside perspective of a school’s culture.

If you can demonstrate a convincing plan for your career, and that you can fit into the school’s culture, you can demonstrate to the admissions committee why your nontraditional background is an asset—rather than a liability—to your candidacy.

Best of luck with making your case to your dream school!

2 Comments How to Apply to Business School as a Nontraditional Candidate

  1. Gabriel P.

    Hi Kaneisha!

    Thank you for this very insightful post, it’s good to know that you can use transferable skills to make a career shift and that it’s not necessarily a liability to have a different background when applying to business school.

    As someone working in consulting in the private sector, I am very interested in shifting to the public sector and applying to an MPP program.

    Could you possibly write a similar post sometime aimed at people with a business background who want to apply to an MPP to move to the public/nonprofit sector?

    Thanks again for all your helpful insights!


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