How Much Work Experience Is Enough for Top MBA Programs?

by Chris Aitken

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Many younger MBA applicants are concerned about whether they have “enough” work experience to be competitive in top MBA programs.

Mae Jennifer Shores, Director of Admissions at UCLA/Anderson sent the following Tweet out a few days ago:

For those of you not conversant in Twitter “short hand”, she was writing that depth and breadth of work experience are more important than the amount of time or number of years spent working.

Strengthening Your Work Experience

If you’re not already doing so, you need to start volunteering for stretch assignments and unique projects at work. Showing up for work and doing what you’re told is a good formula for staying where you are, but it won’t get you promoted and it won’t get you into business school. If you want to earn a spot in a top business school, then you have to show initiative and distinguish yourself from your peers. If you’re working in an over-represented field like investment banking or consulting you need to be even more ambitious than other candidates in going after unique projects that will set you apart. That may mean volunteering for projects that others are unable or unwilling to tackle.

Demonstrating Your Leadership Potential

If you’re a software engineer, a bio-chemist, or a derivatives trader then you probably have a number of technical accomplishments to be proud of. You need to be looking for opportunities in your current job to develop and demonstrate your management skills, interpersonal abilities, and your leadership skills. If formal opportunities don’t present themselves then you need to get creative – that could mean proposing and implementing a survey of current customers, working on a business plan for a new division, or convincing your manager to lend you to the marketing group for a few months. The point is that if you’re serious about going to a top business school, you must be scanning the horizon for every opportunity to show the admission committee that you are more than just a gear-head, quant jock, or rocket scientist – you’re a future business leader.

The Importance of Community Service

Many applicants understand that community service is practically a pre-requisite for admissions to business school. Armed with this knowledge, they do some volunteer work in hopes of having some community service activities to list on their application forms. But this misses the point. Just as having a job is not sufficient for earning a place in a top MBA program, neither is simply being a participant in a community service organization.

We’re often asked by clients who haven’t done any volunteer work what kinds of community service activities business schools want to see. Again, this misses the point. No community service organization is better than another from an admissions officer’s standpoint. Admissions officers really just want to see that you have engaged with a community that you have a passion for serving and that the volunteer work you’ve done has importance and meaning to you. So if you’re looking for way to get involved then look for an organization that has a mission that you want to be a part of. Find an emotional connection and work on a problem that you have a passionate interest in solving. For example, if you are a first generation American who benefitted from free English language classes then you could volunteer to teach classes in that program or, better yet, work at the organizational level to raise money and expand program offerings to reach more students.

If you’re already volunteering for a community service organization, you should be looking look for opportunities to harness the energy of other people, generate results, and make a real difference. You could lead a fund raising drive, pull together a team that addresses a long-standing organizational issue, or work with board members to develop a five-year strategic plan.

Summary Thoughts

So in summary, focus on maximizing the depth and breadth of experiences you gain both inside and outside of work. Not only will this make for a stronger MBA application but it will make your work significantly more interesting!

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About Chris Aitken
Chris is a co-founder of MBA Prep School and co-author of How to Get an MBA, the essential guide to earning an acceptance letter from the world’s best business schools.

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