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Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

Applying to Business School—Without a Business Background

While the majority of students at top business schools come from the consulting and finance industries, there is also a large group of people (like me!) who come from more non-traditional backgrounds: nonprofit, tech, retail, traveling around the world on a sailboat—you name it.

Applying to b-school as a less traditional candidate can actually be a major advantage because your unique background will help you stand out from the crowd. It can also be tricky, though. Because you’re likely coming from a field or organization that admissions committees are less familiar with, you’ll need to do a little more work to prove to them that you meet their bar for admissions.

As someone who just applied to b-school while working at an education nonprofit, figuring out the best way to present my experience is something I’ve thought about a lot. Here are five tips that really helped me put my best foot forward.

1. Tell Your Story

I know it sounds a little obvious, but one of the most important things you can do as a non-traditional candidate is explain very clearly in your application what you do and why you do it. Most business schools want to build diverse classes that pull from a variety of different backgrounds, so the fact that you’ve chosen a distinctive path is something that can really set you apart as an applicant. You just need to show admissions officers how your singular experience makes you a perfect fit for their class.

There are a number of different ways you can do this. For example, most of the applications I filled out had a bunch of text boxes that asked me to provide short (think 1-2 sentences) overviews of where I worked and what my roles were. Instead of treating these as throwaways, I used them to provide short and sweet statements that would stick with the people reading my application. I focused on highlighting professional achievements and explaining the mission of my nonprofit organization so they could get a window into what I am passionate about.

Another common place to really tell your story is in your essays. Despite the fact that essay topics vary from school to school, I found them to be great place to give some color to my work experience. For example, schools typically ask applicants to describe a key professional accomplishment. This gave me the perfect opportunity to elaborate on an area I excelled at in work while also bringing up why I care about what I do. I wrote about a struggling project that I made extremely successful and ended by noting that the project’s success was important to me because I knew that it would help my organization get closer to achieving our mission.

2. Use Your Resume to Build Context

Depending on your field or the size of your organization, you may need to assume that the admissions officers have never heard of your employer or won’t have a good understanding of what you do just by reading your job title. So, when you’re putting together your application and b-school resume, make sure to add in some contextual information about your roles, responsibilities, and employers to showcase the importance of your work. For example, instead of just saying you were a “Technical Analyst at ClearStrategy,” go onto explain that you were a “Technical Analyst at ClearStrategy, a text analytics firm with 82% of market share in its field.”

Or, if you work at a small organization, express your results in terms of percentages instead of absolute terms (e.g., “Increased donations by 200%” vs. “increased donations from $1,000 to $3,000”), so that application readers can more easily see how your work compares to that of other candidates.

3. Make Sure You Can Answer the “Why B-school?” Question

Along with qualified applicants, business schools are also looking for people who are excited about their program. And while they may understand immediately why traditional candidates want to pursue an MBA, you’ll want to specifically address your desire to attend b-school in your application if you come from an industry where MBAs are less common. For example, I always found a place in one of my essays to discuss how the skills I would learn from pursuing my MBA would allow me to achieve my long-term career goal of leading a school network that provides all students access to a quality education, regardless of their zip code or background.

Don’t be afraid to get specific when writing this! Depending on the school, I sometimes even named classes I was excited to take. I focused on conveying that I was serious about business school and had taken the time to think through what it would mean for me.

Regardless of whether or not you address the “why b-school?” question in your written application, admissions officers will want to hear about it when they meet you in person. A question I heard a lot during my interviews was: “I see you work in education: So. why do you want to go to business school?” While hopefully you have some general ideas about an answer before you find yourself sitting in an interview, it can be difficult to come up with something succinct on the spot. Make sure you’ve thought about the best way to express why you want this experience—and maybe even practice by spelling it out for a few friends.

4. Focus on the Math Section of the GMAT

While it’s important to tell admissions officers all of the different reasons that you are qualified to join their program, it’s also important to show them why with an irrefutable data point: your GMAT score. Admissions committees want to know that you will succeed academically in their programs, so if you haven’t spent the last few years of your life focused on finance, you’ll need to rock the math section of the GMAT to show off your quantitative abilities. Whether you hire a tutor, attend classes, or spend extra time studying on your own, make sure you do what it takes to get prepared for the exam. (Check out my tips for acing the GMAT.)

5. Don’t Leave Anything Out!

Last but not least, make the “Additional Information” box at the end of the application your friend. You definitely don’t want to fill it with random facts to show just how interesting and non-traditional you are (admissions officers probably don’t need to know about the pet sitting you did in high school), but it can be a good place for hard-to-fit-in items that round out your application.

Take a look at your resume, your essays, and your other application materials, and consider if there’s anything else about your background that would paint you as an ideal candidate to admissions officers. For example, since I don’t have a formal analytical background, I used this section to highlight some of my quant skills and provide information about the work I’ve done with data. You may also want to use it to highlight an extracurricular activity such as volunteering or playing chamber music that you didn’t get the opportunity to address elsewhere. This can add a little color to your application and make you a more memorable candidate.

Just because you’re a non-traditional candidate, doesn’t mean you’re a less qualified one! Use these tips and you’ll be on your way to proving to the admissions officers why you’d be a perfect addition to their next class.

Photo of man filling out applications courtesy of Shutterstock.