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Be A Snowflake (in the eyes of admissions officers)

Kerith Dilley
Although I knew there were probably few if any people who had my unique professional experience applying to business school (I fundraised at the ACLU and Planned Parenthood… before they became the media darlings they are today), I had no idea that my application was fairly typical for people who hadn’t worked on Wall Street or for a big consulting firm.

B-schools define “non-traditional applicants” as anyone who isn’t a consultant/banker (or operating in-house in such roles). That leaves a large bucket of professionals working in nonprofit, b-corporations and government. It also includes entrepreneurs and engineers, although increasingly these applicants fall into the finance or consulting buckets.

This application process presents many terrific opportunities for non-traditional students to do the following:

Emphasize Sophisticated Soft Skills

You’ve probably developed relationships with board members, elected officials, major donors and other powerful community leaders. Entry level investment bankers and strategy consultants – even at the most elite firms – are unlikely to have had any such contact with clients or the top officials who are deciding the strategic direction of the organization. While these leaders may not be recommenders – unless you worked for an elected official or reported to the board – your experience developing these relationships and leading such groups should be highlighted on your resume and potentially in your essay(s).

Your professional experiences have afforded you the opportunity to ‘turn the ship’ in a way that traditional applicants cannot. Highlight these leadership experiences. I can’t tell you the number of committees that I led comprised of board members, senior staff and other stakeholders in nonprofit before I went to business school at the manager level. Leverage these experiences to differentiate yourself within the applicant pool.

Highlight Your Quant Skills

Your role may not be traditionally viewed as requiring hard skills, but you probably have used quant skills but didn’t realize it. For instance, I was cognizant that as a nonprofit fundraiser, I was perceived as spending lots of time schmoozing existing and prospective donors. While that’s true, I also spent a good chunk of time forecasting risk when I created budgets for cash flow projections – which happens a lot in nonprofits, even though no one outside the sector realizes it! – and I strategized how programmatic expansions would impact revenue and cash flow.

Don’t overstate your skills, but don’t assume that anyone on the Admissions Committee will understand that you have quantitative experience because you’re non-traditional.

Fill in Skill Gaps  

If you’re an engineer and lack leadership opportunities, invest in your community. Join a professional association. Join a community group dedicated to STEM. Join the board or advisory board or committee. Undertake whatever of these options will expand your leadership skills.

If you run programs in a nonprofit or are a staffer for an elected official, consider taking accounting, finance or statistics classes to gain hard skills.

Do well on the GMAT or GRE

Take plenty of practice tests and a prep class if you can afford it. Plan early if you need to be taking a class the year before your apply to spread out your expenses. Take the quant class before you study for either test as it will provide added preparation.

Don’t Mistake Passion for Your Cause for Soft Skills

While some nonprofits, elected officials and even entrepreneurs prize alignment of values with the core mission or function of the organization as the most important skill, you must realize that passion is almost irrelevant in b-school. It is assumed you are passionate about your organization’s mission and does not drive decision-making as it would in a HR setting.

Explain What Matters in B-school Recommendations

A strong MBA recommendation focuses on your skills and key experiences; most senior level nonprofit professionals are accustomed to writing law school or other letters of recommendations where passion is key. While a passing sentence about dedication to the cause is fine, it should not be your most important qualification highlighted.

Also, make sure your recommender can comment on you in relation to some sort of peer cohort. This is often difficult in entrepreneurial and nonprofit environments because you may be the only person at your level in your department – and your peers within your organization may have vastly different responsibilities. Your recommenders must draw on the entirety of their professional experience. And, you must be a super-star.

Remember that the Admissions Committee is very savvy about non-traditional students and is generally excited to learn your story. Make sure you convey both your unique skills, as well as the expected skills needed to thrive in your desired business program.

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