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The Non-Traditional MBA Applicant Guide Book

Everyone knows that life often takes very unexpected turns, even MBA admissions officers. While it’s true that many who apply for business school are following a path they set out on much earlier in life, some applicants may never have imagined they’d someday desire an MBA and subsequently have a non-traditional academic profile.

If your past education and work experience haven’t followed a trajectory inevitably leading to an MBA, you may feel stumped on the best way to position yourself as a candidate for your target programs. 

But don’t worry. 

You’ll be glad to know that many graduate programs welcome non-traditional applicants with open arms. In fact, admissions committees seek to build diverse classes from students with different experiences and backgrounds who can learn from each other. You just need to know how to present your experience and goals in a way that will show the admissions committee all you have to contribute!

First Things First…Am I A Non-Traditional Applicant

Before you do anything else, you must first determine whether or not you even are a non-traditional applicant. 

You might be a non-traditional applicant if:

  • You don’t have a background in consulting or finance
  • You don’t plan to pursue a typical career path after business school
  • You are in an industry such as government, education, fashion, tech, art, sports, or non-profit
  • You have a unique student profile that will set you apart from the majority

If you’re thinking that many MBA applicants fall under one of these categories, you’re right. In fact, the idea of a ‘non-traditional applicant’ is a bit antiquated as MBAs are useful degrees for people of many backgrounds and long-term goals. Business schools aren’t looking for a student body of prototypes but a diverse group of individuals with unique contributions, experience, and skills.

The #1 Benefit of Applying for an MBA with a Unique Candidate Profile

Contrary to popular belief, top business schools aren’t necessarily more apt to accept students with education and experience focused on the business/finance world. Instead, they are looking for specific traits like leadership, self-awareness, and passion. It’s these qualities that make for a well-rounded student body and valuable classroom experience. 

In short, when applying for an MBA, your diversity is a positive attribute, not a negative one. While your unique background isn’t necessarily your golden ticket to your target school, it is a great foundation to build off of.

The key to creating the perfect application as a non-traditional applicant is to spend time defining your personal motivations for getting an MBA.

Before you begin your application, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why do I want to go to business school now?
  • What industry do I want to pursue after business school?
  • In what ways does my existing experience prepare me for this career move?
  • What relevant skills do I have for business school?
  • What extracurricular experience do I have that will contribute to campus culture?

Jot your answers down so you have a clear narrative about who you are as an MBA applicant, your short- and long-term goals, and how your experience will benefit the program you attend. This understanding is crucial as it is what the admissions committee will be looking for while they review your application.

The Two Non-Negotiable Qualities of All MBA Candidates

In general, the MBA admissions team is looking for a couple things in all applicants, but especially so in non-traditional applicants. The first is defined career goals and the second is quant skills.


Defined Career Goals

Applying for business school with a unique background is only a negative thing if you can’t clearly explain why you need an MBA and why you need it now. Your application essays are your initial opportunity to discuss these topics with the admissions committee but they will likely come up again during the interview process, so prepare to present your answers in text and in-person.

As a non-traditional applicant, explaining your reason for wanting an MBA can be challenging as you are likely making a drastic career change rather than taking your existing career to the next level. Despite the fact that your past experience and future goals may feel completely unrelated, it’s crucial that you find a connection.

→ Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are there any defining moments that led me to apply for an MBA?
  • Have I demonstrated any skills in other positions that will benefit my future ambitions?
  • How have my interests and goals influenced my need for an MBA?

Quant Skills

Unfortunately there’s no escaping the fact that strong MBA applicants have one thing in common: proficiency in quant. If you haven’t fared well in quant-related courses in the past, it’s important you perform well in this section on your GMAT or GRE. 

If quantitative classes are missing from your transcript, you might want to consider taking algebra, business, and/or stats classes at your local community college before moving on to apply for your MBA. While this will delay your business school plans a little, it may be a necessary step in gaining acceptance to your target schools.


When Non-Traditional Applicants Should Apply

You probably already know that there are three application rounds for business school. As a non-traditional applicant, there’s a good chance you don’t have years of applicable work experience and your application will depend heavily on your unique contributions and quant skills. Since you’re likely not a “walk on water” candidate (e.g., nobel prize winner, olympic athlete), it’s in your best interest to apply during the first two rounds. 

However, if you have low GMAT scores in addition to non-traditional work experience, you’ll fare best if you apply in round one. Not only will your demonstration of early commitment improve your chances of securing an interview, it’ll also increase your likelihood of receiving scholarships and financial aid.

Final Thoughts

Above all, don’t consider your non-traditional application status a kiss of death. Remember that MBA programs are looking for diversity so your unique background has the potential to work in your favor. 

Throughout the application process, present your experience confidently and don’t feel the need to defend the path you’ve taken up until this point. Focus your energy on explaining how you’ve come to apply for an MBA and the ways the degree will benefit your future.

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