Non-Traditional Applicant: Weakness or Strength?
“I’m a non-traditional applicant – how do I offset this weakness in my application?”
“I think that my non-traditional background is a strength in my application because it differentiates me from all the consultants and bankers – do you agree?”
So which one is it? Is a “non-traditional” pre-MBA background or career path a boon or a disadvantage for an MBA candidate? As in all things related to the MBA application process, it depends! But as an applicant, that’s something you have some control over – namely how successful you are at leveraging that prior experience to tell a compelling story of leadership, impact, and of course, the need for an MBA.
Let’s start with an example to bring this to life. Two years ago, I worked with a client who came to me from one of the more unusual pre-MBA career paths I had seen. Charlotte* was a product specialist at a well-known auction house in New York. In short, she valued and categorized antique and rare furniture and prepared it for sale. While she attended an Ivy League undergrad, she was a liberal arts major and had also earned a master’s degree in art history. As an MBA applicant, she faced 3 key challenges: translating her work experience into qualities and competencies that are valued in business school, demonstrating analytical skills, and clearly explaining her path to and need for an MBA.
In our work together, Charlotte and I developed a strategy to address these challenges. In her resume, essays and letters of recommendation, we focused on several leadership experiences she had: leading a cross-functional initiative between her team and the marketing department, proactively resolving complex client issues, and taking on training and mentoring a new hire who was struggling in her role. In her resume, we made sure to quantify every possible achievement and highlight any analytical work she had done to help showcase her quantitative abilities. Lastly, we crafted a clear and compelling story for why she needed an MBA. She framed her experience as a cultivation of her passion for luxury goods and an opportunity to develop deep product expertise. However, she wanted to move up the supply chain, so to speak, into a more strategic role where she could drive decisions at the brand level for a product line or category. Given that she had little exposure to the subjects of finance, accounting, or corporate strategy in her past experience, an MBA was necessary to propel that next step in her career. This ultimately proved to be a winning strategy for Charlotte, as she was admitted to Columbia Business School, her top choice program.\
So going back to the original question – is a non-traditional background a strength or a weakness? Charlotte’s experience is a perfect example of how a non-traditional background can be a strength. The key to her success was in identifying what the main pain points would be for the adcom in light of her background and addressing them head-on. Could Charlotte’s background have worked against her? Absolutely! She could have failed to properly explain her background in terms that were relevant to the adcom and she could have failed to present a compelling argument for why she was pursuing an MBA. Either or both of those omissions could have led to a rejection. However, a lot of that was in her control.
All of the top MBA programs are looking to assemble highly diverse classes not only in terms of gender, ethnicity, and nationality, but also into terms of skills, backgrounds, and perspectives. So one thing is for sure when it comes to non-traditional applicants – the adcom will notice you. You will stand out in a pool of applicants comprised of way more “traditional pre-MBA roles”. However, what you do with that spotlight is up to you.
* Name has been changed for privacy purposes.
At Vantage Point, we love working with non-traditional applicants because of the unique challenge each of your stories brings. No matter where you are in the application process, our expertise and experience can help you lay out a clear path to admission to your dream schools. If you’d like to speak to an admissions expert about your MBA plans, sign up for a free 30-minute consultation. We look forward to hearing from you!