Unemployed (or Have an Employment Gap) and Applying to Business School? Here’s What to Do

As an MBA admissions consultant, a concern I sometimes work through with clients is how to address an employment gap in their MBA application. Given the upheaval of the past year, even more prospective MBA candidates than usual have faced job changes or periods of unemployment. They fear the admissions committees at top MBA programs will view this as a negative when comparing them with other applicants (especially in a particularly competitive cycle), derailing their chances of acceptance.

The good news is that the adcoms are human – they have likely changed jobs or even been laid off themselves. They also read the news and know that many employers had to make cuts in the past year to weather the slowdown. However, this doesn’t mean you should gloss over an employment gap and assume they ‘get it’.

The overarching key to successfully navigating a period of unemployment or being out of work at the time of application is to be proactive. Here are three ways to do that:

1) Address the elephant in the room.

With application volumes surging, the last thing the adcoms want to do is search around to understand an employment gap they see on your resume. As a rule of thumb, explain any gap that is three months or longer in the optional essay (the data form may have a place for this as well). If you are currently unemployed, even if it hasn’t been three months, you should also provide an explanation.
In straightforward, concise language, explain the context of the situation and – importantly – what you were doing during the break. Ideally it was more than searching for a job and watching Netflix; perhaps you learned a new hobby or job-relevant skill, volunteered in your community, or traveled to new and exciting places.

If you are currently unemployed, explain the reason for your separation from your prior employer but be careful to avoid placing blame (on the company or yourself!). It can also help to highlight accelerated career progression and/or above average performance ratings you earned prior to leaving; this proactively addresses the adcom’s potential concern that you do not excel relative to peers.

2) Take action.

Since you can’t change the past, this advice primarily applies to those who are currently unemployed. As Round 1 and 2 deadlines are behind us and, generally speaking, we don’t recommend applying in Round 3, it also applies primarily to those targeting a ‘21/’22 application.

With roughly a year and a half until you matriculate, it will be hard to justify not seeking a new job before then. It may seem daunting to onboard into a new company while studying for the GMAT and working on applications, but by remaining on the career sidelines you are decreasing your competitiveness. The vast majority of applicants are doing double duty while also gaining very relevant experience in navigating challenging times at work.

However, while you are in job search mode (which may take awhile in the current climate and that’s ok!), think about ways you can continue to add value – to your community, an organization in need (check out Taproot for ideas), or even just to yourself. Knowing that the adcom will be considering your actions when they assess your application, now is not the time to tread water (which is boring anyway!).

3) Reflect and discuss your insights.

As with any major life change (or event like a global pandemic!), leaving your job likely triggered a period of self-reflection. Perhaps you gave more thought to the type of organization you want to be a part of or even whether your current career path is right for you after all. Use this to your advantage!

View the circumstances as an opportunity to pivot towards the type of work you see yourself doing post-MBA and beyond. If a holistic shift isn’t possible (after all, you are planning to get an MBA for a reason), perhaps your next role can help build some of the skills you will ultimately need to make your desired transition. The adcom will take note if you explain this rationale in your application essays!

As an example, a past client of mine knew she had a passion for nonprofit work, but her early career had led her down a different path. In advance of her MBA applications, she found herself at a crossroads and actively sought a position in the nonprofit space. While the role she accepted was functionally different from what she hopes to do post-MBA, demonstrating knowledge of the nonprofit sector made for a compelling application and she was accepted (with full scholarship!) to her top choice program.

So this is basically a roundabout way of recommending you turn lemons into lemonade. After the past twelve months, this is something we should all be pretty good at by now!

If you need help strategizing, click here to schedule a free consultation.

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