10 Tips for Nontraditional Business School Applicants

Christina Yu
Knewton GMAT Teacher
B.A. Dartmouth College

Not all b-school applicants are quant superstars with a few years of Wall Street experience under their belt. If you’re a nontraditional applicant, here are a few pieces of advice.

1. Make sure to demonstrate your quantitative ability in some way.

Lack of quantitative preparation is one of the biggest reasons applicants are denied from MBA programs. So, how can you show you won’t balk at spreadsheets and graphs? Get some proof you’ve handled similar material before. If you left college without a course in finance, accounting, statistics, or economics under your belt, see tip #4. Next, do everything you can to get a high GMAT math score. While any scaled score in the 40s is superb, 90th percentile is around 49 to 50. This accomplishment speaks volumes and is bound to impress admissions officers, especially if you were an English major. And finally, simply excel at the quantitative parts of your job and try to have something to show for it, whether a promotion or a recommendation letter. If your job involves minimal quantitative work, you might want to build it into your responsibilities (if possible) or look for ways you can showcase your skill in extracurricular activities.

2. Demonstrate leadership.

Be creative if necessary. Influenced management at your company to undertake a successful venture? Led a dangerous mountain expedition? Oversaw a construction site with 300 workers? Started a non-profit that helps businesses become more sustainable?

Odds are that if you’re a non-traditional applicant, you have a knack for leadership; otherwise you wouldn’t be interested in management in the first place. Don’t panic, however, if you feel there are no opportunities to display leadership in your current situation. Leadership is about action, not titles. Here are five lesser known, but real and substantial ways to demonstrate the quality:

  • Mitigate or minimize risk for a group
  • Influence others
  • Achieve consensus across groups
  • Recognize opportunity
  • Challenge the status quo

3. Press harder on what you’ve got.

Whether you’re a star athlete, a musician, a poet, or an engineer, you likely have special talents and interests that lie outside the business realm. Remember that top business schools are looking for world-class talent regardless of field and that they value diversity. To the extent that you can ramp up your business knowledge and continue to excel in other areas, you should. Remember: you want to build, amplify, and extend what you already have, not replace it altogether.

4. Consider boosting your business coursework.

If you’re an economics major who ended up teaching math in an inner city high school, you’re probably good as far as coursework is concerned. If you’re a poet, you’d be well advised to brush up on the core business subjects including accounting, finance, statistics, and economics. Don’t be daunted by the amount of work you’re facing! You may be surprised at how quickly perceptions of you change once you’ve taken the steps to change them.

5. Know exactly what you want to do post-MBA.

Expect that others will be skeptical of your MBA ambitions. Counter their skepticism by knowing exactly (and I mean, exactly) what you intend to do afterward and why you are suited for it. Practice answering questions like the following: “Yes, but how do you know you will like it? How do you think your current work is going to prepare you for that?” Understand the language, jargon, and mindset of those in your intended field, and be familiar with industry developments. This will ensure that your expectations are realistic.

6. Get familiar with the business world.

This is related to point #5. You can’t fake formal business training, but you should certainly display a keen interest in business. Start reading business publications like The Economist, Businessweek, or the Wall Street Journal. This kind of knowledge can take awhile to develop, so start familiarizing yourself immediately. Don’t try to “cram” or you will be overly influenced by a single book or article and your displays of knowledge will come across as forced.

7. Find role models.

If you’re a nontraditional applicant, chances are you’re not like everyone else from your original field of expertise. It can be confusing, not to mention disheartening and downright lonely if you’re the only one in your circle with business inclinations. Make an effort to find some role models — figures from the business world who started off as artists, journalists, and scientists and whose business careers were enhanced by their knowledge of something other than business. Notable examples include the poet Dana Gioia, former chair of the National Endowment of the Arts who received an MBA from Stanford. For a funny, candid account of business school from a former speech writer and self-named “poet,” check out the book Snapshots from Hell — it doesn’t try to sell the b-school experience, but if you read it and are still determined to go, you can be sure that business school is truly for you.

8. Find mentors with MBAs.

Now that you’ve begun to familiarize yourself with the business world, you need someone to talk about it with. Someone who holds an MBA will be able to offer perspective and contextualize the information you have absorbed recently. Remember: don’t be rigid or defensive when accepting feedback about your essays and your post-MBA plans! Others may not be well-versed in your field of expertise but they may have other domains of knowledge that are valuable to you.

9. Know that b-schools want you as much as you want them.

MBA programs are trying to reach out to people from non-traditional backgrounds. Why? A class full of bankers and consultants is boring. And b-schools want to build connections between the less-typical employers and their own programs, so that students who want jobs in those areas will be able to get them later on. This improves their placement rate and their employer network.

10. Get experiences that showcase other sides of your work personality.

Here’s a question you should bank on getting from admissions officers: “How will you go from being a leader in a creative environment to being a student in a quantitative, metrics-driven environment?” Think about how you will answer that question and if you need to build any experiences that demonstrate your comfort with different professional situations before you start the application process. Remember: admissions officers will connect the dots in your application even if you don’t. Don’t write that you are a great team player if you’ve never worked on a team before. Especially as a nontraditional applicant, your story has to make sense.