Navigating full-time MBAs as an early career applicant

BY Jordan FriedmanJuly 20, 2021, 2:00 AM
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Less than three years after earning a bachelor’s degree in economics and Mandarin at Wellesley College, Narayani Gupta was ready to further her education. She had worked as an investment banker on Wall Street after graduation, which gave her experience across different industries and teams, including overseas, and she wanted to advance in her career in finance. An MBA seemed to be the next logical step.

Many traditional full-time MBA programs prefer that students have roughly five to six years of work experience when they enroll, but that will vary on an individual basis, says Barbara Coward, founder of MBA 360° Admissions Consulting. Yet for Gupta, the time simply felt right, despite being early in her career.

“I wanted to get an MBA to gain the quantitative and qualitative skills that would perhaps have taken me much longer in the workplace otherwise,” says Gupta, 27, who earned her MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in June 2020 and now works as a finance manager at Microsoft.

The percentage of students who have fewer than three years of work experience is somewhat small in many full-time MBA programs, and the reasons for taking this route vary. Maybe you decided the time was right after losing a job. Or maybe you come from a liberal arts background and want to gain the knowledge needed for certain business roles, Coward says.

“It’s a way to get into that job market with competitive skills,” Coward says, adding that she only occasionally works with early career MBA applicants to full-time programs. But they’re also not as uncommon as you might think.

Among the incoming students for the 2020–21 academic year at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, 11% had three or fewer years of work experience, according to figures provided by Dawna Clarke, executive director of admissions at the school. In the past five years, that percentage has ranged from 8% to 11%.

Here are tips and insights about what types of programs might be a good choice for early career applicants, when it makes sense to pursue a full-time MBA with little work experience, and how you can remain competitive in the admissions process against your more experienced peers.

Full-time MBA options for early career applicants

While some early career applicants may simply decide to apply for a full-time MBA program through the standard process, some reputable schools offer deferred admissions programs or other opportunities. 

Though program formats vary, deferred MBA admissions programs generally allow students to apply while in their senior year of college or soon after. If they are accepted, students work for a few years and then start the graduate program with experience under their belt, knowing a spot is being held for them. 

At Darden, the Future Year Scholars Program aims to identify applicants with “really high potential who have shown academic excellence,” Clarke says. These students have likely completed some internships—maybe even held leadership roles in college—and have strong interpersonal and communication skills. Harvard Business School and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, among other schools, have similar MBA deferred admission opportunities.

Despite the benefits of entering an MBA program with some work experience, a few universities offer 4+1 programs, in which students complete the MBA straight out of their undergraduate program with just one additional year of study at the same university. A small number of schools also offer programs designed specifically for early career MBA students and those making a career change. 

Pros and cons of early career MBAs

There are benefits and drawbacks to applying to a full-time MBA program so early in your career. One advantage: You avoid putting your career on hold at a later date to earn your degree.

“I didn’t want to possibly get down the rabbit hole of, ‘I’m already in my career, I’m already making money. It’s very hard for me to walk away from that and go back into my MBA,’” says Michael Morse, 25, who earned his MBA in 2020 from the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, straight out of the honors college at the same university. He now works in data analytics at General Mills.

Earning an MBA as an early career student can also be a good route for someone who graduates from college, works a few years, and then decides to change fields, says Donna Swinford, associate dean for MBA student recruitment and admissions at Chicago Booth. In addition, it can advance your career.

“You may have an advantage over someone else, your peers, by being able to pivot and take on more responsibilities earlier than others,” Swinford says.

But there are downsides for early career students, too. MBA students learn just as much from their peers as they do from their professors, which is why some work experience is typically encouraged, Coward says. More experience allows students to place the theory they learn in a real-world context and bring their own experiences into class discussions. 

“It just really is extremely helpful because you’re not doing it in the abstract,” Coward says. 

That’s not to say every early career student will struggle, however. It largely boils down to your confidence level, Clarke says. A student with less than three years of experience may have that confidence after completing significant internships followed by short but impactful work experience.

Clarke says MBA students with less than a year of work experience may also have a harder time finding a job after graduating, despite having an MBA degree, as certain positions still require some previous professional experience. 

Admissions tips for early career applicants

Just because you have little work experience doesn’t mean you’re at a disadvantage, Swinford says—admissions officers will merely look at your application differently from others. On Booth’s MBA application, prospective students must explain why they want the degree and why it makes sense for them to pursue one now.

“I think that that will help them, just by being transparent and being able to acknowledge why this is the right time for them,” Swinford says.

Coward says competitive schools are typically looking for candidates who have leadership skills and have made some sort of impact. You can still do this as a candidate with little to no work experience. For instance, she once worked with a prospective student who started an impact investing club in college and discussed that experience in one of the essays.

“That’s an example of somebody who wouldn’t have a lot of years of work experience but definitely can show that drive, ambition, leadership, impact,” Coward says. Prospective MBAs may also do this by highlighting their volunteer experiences and summer internships—not just in essays but also through interviews and letters of recommendation.

Gupta, the Chicago Booth alumna, suggests asking these questions when applying: “What have I learned so far? What am I looking for? Why me and why now?”