Business Schools Want Nontraditional MBA Students Just Like You

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Wednesday, March 20, 2019
Marco De Novellis
Senior Editor, BusinessBecause & GMAC Media
Image by iStock
Today, business schools are looking for a variety of experiences in their incoming MBA students.

There was a time when the gilded halls of a business school were inhabited only by aspiring bankers and Big Three consultants—but not anymore.

Today’s business schools are brimming with diverse profiles. Doctors, entrepreneurs, fashion designers, and lawyers sit alongside MBA students from more traditional business education backgrounds.

At Ivy League Wharton, only a quarter of the 862-student MBA class of 2020 completed an undergraduate degree in business; almost half majored in humanities. Eighty countries are represented in the current MBA class; 43 percent of students are female; 33 percent are U.S. students of color.

Today’s MBA students want to make an impact across industries, like healthcare, technology, and even the nonprofit space. According to the latest Prospective Students Survey conducted by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) each year, 25 percent of prospective business school candidates globally want to start their own business.

Being nontraditional has become, well, more traditional.

Nontraditional Backgrounds Pay Off

Far from being a burden, coming from a nontraditional background can help you stand out on your application.

GMAC groups prospective graduate students into seven categories, from Respect Seekers (27 percent of the global prospective student market) to Impactful Innovators (12 percent). Respect Seekers value a school’s ranking and reputation, while Impactful Innovators are budding entrepreneurs looking to make a difference to society.

I work with one top-ranked business school that naturally attracts a lot of Respect Seekers to its programs. But now this school is purposely targeting students outside its typical market segment in an effort to become more diverse.

Across the board, business schools offer scholarships to attract not just students from untraditional professional backgrounds, but students from Africa or Asia, social entrepreneurs, and women in business.

Harvard sets over 30 million USD aside for MBA fellowships each year. At Duke Fuqua, 60 percent of first-year MBA students are on a scholarship. Around 30 percent of all MBA students at schools like CEIBS, IESE, and Oxford Saïd are on school-funded scholarships.

Diversity Equals Profitability

Teamwork and networking are among the most important skills recruiters look for in job candidates today. As a result, MBA degrees are less about listening to lectures and learning theory and more about putting theory into practice.

Take, for example, the upstart MBA program at Asia School of Business, a Malaysian school founded in collaboration with MIT Sloan, where a third of the degree is dedicated to real-life consulting projects. In these Action Learning Projects, students work in diverse teams, solving strategic problems for companies across Asia’s emerging markets.

Or the full-time MBA at Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), where students go through team-based coaching and development via the Personal Leadership Development program (PLD), a core part of the curriculum.

Business schools know that the best way for students to learn the crucial softer side of management is by working in diverse teams with professionals from different backgrounds, with different approaches and perspectives, and so they set up their admissions accordingly.

At RSM, students are admitted based on their individual profiles and how far they’re prepared to engage with the PLD. The idea is that MBA students learn just as much from each other as they do from their professors.

Ultimately, it’s this kind of experience that reflects what students will face in the real business world. McKinsey research has found that gender and ethnic diversity are clearly correlated with profitability, so diversity makes business sense.

A Welcome Addition to a Well-Rounded Community

If you’re applying to business school with a nontraditional professional background, there are challenges. You’ll need to demonstrate to the admissions team that you have some business instinct and emphasize your transferable skills. Getting a good GMAT or GRE score can also help dissuade any doubt the admissions team may have about your ability to deal with the more quantitative side of an MBA.

Like any MBA candidate—but perhaps even more so—you’ll need to give a clear reason for choosing a specific program and explain how it fits into your career plan.

Whatever your background, the good news is that a support network is available in business school. On campus, business schools buzz with energy of student clubs; LGBTQ groups, women in business societies, and interest groups covering anything from finance to football, polo to private equity.

No matter your profile, rest assured: business school today is less about consulting and finance and more about fulfilling students’ individual career goals. It’s about helping MBA students shape their own stories, and making those stories exciting, impactful, and diverse.

Wherever your application journey takes you, have one mantra in mind: business schools are looking for a nontraditional MBA student just like you.

Marco De Novellis
Senior Editor, BusinessBecause & GMAC Media
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