An Expert Coach's Top Tips for Non-Traditional MBA Applicants

Join Coach Melanie E., and discover how to leverage your diverse experiences, career paths, and skill sets to craft a compelling application that showcases your true potential to business schools.

Melanie E.

By Melanie E.

Posted August 4, 2023

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Many non-traditional MBA applicants may feel bewildered by the MBA application process, but have no need to be nervous with the right guidance.

I was a successful non-traditional applicant when applying to M7 schools, ultimately attending Columbia Business School and receiving a coveted internship offer with consulting firm McKinsey. I had a fashion background and had spent many years becoming an expert on colors and fabrics, not go-to-market strategies or financial models.

Non-traditional applicants are typically considered those without a business-minded background, such as someone coming from an artistic industry like fashion, music, art, acting, etc. However, business schools seek out a diverse community, and so it is absolutely possible to turn what may seem like a weakness into a strength. These top tips will help you navigate the MBA application process successfully.

  1. Emphasize Transferable Skills: Highlight the skills, experiences, and/or networks from your non-traditional background that are relevant to the business world. Showcase how these transferable skills can contribute to your success in the MBA program and your specific short and long-term career goals. Utilize your resume, letters of recommendation, and essays to communicate these skills consistently.
  2. Upgrade Your Resume & LinkedIn: Update your resume to use business language. For example, managing bands on tour can be considered “stakeholder management.” Additionally, add explanations as needed, such as company descriptions or brief role descriptions to unique or lesser-known artistic jobs. Hyperlink to companies or projects as is relevant. The purpose is to give the admissions committee clear, digestible resume information. Lastly, ensure that you have a LinkedIn profile, and update the job titles, company names, and dates to exactly match your resume.
  3. Explain Your Motivation: Articulate your “why.” In other words, why you are pursuing an MBA, and how it aligns with your personal and professional aspirations. Your motivations are a way to set yourself apart in an informative, authentic, and compelling manner in your essays. Include (as is relevant) your “light bulb” moment when you realized your current career aspirations and plan to obtain an MBA.
  4. Why MBA: Clearly articulate how your transferable assets from point # 1 above will pair with the new skills, experiences, and/or networks you will gain in an MBA program in order to achieve your career goals. What is the existing + new = future success formula for you?
  5. Leverage Diversity: Emphasize the diversity of experiences, skills, and thoughts that you will bring to the MBA cohort. Your unique background can enrich classroom discussions and group projects, and top schools highly value diverse perspectives.
  6. Address Weaknesses Head-On: If you have any potential weaknesses in your application, such as lower test scores or limited business exposure, address them directly in the main essays and/or the optional essay. Be honest and reflective, showcasing your self-awareness and how you plan to work on your weaknesses and/or balance them with strengths.
  7. Showcase Your Extracurriculars: MBA programs value leadership, community involvement, and social know-how. It is important to showcase any relevant extracurriculars (during your undergraduate career as well as after), volunteering, hobbies, or leadership roles on your resume and the written application. These experiences that highlight working in teams, influencing, and/or helping others will improve your candidacy.
  8. Leverage Networking: Connect with current students or alumni at your target MBA programs who also have non-traditional backgrounds. Find them using LinkedIn searches and ask them how they showcased themselves in their applications. Networking can provide valuable insights and may help you establish additional rapport with the admissions committee.
  9. Showcase Adaptability: Consider demonstrating your ability to adapt and thrive, thus being able to manage a major career transition into the MBA program. Highlight situations where you successfully navigated change and uncertainty through letters of recommendation, your resume, and/or essays.
  10. Seek Professional Guidance: Consider working with an MBA admissions consultant who specializes in non-traditional candidates. They can provide valuable insights and help you present your best self in the application process.

Final Words

Remember, non-traditional MBA applicants often bring diverse and valuable perspectives to the table. Stay true to your unique journey and use these tips to make a strong case for your candidacy. Embrace your differences, demonstrate your potential, and show how an MBA will be the next step in your transformative career path.

Good luck with your application!


About the Author

Melanie is an Executive Coach & Admissions Coach with 16 years of experience across strategy, operations, and coaching. A former McKinsey consultant, she is a member of the Forbes Council and has been featured on NBC, ABC, CBS, Business Insider, TEDx, and more. Melanie has worked with prominent corporate clients including Google, KKR, IBM, and Morgan Stanley; as well as individuals such as business leaders, influencers, and Olympic athletes.

Melanie holds an MBA from Columbia University and a BS from Cornell University. She currently lives in Los Angeles (while remaining a New Yorker at heart), and enjoys creative pursuits in her free time.

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