When to Get an MBA, When Not To – and How it Affects Your Chances of Getting In

A Stanford GSB MBA and expert admissions consultant walks through how to decide if business school is the right choice for you, with examples from real applicants.

Ben L.

By Ben L.

Posted March 13, 2024

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During my time at Stanford GSB and in guiding hundreds of individuals on their applications, I’ve heard dozens of reasons for getting an MBA:

“I’m just looking to pivot to something new.”
“I feel like I’m missing something skill-wise.”
“I want to build something but lack the network.”
“I just don’t like my job and need a break.”

What I’ve found is that it’s a bit disingenuous to paint these all in the same light. Some reasons are great, others are less well thought-out.

Before anything else, it’s important to just be honest with yourself. An MBA is a huge commitment – as much time as it is money. You’re pausing your career instead of moving up; paying off loans in lieu of cold hard cash; moving across the country and changing social scenes. That’s a lot – so why?

This is not a comprehensive list of reasons to get an MBA, but here are some of the good, the savvy, and a few that might end badly.

Good reason #1: Building something new / building out your passion

If you have a passion for something – a startup, a non-profit, an idea you want to build and test – certain entrepreneurially-oriented MBA programs could help you take it to the next level.

A couple of examples:

  • My good friend Shawon had been working on his part-startup, part-non-profit, Vocal Justice. He dedicated a huge fraction of his time and used the Stanford network and resources to augment what he’s doing. He’s gone on to land major grants from Stanford, Harvard, Chicago Beyond and many more organziations, but spent his time at GSB deliberately to make this happen.
  • My friend Hannah Sieber had already built a climate startup, but wanted something new. She tested a number of ideas through similar GSB-internal startup resources, combined that with her network and expertise, and started Artyc to electrify the cold chain. She radiates grit and will simply figure-it-out – but took full advantage of Stanford to accelerate everything she’s doing.
  • I personally was excited to build in the workforce development space given my experience in prison reform and public policy, and knew I wanted to do something on behalf of populations that are economically locked. I led Stanford’s Justice Team (within the Impact Fund) to invest in Honest Jobs, but only after I’d been working on a similar solution through Startup Garage. I met Harley (Honest Jobs’ founder) through the course, and helped him with some financials and broader ideas for his business. When I joined Impact Fund a year later, I pitched his startup again and again to our investment committee, eventually winning the competition and earning Harley a check. Now, I’m closing another workforce gap after founding TownSquare Chess this past year, unifying chess players and chess coaches across the country to democratize how chess is learned.

These examples are everywhere within the GSB class, but they’re not everywhere within the applicant pool. The “Why GSB’s” here write themselves: Our purposes are entwined with our passions, and our work to date is evidence for those passions. Everything feels deliberate; nothing feels random.

Good reason #2: You have meaningful experience, but want to change gears

Know what you bring to the table and the specific assets your career thus far provides. What industries or roles do you want? What skills and experiences get you part of the way there? What’s left to cover? What programs would close the gap?

My first-year roommate at Stanford was super passionate about the impact HR can have across an organization, but wanted new contexts. Jen had worked for TFA and Deloitte, but was looking for different applications for her passions around human capital. She paired her MBA with a Master’s in Education from Stanford; her instruments were always tuned to how she might pivot and broaden her skillset. I learned more from her on that topic than anyone I’ve interacted with to date.

It’s not surprising she’s now moving up the ladder at an F500, leading change from within on issues like inclusion, while making her teams feel more empowered to drive change of their own. There’s a case to be made she’ll make more of a difference doing that kind of work than 90% of “founders” out there. And her application no doubt made that case.

The broader lesson? Make clear your skills, knowledge, and expertise. Pair that with clear reasons for why you want to transition, and the kind of impact you hope to have.

Bad reason #1: You want to be “more impressive” (read: need an ego bump)

To get this out of the way, if you’re getting an MBA just so you can tell your friends and future coworkers that you went there, wake up. Nobody cares, and absolutely no one wants to hear it. In some circles, an MBA even carries a negative connotation – you’re not going to walk on water because you have a degree from a fancy place. In the meantime, get out more and meet people.

For what it’s worth, this is one I more often get a “sense of” in talking with someone. It takes the form of people only applying to Harvard/Stanford/Wharton without too much thought (which to me, is kind of insane from a statistical perspective). It’s purely a prestige play, with very little concept of what an MBA would do for them. These are the type of people whose essays ring hollow and who can’t really differentiate one program from another – something interviewers will easily notice. If your Why ‘X’ school is just, “I want people to think I’m somebody,” admissions will see right through it – and you won’t get in.

Bad reason #2: You’re running from your job

If your job sucks, you suck at your job–or both(!)–you need more than just career reasons to apply to an MBA program (read: to even have reasonable odds of getting in). Unless you’re just naturally in the top 1% of hard workers, if you’re at a place you’re not in love with, chances are you’re not doing your best work. If you’re not someone who’s prioritized job performance or going further in your career (and therefore not doing your best work by design), your rec letters will reflect that.

This reason is all too common, and it’s different from feeling a bit stuck or not being totally satisfied with your current job. Don’t spend a quarter-million dollars because you wish your job was 10% better. Start close before you look downfield. Are there other opportunities where you currently work? Bigger opportunities at similar organizations, or similar roles at more impactful organizations? A mentor you’ve always wanted to work for?

Don’t run from your career to an MBA – run to your future career through your MBA.

Bad reason #3: Test scores are expiring

I get it – it’s totally natural to want to use it before you lose it. But life is slightly bigger than an unused GMAT score. Don’t apply,even in part,because you’re fearful you might have to take the test again, or because you feel the need to justify a previous time investment.

This is the definition of sunk cost fallacy.

If you studied for an exam that prepared you for a second exam, should you take the second exam simply because you studied for the first? Of course not. If you operated that way across your life, you’d be living out an infinite, repeating series of CFA accreditations.

Don’t get married to an MBA program just because you dated the GMAT.

The non-reason: I just don’t know what to do

But what if you’re somewhere in the middle? If we accept that there are good reasons and bad reasons, what if you’re not sure what you should do in the first place? Maybe you have a couple of friends who had great experiences at a few programs, one or two who went on to careers you’d be excited to have, and a couple of others who don’t feel they benefited all that much. What then?

Go way back. Start with yourself. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Making ends meet? Got lost in the corporate sauce? Happy with your life on some fronts, but wanting on others? Simply need a change, but can’t clearly define what ‘change’ means?

Analyze what got you to where you are. Who helped you? How did you help yourself? What are your habits? What’s working and what needs to change? Are you genuinely motivated, or externally motivated? Are your relationships healthy? Are you healthy? Do you do things because you think they’ll look good to others? Or do you solve problems?

If your application is coming from a place that’s not genuine, doesn’t build on your body of work to date, and stems from uncertainty and potentially insecurity, you’re not ready. Especially if you don’t have the time or space to do this over a 4-6-month period, your application will sound rushed, scattered, and shallow.

In the end, I recommend talking to someone alongside some real self-inventory. This stuff is almost impossible to unpack on your own, but you should start unpacking as soon as you have a minute because no one’s touching your luggage for you. My friend Eric helped me more than anyone I know, and he’s the biggest reason I felt encouraged enough to apply. You might be someone who’s self-selecting out of the process or someone who’s all too eager to throw their hat in the ring. People with experience – who’ve worked with hundreds of applicants – can talk you through years’ worth of patterns that you may never find on your own.

For the majority, my own work focused on cohering someone’s application into a product they’re proud of – it feels powerful, but its power comes from ingenuity and reflection. For others, some of the most valuable advice I’ve given is not to apply.

Deliberate self-understanding, guided or not, remains the best-kept secret behind making big life decisions. See the current before you jump in.

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