Should you head straight to an MBA program after you graduate or should you try to get a few years of work experience first?
Ah, the call of the MBA. In today’s work world, even new professionals who are still huffing and puffing up the proverbial ladder have their sights set on business school. After all, earning an MBA degree is a surefire way to increase your salary, boost your credibility and prove your commitment to your career. Oh and let’s not forget about that whole job security thing — did you know 95 percent of Class of 2013 MBA grads were employed by September 2013?
But before you run out to drop several thousands of dollars on your MBA degree, answer this question: What does your employment history look like?
Like it or not, you’ve gotta work to work it! And by that we mean you generally need solid work experience (anywhere from two to seven years) to be a considered a good candidate for admission to a top-notch program.
Here’s why you should consider working for a few years after college before you apply to business school.
You look better on paper to the admissions department
While having work experience isn’t 100 percent necessary, most experts we talked to stressed it’s definitely beneficial. If you head straight to an MBA program directly after undergrad, you might not get as much out of it — or have as much to bring to the table, either. (Click here to tweet this hard love.)
“Demonstrating personal maturity, business knowledge, management perspective and bottom-line impact distinguishes an MBA candidate beyond his or her academic credentials and standardized test scores,” says Dan Bauer, a graduate of the Harvard MBA program and CEO and the founder of The MBA Exchange.
Got that? It’s not just about your slick academic stats. Your real-world experience also determines whether or not you’re ready for MBA-level coursework.
It’s also helpful for schools to learn about you through the lens of the working world, rather than the classroom. “Recommendations from work supervisors who describe convincing examples of your tangible results and professionalism on the job are more relevant and convincing than feedback from a college professor who lacks business credentials,” Bauer says.
You’ll have better context for your coursework
Getting a few years of work experience under your belt will do more than impress the admissions reps. Understanding the ins and outs of the professional world can also be a huge benefit in interacting with your classmates and completing coursework.
“A student who worked as an analyst in an investment bank and a student who worked as a teacher or social worker have a variety of thoughts, perspectives, experiences and lessons that enrich each other,” says Stephanie Klein Wassink of AdmissionsCheckup.com. Learning from your classmates — and teaching them — is an integral part of earning that sought-after MBA.
Having spent some time on the job can actually help you in your classes. “Work experience makes everything you learn in class much more practical and useful because you can filter it through your own experiences,” says Miro Kazakoff, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “There’s no way to fully understand the impact of what you are studying in class without having spent some time in a workplace.”
How to sell yourself if you’re light on work experience
So what should you do if you’re a little inexperienced, but you still think you’re MBA material? Luckily, all hope is not lost for you — or your application.
“Students who do not have work experience must make the case that they have a lot of information to impart,” says Stephanie Klein Wassink. “The student must explicitly lay out the case for the need to get the degree before they have work experience. It must be believable and in sync with the rest of the student’s application and experiences.”
So whether you have a resume a mile long or are still a starry-eyed undergraduate dreaming of board rooms and conference calls, you always have options for your path to an MBA. Just make sure those options include realistic expectations for how your work history might ultimately affect your admissions chances.
Carrie Murphy is a freelance writer living in New Mexico.