The Power of Uniqueness: Expert Advice for Non-Traditional MBA Applicants

By Megan Lerchenmuller


Applying to business school can be intimidating, especially if you come from a non-traditional background.  It can feel like your future classmates have been groomed to apply to top MBA programs since birth, and to be honest, some may have.  

However, despite potentially being surrounded by ex-bankers and ex-consultants, you have a ton of real-life experience to share with your future classmates, and applying to business school as a non-traditional candidate can actually be a huge pro. Whether you taught middle schoolers through Teach for America or spent time working with NGOs in Southeast Asia, your pre-MBA experience is just as valuable as those suit types you think you’re up against.  

Here are some tips to ensure that you’re presenting your non-traditional experience in the best light, and most importantly, ensuring the admissions committees that you have what it takes to excel in the business world. 

See your non-traditional background as a plus, not a minus.

Many different and unexpected paths lead to a two-year MBA program, and yours may not feel common.  This is a great thing!  A non-traditional applicant offers a refreshing perspective for the admissions committee, and more importantly, shares unique experiences that add a ton of value to your future classmates both in and out of the classroom.  You’ll likely be able to share on-the-ground leadership and team experiences with your classmates, and perhaps some cultural insight that they may have not encountered in their careers thus far – whether it be exposure to other governments or learnings from an established family business undergoing a transformative moment. 

Think about skills that translate to the business world.  

Some of these skills can include problem-solving, teamwork, and leadership skills, or understanding and tailoring needs across different cultures.  These skills are absolutely crucial to success in the business world.  Think back to scenarios you’ve faced in your work, what you’ve learned from them, and how you’ve grown as a leader or member of a team.  Have you brought an innovative idea to a team setting or solved a problem for an under-resourced population?   Think about how these experiences will help you solve future business challenges. 

Position yourself as a future business leader.  

Ensure that you’re demonstrating strong quantitative skills.  High GMAT / GRE quant scores are one way, as are good grades in undergraduate quantitative courses.  Quantify results on your resume, if possible.  Showcase strong leadership skills in your professional and extracurricular experiences.  If you think there may be a question about your quantitative abilities, consider taking a course at your local community college or online.  We recommend courses such as business math, economics, or statistics.  If you think your leadership skill demonstration is lacking, think about situations at work where you’ve taken initiative or resolved an issue, or consider informal leadership roles taken in extracurricular activities. 

Clearly outline your career goals and understand the skills you’ll need to hone to achieve them.  

Adcoms are looking for a few indicators that support a candidate’s likelihood to achieve even the loftiest career goals, two of the most important ones being a high level of self-awareness and well-thought-out career goals.  It’s important that your goals are realistic, that they build upon your experience thus far, and that you’re outlining a path of how you will achieve those career goals.  If you’re looking to launch a life-changing business initiative for a cause you’re passionate about, think about the skills you’ll need to accomplish this.  If you want to start a company, think about the entrepreneurial skills you’ll need to develop and what you’ll need to foster fundraising support.  If you’re coming from the non-profit world and want to lead a consciously-minded team in a large corporation, think about the ways the for-profit world differs from the non-profit world – Will you need to take a negotiations class?  Pursue strategy coursework? 

At the end of the day, admissions committees are looking to put together diverse and well-rounded classes of business school students who can share learnings from a variety of career experiences and intellectually curious, productive dialogue.  Students with non-traditional backgrounds not only bring a unique perspective to a business school classroom, they can also open students’ minds to real-life, on-the-ground experiences that can’t be had behind a desk or through reading a case study.  Embrace your unique background and make sure you’re taking that crucial step of presenting yourself as a future business leader.

We know that applying as a non-traditional student can seem intimidating so we’re here to help you. Reach out for free consultation to discuss your profile and how we can assist.