Positioning Yourself for Business School, Part 2: The Non-Financier

36 Comments | MBA & Master's Programs - Using the Degrees to Break Into Finance

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I was tempted to label this one “The Vagabond” or “The Average Joe,” but those didn’t sound very… flattering.

Last time, we looked at how to set yourself apart in MBA admissions if you’re coming from a finance background.

The main challenge there is “being interesting” – defined as not looking exactly the same as every other person who took the “2 years of banking followed by 2 years of PE” route.

If you’re coming from a non-finance background, though, you face a different set of challenges.

Obstacles for Non-Financiers

If you’re coming from a non-finance background – anything from a political campaign volunteer to a nonprofit worker to an entrepreneur to anyone in fields like accounting and IT consulting – your biggest challenge will be proving that you can do the work.

Remember, we’re assuming that you’re using business school to get into a field like finance or consulting. You still need to “be interesting” to get into business school in the first place before using it for recruiting purposes.

If you’ve been an accountant for 4 years but haven’t done anything else outside work, you’ll face an uphill battle getting into top schools.

But getting these “extracurricular activities” is easier for anyone with a non-finance background, because you actually have the time to do things outside of pitch books and Excel. So you probably don’t need to make any dramatic moves, and you can follow the tips given in our first article.

And if you’re coming from more of a “vagabond” background – you decided to leave the country and head to a monastery for a year, or you founded a nonprofit in Guatemala – your work experience by itself is already “interesting.”

But no matter what your background is, the #1 question any bank will have for you is simple:

Can you do the work?

After all, you’ve never done finance before.

Proving That You Can Do the Work

Sometimes this is just a matter of positioning. A lot of MBA students get interested in finance from exposure they’ve had before – so if you’ve been a healthcare policy analyst but had a chance to do some modeling work when consulting with the federal government, then you know what to do: play that up as much as possible.

The same is true if you were at a nonprofit when it was merging with another nonprofit, or if you helped out with due diligence on M&A transactions when you were at a Big 4 firm.

In other cases, “proving” that you can do the work is more difficult. I’ve received quite a few questions from former Hollywood writers and producers who want to move into finance – if you’re in a creative profession like that, you need to get some exposure to finance before you arrive at business school.

That could be in the form of a part-time or unpaid internship, and your best chance might be in the summer before school starts.

You should get actual work experience rather than “shadowing” someone or doing an “independent research project.” Banks don’t take any of that too seriously for anyone at the MBA level.

It’s a matter of risk management on their part – hiring the wrong person can cost three times the person’s annual salary. Given that finance salaries are (still) higher than almost anything else, firms need to attract “low-risk” individuals.

The bottom line: you’ll be at a big disadvantage if you don’t have anything finance-related on your resume and you’re planning to use business school recruiting – especially if the economy remains poor or gets even worse.

Finding Proof

So how do you actually get this “proof” if you’re working or have some other full-time obligation?

Logically speaking, you have 2 options:

  1. Quit whatever you’re doing now and find something finance-related in the meantime.
  2. Take advantage of that summer window before school starts and do something finance-related then.

In either case, do not jump into anything unless you’ve actually been accepted to school(s) first.

You get these opportunities the same way you get internships or jobs at smaller firms in the first place: a combination of networking, cold-calling, and persistence.

Don’t even try to arrange something informal at a bulge bracket bank – they won’t be open to it, and they’re less flexible with “creating” new positions.

One exception is if you go through a pre-MBA program that gives you real work experience. I’m not an expert on this topic, but that could also be a potential way to demonstrate “proof” as long as you work full-time in finance over an extended period (e.g. not 2 weeks).

Other Factors – Grades and GMAT Scores

Some people make a big fuss over undergraduate GPA and GMAT scores, but if you’re applying to top schools, they don’t matter that much – past a certain point.

Why?

Almost everyone applying to these schools has relatively good grades (3.5 range or over) and GMAT scores (over 700). The average is already quite high, so having perfect grades and GMAT scores is not enough to set you apart.

It’s like technical questions in investment banking interviews – getting them right puts you in the running, but you’ll never get an offer based solely on your technical know-how. They’re used to weed out applicants rather than to decide who gets offers.

As long as you have grades and scores that put you on par with everyone else applying, your admission chances come down to essays, recommendations, and your “story” – not specific numbers.

So the only way scores and grades matter is if yours are not on par with everyone else’s – in which case you do have a problem.

Aiming Lower Than the Top

We’ve been focused on the top schools, where competition is tough and where admissions rates are likely to be at all-time lows in the near future.

And if you’re interested only in finance or consulting, there’s no point in aiming lower than the top: most firms don’t recruit much at programs outside the top 10 – so you definitely want to get into a top 10 business school.

But that doesn’t apply to everyone – maybe you’re older and more experienced, and you’re interested in changing careers or going back for other purposes. If you’re after the experience rather than the recruiting opportunities, you don’t need to get into the top programs in the world.

In that case, you might be better off saving yourself time, effort, and money and going for a less “prestigious” option.

It goes back to your motivations for going in the first place – not everyone is interested in going back to school primarily for recruiting purposes.

It’s All About the Story

As with interviews and any other type of application, positioning yourself for business school comes down to your “story” more than anything else.

But the challenge is that you often need 2 different stories: one to get into school in the first place, and one to use when you’re recruiting at school.

And you need to start developing both, even before you think about applying anywhere.

Coming Up: How to successfully “spin” your story and make yourself sound more interesting (if I can get anyone to go on-the-record with this…).

About the Author

is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys learning obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, and traveling so much that he's forced to add additional pages to his passport on a regular basis.

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36 Comments to “Positioning Yourself for Business School, Part 2: The Non-Financier”

Comments

  1. Navid says

    I remember in the past you asked non-target or uber-persistent people who broke into banking for some of their stories.

    I was wondering if you were going to share any of those in any upcoming posts?

    It would be great to hear about some success stories and people breaking in from non-traditional paths during difficult times.

    • says

      Those were mostly for my own research purposes for an upcoming product – I can’t really share explicit, personally identifiable details because anyone I interviewed would kill me (secrecy dominates finance). I’ll see if I can share anything but I’d probably have to do separate interviews for that.

  2. Botkin says

    I have been a long time reader of this blog and it seems like you normally cater all your advice to top-tier schools and individuals with good/high GPAs.

    For me, I did not have the opportunity to go to a top-tier institution and I do not have a good GPA (sub-par). Instead, I went to a top-public school where banks do come (but recruit maybe a total 10 individuals) to banking each year, each class.

    Unfortunately, in these rough economic times, I did not get an offer from a BB bank for FT recruiting even with my prior summer experience in IBD. As such, I would like to return to business school some day and try my recruiting efforts again there.

    At banks, I have seen a trend where if you have experience, they eshibit the “low-risk hiring” technique where if you have decent GPA (sub-par) and experience in finance, you get an interview. Do you think business schools have any “low-risk” acceptance tools an individual in my situation can use to their disposal?

    • says

      A lot of what I’ve written about really applies to anyone… networking, interviewing, telling your story etc. are as applicable for anyone with a high GPA as they are for anyone with a lower GPA.

      For business school specifically, yes, there is a bias toward more “top-tier” backgrounds – because if you use it for finance recruiting, there is honestly no point in going to a lesser-known school.

      I’m not sure I completely understand your question so tell me if I’m getting this wrong, but your undergraduate institution does not matter -that- much in terms of b-school recruiting… as in work experience matters more.

      I’d say your #1 strategy should be putting together very solid work experience and doing a lot of networking with those in finance before you even arrive at b-school so that you have a leg up on everyone else – esp. if the economy stays poor, anyone who hasn’t networked much will be at a disadvantage compared to you.

      • Botkin says

        Sorry if I was not clear. But, I was wandering if business schools look favorably on finance work experience that is not IBD. I received an offer at a valuation shop but am not sure how likely such a position will improve my chances in getting into business school. Would valuations experience be considered good work experience? While it is not as prestigious as IBD or Consulting, would that be sufficient (along with networking) to get into a top business school?

        • says

          It helps vs. doing something like accounting and I think you can get in with that type of experience. But keep in mind the above article: you really need something else beyond that work experience to maximize your chances, especially since your hours are (presumably) lower at that type of firm.

  3. Alex says

    This article provides inspiration for an individual like myself who ultimately wants to go into consulting but can’t simply because of my major in Environmental Eng. I guess I caught myself a big break this year and got accepted into Stanford for my masters in engineering, however it’s not finance related.

    Is there any hope for me?? I got in contact with a recruiter from Bain & Co and they say engineers are in “good shape” to enter consulting. I also think it would be great to hear a non-trad major breaking into finance and how they overcome the hurdle.

    Thanks M&I!!!

  4. Valedictorian says

    Long time reader, first time writer.
    I dont know about your knowledge outside the US Investment banking industry, but i know MBB and other strategy firms apply a different approach to undergrads at top tier schools in Europe. At Mck they told me that hiring undergrads (work for 2-3 years and getting your MBA paid) is rare, and you have to have at least began studying on your masters (in my case finance hopefully) to apply for an internship.

    Anyhow, that being said, can you come out of your masters and apply to banking in for example London, or is analysts always undergrads in bulge bracket Ibanks?

    A second question. How about doing consulting for a few years, then doing an MBA at lets say INSEAD (one of the top business schools in the world, being like Harvard in Europe, France)? Which position do you enter as an after an MBA without former banking experience (but mainly work in corp finance in lets say Mck)?

    • says

      Hey there, I’m not an expert on London/Europe but keep in mind that in Europe a lot of people do a Master’s following their undergrad program and it’s almost more expected than in the US (esp. since a lot of undergrad programs there are fewer credit hours).

      If you’re coming out of a Master’s but non-MBA program, you’d still be applying for Analyst roles.

      MBA anywhere would allow you to enter as an Associate… doesn’t matter if it’s INSEAD or any other top university in Europe/elsewhere, if you’ve done the program you’d enter as an Associate. The problem people run into is when they have had minimal work experience altogether and that makes it difficult to enter banking. But you don’t need former banking experience to get into post-MBA banking positions.

      • Aaron says

        Hi M&I,
        I don’t know how old this thread is, but still, I’ve got a couple of questions on your comments. What do you mean by “minimal work experience”, and what do you consider “top university”, out of the hundreds (if not thousands) in Europe?

  5. says

    Great Article. As a entering 1st year at Kellogg, I can say that its all about the story, how you convey it and how you back it up.

  6. Paul says

    10 years of capital equipment sales experience (Fortune 100), 3 years as an enterprise IT project manager (Fotrune 5), 5 years small business M&A (concurrent), 2nd tier finance MBA and top-tier Economics BA with some graduate level computer science at Harvard….any chance of me breaking into this world? Exceptional sales person and relationship manager with the quantitative skills to match. I need to truly use my skills. I believe sometimes what is not stated is more important what is said.

    • says

      You could give it a shot but most large banks would probably say you’re over-qualified. I would shoot for smaller banks, see what the reaction is, and if it isn’t good you could wait for the market to recover.

  7. Paul#2 says

    Pros – As a public policy hack, I have developed useful skills in relationship and project management. A big part of my job involves implementing and administering complex intra (state) and inter (federal) programs; as well as creating documents under very tight deadlines that are read by hundreds of thousands of people every year (so attention to detail is very important)! I am seriously considering applying to business school next fall to make a career switch to investment banking.
    Cons – I have a graduate degree in emergency management that involved some quantitative courses, but I fear that I’m a bit short on the formal finance experience. Would a graduate certificate course in finance from a “second tier” school (like Rutgers or Penn State) help with applications to top 20 MBA programs?

    Thanks for any insight that you can provide on this.
    Paul#2

      • Paul#2 says

        Ah…ok. Thanks for the feedback. I’ll have to do something really unconventional to fit in an internship before submitting my business school applications (nights and weekends?). Your comment did however make me think that if I do also pursue a graduate certificate in finance or something similar, it may as well be at a target school. I think this type of program tends to be non-credit and admission requirements are not very rigorous, but you can get the name of the target school on your resume! Am I being naïve here?

        • Mike says

          Hi,
          This was a groundbreaking blog for me because the pragmatism of your writing really re-focused my attention on what would actually matter in my B-school apps a couple years down the road. To elaborate, I am about to graduate from a very good accounting school with a 3.5 GPA and a 760 GMAT and go work for the Big 4 doing financial auditing. I was getting hung up on the idea of having numbers that were far above average, and if I had not read this I probably would never have re-focused my attention on having a “story” outside of just doing financial auditing in New York. (which, I’ll admit it, I actually thought was pretty interesting stuff).

          I like the idea of having a story. I love working abroad and have studied abroad three times. The idea of not having to stress out about having numbers that are mountains above the competition just because I went to a 2nd-tier undergrad school really takes a load off. Your article has inspired me to do whatever it takes to get on my firm’s list to go work in Brazil or India, which is really my passion anyway. So, thank you.

          However, I would still like to hear how to successfully “spin” a good recruitment story. Has your next blog been written yet?

          P.S. it would help to have dates on these pages and comments. I still don’t know if I’m posting to a blog that was written years ago.

          Thanks again,

          -Mike

        • says

          You can go to “Articles” at the top of the site for a chronological list of all articles. Search Google for “mergers inquisitions how to tell story” for more on that topic.

          I leave off dates because I don’t consider this site a “blog” – I purposely avoid news-type posts or anything that doesn’t have long-term value, because the idea is to create an asset with long-lasting content.

        • Mike says

          Very good info, but there’s an aspect of spinning a business schools story that I’m still not sure about. What about when they ask what I plan to do with my MBA? Do I really tell them that I intend to go build schools in Bangalore, then once I’m accepted do nothing but shmooze investment bankers at Goldman Sachs?

        • Mike says

          Hahaha! You really can’t blame Americans for questioning the integrity of an industry that requires such an unethical practice (albeit inadvertently) just to get accepted.

  8. David says

    Brian,

    As a non-financier, I found this article fascinating.

    I think I have “the story” going for me. I have been at the top of the broadcast journalism profession in an Asian country for four years. I now work for a government ministry that handles this country’s commercial relations and economic policy. I am fluent in an Asian language and conversational in Spanish. Thanks to my career as a journalist, I also have a huge network in Asia in a variety of industries as well as the public sector.

    I am in the process of applying for an MBA program and am confident that I will have a very good GMAT score.

    However, the skeleton in my closet is a dismal GPA (2.5) in political science. I think I really turned things around after university, pursuing my passion for news reporting. People in very high places have urged me to get an MBA (or even a law degree) because of my unique experience, but they are not aware of this GPA situation.

    With little or no business experience and a low GPA is finance hopeless? What about the MBA?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      As you progress in your career, your GPA matters less. If you want to break into finance though, I believe having an MBA from a top tier school will help you

  9. Argee says

    Hi Brian,

    Many thanks for your website and helpful article(s). I have a question regarding the following part of this article:

    “Logically speaking, you have 2 options:

    1.Quit whatever you’re doing now and find something finance-related in the meantime.
    2.Take advantage of that summer window before school starts and do something finance-related then.”

    Can you give an idea of the type of “finance-related” jobs one can get into with no finance background (non-finance undegrad major and non-finance work experience)?

  10. Praneet says

    Hi Brian,

    I have a non-finance education (BS in Computer Science and BS in Information Systems) and also I’m doing co-op at a Canadian tech firm that specializes in mobile phones (IT Project Management). I graduate in 2014 and will be actively seeking employment.

    What are the chances of landing a job in a boutique firm in the Canada Area if I work on the getting the required knowledge through means outside of the classroom (Your BIWS package, getting an online certification in financial modelling, etc).

    If chances are slim to none, will working as a Tech Consultant or Business Analyst or Project Manager in the tech department of a bank be enough to make me look good on paper for Business Schools? Hope to hear from you soon.

  11. KJ says

    Hello Brian and Nicole,

    I have enjoyed reading your newsletters and posts the past few months. I am someone who has no finance background and these articles have been very informative.

    I started following this website in the fall when I started applying to business schools and was looking at post-MBA careers. I have been admitted to a Top-5 MBA program and I start there this fall. I have engineering and project management experience in oil and gas, and want to pursue a career in Energy IB post-MBA.

    I now realize my lack of experience and education in finance is going to make this an uphill battle for me, and I need to do a lot of the things you mention in a related article (the 6 steps on how to use the MBA). Unfortunately, I am only 7-8 months away from school, so I can’t move to a related full-time position now to gain relevant experience. I am going to try to get an unpaid or part-time summer internship. But, other than that, what are some finance-related things that I can do before starting school? Any advice from you would be much appreciated.

    • says

      Thanks! I would definitely aim for a pre-MBA internship at a local firm, perhaps check out some of our modeling courses (not trying to hard-sell you, just pointing them out as a resource), and also start networking with alumni from that school to get feedback and improve your chances of getting into major banks.

  12. Raj says

    Insightful article. I was wondering if you could provide me some guidance about B school selection.

    I got a 550 on my GMAT, the problem being I don’t test well! But I have 2 years work ex with the consulting division of a big 4. I spent 2 years volunteering with Greenpeace and successfully lobbied large MNC’s and got them to change their unethical ways. Growing up, I have lived across 3 continents and have attended multicultural schools and colleges. My GPA if converted is around 3.7 (2.1 in the UK system), I did several extra curricular activities in school and university and have led large teams. At the time of applying I would be on the youngish side (24-25).

    My reason behind pursuing a MBA is to build on my leadership skills and social network since I plan to start my own venture after an MBA. I want to pursue it from a reputed school to enhance my credentials too. Which schools would you recommend for me. Also, is it true that if you can finance your studies without assistance you have a higher chance of getting in?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Some of the top schools include HBS, Wharton, Stanford, Columbia, Stern etc.

      I am not sure if you have a higher chance of getting in if you finance your studies yourself though I presume there maybe some truth to it.

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