Positioning Yourself for Business School, Part 2: The Non-Financier
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.
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:
- Quit whatever you’re doing now and find something finance-related in the meantime.
- 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.
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.
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
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…).
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