If I do not have a strong company name on my resume, should I forget applying to a top MBA program?
It is easy to believe that most MBA students at the world’s top business schools are former strategy consultants from McKinsey, Bain and BCG, investment bankers from Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, or VC and private equity analysts from Blackstone and KKR. Around half of the incoming class at HBS, Stanford, Wharton, Haas and INSEAD came from these sectors last year, and schools actively cultivate close ties with such feeder companies.
But having McKinsey, Goldman or other hot brand name companies such as Google or Facebook on your resume is far from being a guarantee of securing your place at a top school. Indeed, applicants from traditional feeder firms arguably face greater competition for a place as they try to stand out from their many peers with similar backgrounds. The best MBA programs often have more than enough candidates from certain typical feeder companies, and will be working to balance this out with more diverse industry profiles.
With business schools, such as Stanford GSB, reporting an increase in applications from biotech and consumer-products sectors, and larger MBA programs at schools, such as Wharton and INSEAD, emphasizing diversity not just in gender or nationality but a myriad of life experience backgrounds, the common denominator is to have something exceptional on your resume, and that doesn’t have to be a heavy hitting company name. The incoming 406 students at Stanford this year came from 300 different organizations. Beyond the working world, many of these admits would have had exceptional academics or achievements in an extra curricular setting that made them stand out.
Of course the selectivity of certain brand name employers implies that the candidate has already come through a rigorous hiring process, has benefited from in-house training programs and has worked on some high stakes projects, thereby building impressive business skills and knowledge. But as admissions directors ourselves, we were never dazzled by a particular employer. The competition is too intense; every admit has to demonstrate they bring much more than flashy credentials.
While having a big name company pedigree can certainly help, candidates coming from a lesser-known organization can impress the admissions committee by showcasing outstanding achievements. If you made a proactive choice to work in a smaller company for good reasons – perhaps they offered more responsibility than a large organization, or specialized in your particular field of interest – then explain this with confidence, not apologies. Think about how you can convey the quality of your work experience. Spelling out the outstanding results you have achieved will be critical to your evaluation.
When we were running our respective MBA admissions offices, we always gave consideration not just to the value of the experience an applicant could bring to the classroom, but also to how his or her resume would be viewed by potential employers and the potential for post-MBA success. Ex Bain/JPMorgan types are unlikely to struggle with their job search, so candidates with less well-known company brand names should think about: How can I get the admissions committee excited about my career plans? Does my plan make sense given my background? How can I convince them that I’m going to be an alumnus they can be proud of?
A candidate coming from a smaller or lesser-known company who is looking to stay in the same industry or function post-MBA, as opposed to making a complete career change, is likely to be able to leverage their background to impress recruiters. If they already have some functional expertise or industry knowledge that they can bring with them to the next job, it’s a real bonus.
For example, an applicant who came from a small advertising agency wanted to transition to work in brand management. It was clear from her resume and essays that she had taken on considerable responsibilities at her company and even managed a number of high-level projects which was rare for someone of her age. She made a strong case for how she could leverage her skills in a brand management role and how she would be able to contribute to developing a brand’s promotional strategy. We felt she would be highly employable by the companies recruiting at the school; she was admitted and ultimately received several prestigious marketing job offers.
At the end of the day, the Admissions Committee will be well aware that candidates who have a lot of focus, ambition, energy, and charisma are more likely to excel in the job search – no matter the firm on their resume when they apply.
During our 50 odd years in MBA admissions (collectively, not individually!) we were always conscious that putting together a class of talented, engaged and open-minded individuals was very much about people and their potential, not employers.
Judith Silverman Hodara and Caroline Diarte Edwards, Co-Directors at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Directors of MBA Admissions at Wharton and INSEAD respectively. Fortuna is composed of former Directors and Associate Directors of Admissions at many of the world’s best business schools, including Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Chicago Booth, NYU Stern, IE Business School, Northwestern Kellogg, and UC Berkeley Haas.