I have wondered many times over the past few months if there’s anything that gave the committee doubts about accepting me into business school. Mostly, my curiosity has centered around one key area: work experience. My GMAT was solid, my GPA was acceptable, my undergrad university was reputable, and my recs were (must have been!) great. So my major question has been around how they evaluated the quality of my work experience and whether they were left with any doubts. Simply put: does name matter?
The first two non-profits I worked for have national scope and name recognition. They receive prestigious awards, get mentioned by presidents (ok, well mostly first ladies) past and present, and have pseudo-celebrity spokespeople. While I enjoyed the work on an intellectual level, I left these organizations because the broad national approach left me longing for a job with more impact and grass-roots organizing. So I moved on, and for the past 4 1/2 years I have worked at a local non-profit organization in San Francisco.
So, I ask myself: Did I get accepted to school despite my current no-name organization or because of it?
In some ways, I can see how it’s more appealing for business schools to accept prospectives from organizations that have major name recognition (think: Red Cross, United Way, Oxfam, etc.). These positions are probably quite competitive because of the nature of the organizations, so business schools can assume that these candidates have been vetted and screened by reputable places.
On the other hand, maybe my mostly anonymous organization adds to my “diversity”. I can’t really say. My assumption is that different schools look at it in different ways. To borrow from Sandy Kreisburg, the infamous hbsguru, gold-level schools want to see gold-studded careers. My guess is that Stanford probably wasn’t that keen on my current job because they had no estimation for how competitive it was. Yale and Kellogg might have overlooked this facet of my application and found themselves “awed” (haha, or something like that!) by my earlier work and my compelling reasons for joining this great non-profit I currently work for.
While on paper my job may not be gold, my experiences and opportunities have been top notch. And perhaps they saw that. They say that non-profit candidates bring interesting perspectives because we often wear many different hats. Well, a non-profit candidate from a smaller organization is going to wear pretty much every hat imaginable. It just goes to show that gold-level companies may have bronze-level jobs and bronze-level companies may have gold-level jobs.
So back to the issue at hand: How could I address my concern about how my job would be perceived? I sought to be strategic about addressing this issue, countering the lack of notoriety of my current organization through my recommender. I reached out to a colleague who I thought would bring lots of credibility to the table because of where she sits as a city level government policy analyst who funds youth programming and coordinates systems-building and non-profit infrastructure projects.
Now before you all misunderstand my advice and start scrambling to find some Big Name to write your rec, let me clarify that I have a very strong professional relationship with this woman. She and I have worked in the youth development field together for 5 years, we travelled to Sacramento together for a conference, and we have sat on multiple city-level committees together. Needless to say, I really admire her work and was humbled to seek out her help. Because I wasn’t sure how business schools would receive my application in general and my organization in particular, I asked her to specifically address my agency’s reputation in San Francisco (which is very very positive thanks to my amazing Executive Director).
All this is to say that when applying, a strong strategy is essential. If you spot a missing piece in your application, don’t assume the admissions committee will overlook it or fail to notice it. They won’t.
Sassafras is a 30-year-old MBA applicant who works for a San Francisco-based non-profit organization with a primary focus on youth development and education. With a 730 GMAT and a 3.4 grade point average from a highly ranked liberal arts college, he currently blogs at MBA: My Break Away? His previous posts for Poets&Quants: