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Cornell Johnson | Ms. Chef Instructor
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Harvard | Mr. Climate
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Columbia | Mr. BB Trading M/O To Hedge Fund
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Ross | Mr. Civil Rights Lawyer
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Stanford GSB | Mr. Co-Founder & Analytics Manager
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Cornell Johnson | Ms. Environmental Sustainability
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Cornell Johnson | Mr. Trucking
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McCombs School of Business | Mr. Comeback Story
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Landing Your Dream Job or Internship – The Best of Ivan Kerbel

career ladder 1

A liberal arts background: Is it a disadvantage?


I’m preparing to apply to MBA programs to build upon my current career in marketing consulting. I come from a liberal arts background with a degree in History and extensive experience with foreign languages. I did not take any quantitative courses in college. Do you think that by taking (economics and statistics) classes and doing well (plus a solid GMAT quant score) I’ll no longer fall into the liberal artsy, history-major, creative marketing trap?

Ivan Kerbel

I think you’re following a good course of action — bolstering your liberal arts and foreign languages background (which should serve you in good stead, by the way) with additional coursework that both signals your level of interest and seriousness about pursuing the MBA as well as bolsters your MBA-relevant knowledge and academic capabilities.

I think taking a micro-, macroeconomics and statistics class…is a common, and good, way to bridge this gap. In general, good grades received for coursework undertaken at an accredited university are viewed very positively.

On a more tactical level, I would also think about the extent to which you might be able to absorb micro/macro/stats topics via a free online learning platform, and whether it might make more sense to invest in accredited coursework in Finance and/or Accounting (always part of the MBA core curriculum, and useful regardless of how creative versus operational one’s post-MBA career path is likely to be). Though self-study and online learning may not have the same credential power as a university course, I would consider a mix (some self-guided, online learning, and some live, university-level coursework … with an emphasis on management-specific topics beyond the econ basics).

As a general comment, I think you may also want to re-envision being “liberal artsy” as a positive. Assuming that you can clear the technical hurdles (great GMAT, good grades in additional MBA-focused coursework, etc.), your marketing experience, research skills, and critical thinking / history-based knowledge will all be construed as positives, and I would say that all schools value those traits.

With regard to whether/which specific programs would be “open” to a candidate like you, I would almost flip the question and think in terms of how open and interested you would be in them. … Look closely at elective course offerings, at individual faculty profiles and current research underway, and at the various initiatives of both the MBA program (including its mission statement and strategic plan) as well as of the student body and student organizations. It’s likely that if you find programs and activities that inspire and excite you, the existence of those programs will serve as a proxy for the sort of outlook and perspective that might be welcoming of you and your background too. (In general, though, I would say that all MBA programs are interested in building diverse, interesting student bodies, including ones that have a healthy contingent of high-achieving ‘liberal artsy’ folks who are planning ambitious careers across all sectors of the economy.)

Last, and simply in terms of framing your efforts and goals, I would think of any pre-MBA coursework that you undertake not only as a mechanism for securing admission, but, of course, as a means to make your time more productive once in business school, and as a way to be a more powerful businessperson in the long-run. Hence, studying Finance and Accounting in a pre-MBA context may seem redundant, since you will surely do so in business school as well, but there is a difference in level of sophistication and how advanced your learning can be in the b-school context (it’s good to have a solid foundation in advance, and to be able to waive some pre-reqs and move on to advanced corporate finance, for example, if academic policies allow). Beyond the academic department verticals (Finance, Accounting, Marketing, Operations, etc.), I would also think in terms of the functional skill-sets one needs to undertake that coursework … from financial modeling via Excel, to predictive modeling using Oracle Crystal Ball, to financials research via Capital IQ.

On that last topic, there are a number of widely-applicable software packages and MS Office-based hard skills, as well as MBA-relevant ‘soft skills’ (such as project management, meeting facilitation, presentation skills) that are covered, in aggregate, in the third week of our own pre-MBA program, the Practice MBA Summer Forum, as part of a course called ‘People Performance Lab’. I encourage you to also take a look at the Practice MBA website, among the many other options for pre-MBA study.

[Check out HBX: How Disruptive to Management Education]

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