Go big or go home, right? It’s common to assume that most MBA students at the world’s leading business schools are ex-bankers from JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, strategy consultants from McKinsey, BCG and Bain, or private equity and VC analysts from KKR and Blackstone. Historically, half the incoming class at Stanford, HBS and Northwestern Kellogg hailed from these sectors and MBA programs actively nurture close ties with such feeder firms. Increasingly, a growing percentage are coming from tech – roughly 15 percent across these schools last year.
But having McKinsey, Bain or other hot companies such as Google or Tesla on your resume isn’t a guarantee of securing your place in a top program. On the contrary, excellent applicants from big feeder companies face the challenge of standing out from their high achieving peers with like backgrounds. The best schools typically receive an abundance of candidates from big brand firms, and will be looking to round out their cohorts with greater industry diversity.
With top MBA programs such as INSEAD and Wharton emphasizing diversity not just in nationality or gender but a variety of life experience backgrounds, the takeaway is to convey something exceptional in your profile, and that doesn’t have to be a heavyweight company name. Stanford GSB’s class of 2018 come from 312 different organizations. Beyond the professional world, many of these admits have exceptional achievements or academics in an extracurricular setting that set them apart.
Of course, having a brand name employer signals a stamp of approval. The notorious selectivity of certain companies implies that an applicant has already weathered a rigorous hiring process, likely worked on some high-profile projects and benefited from in-house training programs, thereby honing impressive business skills and acumen. But as admissions directors ourselves, my Fortuna Admissions colleagues and I weren’t dazzled by a specific employer. The competition is too fierce; every candidate needs to prove they bring much more than winning credentials.
While it certainly helps to have a big-name company pedigree, applicants hailing from lesser-known organizations can impress admissions officers with outstanding achievements. If you made an intentional choice for good reasons to work in a smaller company – perhaps it specialized in your specific field of interest or its size afforded more responsibility than a large organization – convey this with confidence, not apologies. Consider how you can explain the quality of your work experience. Articulating the outstanding outcomes you’ve achieved will be vital to your evaluation.
During my tenure at INSEAD’s MBA admissions office, we always considered how an applicant’s resume would be viewed by future employers and the potential for post-MBA success, not only the value of the experience an applicant could bring to the classroom. Ex McKinsey/Bain types aren’t likely to struggle with their job search, so applicants from lesser-known companies should think particularly carefully about: Does my career plan make sense given my background? How can I get the admissions committee excited about my aspirations? How can I persuade them that I’ll be an alum they can be proud of?
An applicant coming from a lesser-known or smaller company who’s aiming to stay in the same function or industry post-MBA, as opposed to making a dramatic career change, is more likely to leverage their background to impress recruiters. Having some industry knowledge or functional expertise to bring to the next job is a real bonus.
For example, a candidate from a small ad agency sought to transition into brand management. It was clear from his essays and resume that he’d shouldered considerable responsibility at his company and managed high-level projects that was rare for someone of his age. He made a strong case for how he could leverage his experience in a brand management role and how he imagined contributing to developing a brand’s promotional strategy. I sensed he would be highly employable by the companies recruiting at his school of choice; he was admitted and ultimately earned several prestigious job offers.
An admissions committee appreciates that candidates with a lot of drive, charisma and focus are very likely to excel in the job search – no matter the firm on their resume at application time. Assembling a class of ambitious, talented and engaged individuals is very much about people and their potential, not the stamp of a blue-chip credential.
Caroline is a director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Director of MBA Admissions at INSEAD. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 8 of the top 10 business schools.