I came to business school along a very non-traditional path—the proverbial road less traveled. Growing up, my passions were split between science and art. I learned how to draw and paint from my grandfather. Yet, I also built catapults and created science experiments with my dad. I went into college as an Organic Chemistry and Neuroscience double-major but graduated with a Fine Arts degree. Throughout my life, I’ve balanced my creative and analytical abilities.
Having bounced between various roles—digital marketing, UX and graphic design, product management, and project management—I was excited to gain a more formal business education. In my business school search, I focused on programs with vibrant, accepting communities. I wanted a network in which I could build strong relationships during my two years and lean on as an alum. Ultimately, I found the best fit at the Kellogg School of Management.
I remember walking in on my first day, hands sweating with excited nervousness. Accounting, statistics, and finance were lying in wait and I feared I wouldn’t be able to meet expectations. Needless to say, I survived. Not without a few battle scars, but all-in-all it has been much less traumatic than I had first thought. I leaned heavily on a few friends who came from quant backgrounds. I became a permanent installation on my friends’ couch trying to figure out things like what leverage means or how to discount cash flows. I’d bring over a pie or a plate of cookies and they would slowly guide me through the extraterrestrial world of finance.
Reciprocally, I also leveraged my skills to help others. For recruiting, I helped people build portfolio websites and mocked up more design-heavy resumés for people applying for innovation or design-thinking roles. Academically, I flexed my skills in our experiential classes.
During the Research Design Build course, we worked with a client to tackle what retail would look like in the next five years. My group trudged through stores doing shop-alongs and chatted with people in random aisles for user research. My group developed a framework that identified when customers entered the store with a specific shopping intent. I utilized my UX background to design a high-fidelity prototype to show the client the functionality we envisioned. We could paint our story and bring the concept to life with my prototype and ultimately we got great feedback on our idea and how to push it further next time from our executive sponsors.
I knew my creative background differentiated me from most other applicants. However, I had to stop holding myself back. Many non-traditional candidates might be hesitant to apply to business school thinking they can’t beat out consultants and investment bankers.
If anything, business programs need more people from unique programs. Here are a few words of wisdom for applicants who are less traditional in the business sense are as follows:
1) Create a Compelling Story: Non-business folks have a great chance to set themselves apart through storytelling in their applications. The stores from consultants and bankers make sense; an MBA is the logical next step in their career. The non-traditionals, however, have to convince admissions teams why it makes sense for them. Don’t see this as a hurdle though. Art and design have taught me how to think creatively to problem solve in a different way from most people. Business and technology, like art and design, start with a concept and progress through creation. And that’s how I focused my essays. Even though I was a designer, I had the skills to succeed in business; I just needed the foundational knowledge from an MBA.
2) Highlight Your Differentiators: For a non-traditional candidate, this takes the utmost importance. It’s the classic case of show, don’t tell. For example, I’m a designer, so I sent a design resume and a portfolio website to show projects I’ve done. Our admissions team still calls me Carrott (my middle name) because I had a carrot on my resume. Showcasing your unique skills can only help you throughout the process. A friend of mine is a former ballerina. She focused on how ballet emphasizes skills that are also crucial for business. Precision, dedication, and time management are essential to a dancer who has to juggle various rehearsals, workouts, and performances. Having a creative job doesn’t mean you don’t have transferrable skills. You just have to showcase how your talents also apply to the business realm.
3) Write Out What You Want From An MBA: Seriously, write it down. Anyone should be introspective to know what they want out of an MBA, especially someone from a non-business background. Writing it down – and updating it over time – makes it a tangible reminder not only during the application process but during your two-years as well. The more you know this, the more you can convey it to the admissions teams and be able to get the most out of the MBA program once you’re admitted.
4) Apply to the Right Programs: I know, it sounds obvious, but it really makes a difference. Every program has different strengths and weaknesses, so you want to align those with your own goals. Asking current students which other schools they applied to and why will give you a good pulse check. I wanted to go somewhere that had a warm, vibrant, and accepting community. Kellogg embodied that for me. I remember peppering a current student with questions about items like the best classes. She was so willing to help in every way possible. Closer to the program start, I was looking for housing for the summer. She told me that she was trying to sublet her apartment, so I happily rented from her. The pay-it-forward culture of Kellogg exemplified what I was looking for. Still, I do believe everyone ends up at the program that best fits them – you just have to keep asking the right questions and measure the responses.
5) Talk to Other Non-Traditionals at the Schools You’re Interested In Attending: Whether it’s current students or alumni, people who have a similar background to you will give you the best advice. They’ve been there and know what you’re going through, so pick their brains! I bonded with a student at Tuck’s Diversity Conference. She also went to b-school from advertising and we bonded over agency life. I remember her saying how going into consulting would’ve been an easier transition since the money is good and we both came from client-facing roles…but we would hate every minute of it. She helped solidify for me that you need to tune out what your peers are doing and focus on yourself because it’s too easy to get caught up in the herd mentality. When you’re a non-traditional student, following everyone else is the last place you’d ever want to be.
Mark is a proud Minnesotan who has spent the last eight years in Chicago working in roles across design and product management before attending Kellogg School of Management’s MMM program. His passion for design, innovation, and technology has fueled his career and will continue to do so after business school.