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  • Malvika Patil

Help! I Don't Have a Typical MBA Career

7 common career difficulties for MBA applicants

We say this a lot, but it’s probably the most important thing you should know about writing your MBA application: Business schools look for leaders who can tell compelling stories.

Why stories? Because since the dawn of humankind, we’ve huddled around campfires and told stories. That’s how we’ve evolved to communicate. Leaders know this, and that’s why leaders tell stories. And since business schools are looking for leaders, you should communicate using stories.

So, when you create your MBA application narrative, it’s important to put your goals into the context of a broader story. We call this the ‘career story’. Every business school asks applicants about it in some way. Your career story typically demonstrates your purpose, career progression towards this purpose, where you’re headed (your goals), the skills and lessons you’ve learned, and how you’ll lead in this domain in the future.

But it’s not uncommon for applicants to have career stories that don’t follow a straight-line. For example, you may have unusual career transitions and choices that aren’t always seamless. Here are 7 such common career challenges and how to overcome them in your MBA application.

1. People in my industry don’t do MBAs

Typically, a large proportion of an MBA class is made up of finance professionals, management consultants, and techies, who are considered ‘traditional’ MBA applicants. 

The rest of the class is made up of applicants who come from ‘non-traditional’ sectors. Typical non-traditional pre-MBA sectors include education, or non-profit, architecture, retail, fashion, military, sports, entertainment, medicine or law. Combined, they make up a large portion of the class, but individually rarely more than ~5% of the class.

If you’re a non-traditional MBA applicant, here are some tips for you: 

  • Assume that the AdCom isn’t fully familiar with the nuances of your industry such as career progression, average earnings, industry jargon, etc. So when you write about your industry and role, make sure that you use simple language that gives clear context to your work. 

  • Formal recognitions or awards might be hard to come by in your industry. In some cases, promotions might not be offered based on your performance, but on the time you’ve spent in a particular role or after you clear a specific exam. Consider these factors and communicate them clearly in your resume and essays.

For example, in certain industries like architecture, formal managerial roles are usually offered only after you’ve spent 8-10 years in the industry, regardless of performance. So, if that’s you and you’ve never held any formal leadership titles so far, try showcasing your leadership or managerial skills at a project or task level. 

  • Focus on how you can add value to the MBA class using your unique perspective as a student from a non-traditional industry.

  • Industries such as sports can be particularly result oriented. But business schools want to understand the story behind the numbers - the challenges you faced, the extensive training you went through, and what you learnt from that journey and achievement. So, don’t focus only on your achievement, but also the human interest story behind it and why it was meaningful to YOU.

2. I only ever worked at one organization

We regularly meet several applicants who have a longstanding and loyal relationship with their company, and have never switched roles across firms. One of their key challenges while writing their resume and MBA application is showing that they have developed diverse skills and handled varied responsibilities over time. In particular, how can they split up their professional experience and avoid having a single, big chunk of text on their resume?

Our advice: When you create your resume, break down your experience at each company into a different section for each role you held in the firm and discuss the relevant responsibilities and achievements under each one.

For example, the Cambridge Judge school’s MBA Resume Guidelines recommend, “If you have worked in a succession of roles with the same employer, show the individual job titles with achievements under each. Include the overall dates rather than separate dates for each role within the organisation. This format highlights progression / development within an organisation – something employers are keen to see!”

If you weren’t promoted multiple times, then consider breaking down your bullet points based on projects or the different unofficial roles you held. This will help the school understand the diversity of your skill set and make your resume more presentable and easy to read. 

This also applies to your essays! If you only have one company to write about, choose stories that show the most impact and professional development.

3. I had many jobs

If you’re someone who has switched between a lot of firms, even if they’re in the same industry, there is a risk this could be viewed negatively by MBA AdComs. It might demonstrate a lack of consistency, commitment, or an inability to forge long term relationships. 

In this case, focus on and highlight the positives. Demonstrate how you have been exposed to diverse business models while developing deep industry knowledge and expertise from different perspectives. This can be presented as horizontal career progression, especially when you’ve taken on roles in different areas of the same industry or business. 

Perhaps, this rich diversity of experience has better prepared you to take on leadership roles. A strategy that worked for one of our previous clients was showcasing how horizontal movement within platform based businesses allowed him to understand the business from varied perspectives and created a strong professional foundation. This prepared him to take on a senior managerial role within the industry at a global regional level rather than the country level. So, after his MBA, he would be well positioned to grow vertically in the same industry. 

4. I worked in many industries

Some early-career professionals transition between industries before realizing the right fit for them. If you’ve jumped industries, make sure that this comes across as intentional. Not accidental. Aim to show how you used the experience to broaden your horizons, move closer to your goals and identify your professional purpose.

If you’re also considering making a triple jump (meaning: changing your role, industry, and geography) post-MBA, your challenge is to identify the “common thread” between your varied professional experiences, and how the experience gave you transferable skills that you’ll apply in future.

Our advice for “triple jump” applicants: Don’t tell the AdCom that a triple jump is your plan. It’s just too risky. They will probably question your ability to make such a big jump. Instead, choose a role, industry or geography where you have experience, and say this won’t change in your post-MBA goals. For example, a Software Engineer in Healthcare in the US could choose their post-MBA goals to be Product Management in Education in the US (which is only a double jump).

5. I had multiple jobs at the same time

Some applicants have diverse interests and don’t feel intellectually stimulated in just one role at a time. Others need multiple jobs to pay the bills. If you have multiple jobs, you need to create a career story that captures the relevant aspects of each role. For example, perhaps the different jobs all had one thing in common: streamlining operational efficiency. 

Having multiple simultaneous pre-MBA careers is generally not a deal-breaker for MBA admissions, but you should choose one of these careers to focus on while developing your post-MBA goals. Do this by, for example, presenting your other job(s) as a side hustle, extracurricular, or community work. But remember to not be random; you’ll need to establish a connection between all of your jobs to make your narrative cohesive.

6. I was a freelancer/independent consultant

The difference between freelancer and solopreneur is subtle, but important. If you’re a freelancer, we advise you to brand yourself as a solopreneur instead. 

This way, you can focus on showcasing your management, business development and marketing skills. Rework your narrative to show your entrepreneurial skills through your resume and essays.

Now is also a good time to consider formalizing your business, if you haven’t already! Build a business website and create social accounts on LinkedIn and other online platforms so that your solopreneurship work seems more “legit”. 

Another tip for solopreneurs: ask your recommenders to write about how well you’ll fit into a structured professional work environment, since this is another concern of admissions officers with this profile.

7. I have gaps in my work experience

Typically, business schools do not consider employment gaps under 3 months as concern areas. But if you have a gap of 3 months or longer between jobs, you will need to clearly and articulately explain why. Some schools offer a dedicated space to explain career gaps, and for others you’ll include this in your Optional Essay.

Don’t try to brush long periods of unemployment under the carpet! The AdCom will notice. So don’t let them assume the worst. Take ownership of this time in your life, and be forthcoming about why you were unemployed (eg. Covid layoffs or family health issues) and explain what you learned during that time (resilience and took professional training courses), and how it helped you grow personally or professionally. 


Need help building your career story? Book a free chat with one of our experienced consultants to get started.


About Us

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Hi, I'm Sam.  I'm the founder of Sam Weeks Consulting. Our clients get admitted to top MBA and EMBA programs.

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