How many things have to happen to you before something occurs to you?
― Robert Frost
The importance of work experience in MBA programs is beyond debate.
International MBA programs thrive on the richness brought about by the varied job encounters of its students.
The curriculum appreciates the peer to peer interaction and knowledge sharing as much, if not more, as the foundation courses deemed necessary to educate future managers and leaders.
Does that mean MBA programs have a strict policy about only admitting students with work experience?
Well yes, and no.
“Yes” is for the significantly large number of MBA students who determine the average work experience in a typical class profile.
“No” is for the exceptional very few who have incredible accomplishments to compensate for the lack of said work experience.
But what is the typical “accepted” number of years in a majority of the international MBA programs?
The response seems to be an unequivocal 5 years for most North American MBA programs and a slightly higher (by a year or so) for European MBA programs.
Naturally, quite a few MBA hopefuls may wonder what makes “5” so popular?
If you have MBA on your cards, when should you begin to consider steering your career plan towards it?
Why is 5 the magic number?
Even though most international programs mention a requirement of professional experience, with a few requiring a minimum of about 2 years, none ever stipulate the need for the magic 5. Nevertheless, most experts will tell you to set your goals at 5 years.
But why 5?
Following the average
If we take a standard based on some of the most popular business schools in the world, namely Harvard, Wharton, Stanford, and all the other M7 business schools in the US, the average incoming work experience is about 5 years.
So is true for most other full-time MBA programs.
This sweet spot makes the average age of most American MBA program participants about 28 years.
According to the QS TopMBA Applicant survey, the average work experience and age stand close to 5+ years and 28+ years.
In other words, if you follow the dominant category of students in any MBA cohort, you will be in the best situated scenario to make the most of the program.
That doesn’t, of course, say that if you fail to meet the “average” requirement, your MBA will not be effective.
However, the power of averages does shift the balance of all the resources, curriculums, networking opportunities, and recruitment, in favor of students with 5 years of work experience.
That is, most curriculums and career ready expectations are tailored to students who have had about 5 years of professional exposure.
If you enter the program with fewer professional years, behind you, you may be either unprepared to contribute enough usable knowledge or receive much meaningful insight compared to the rest of your peers.
There is also such a thing as too much experience. If you have too many years of work experience, you may be better suited to a program targeted at senior professionals in need of more advanced leadership and management training.
Bear in mind that in Europe, the average incoming experience hovers at a slightly older 6 years, with an average age, you guessed it, about 29-30 years.
But since their programs are usually about a year long, the average outgoing age and experience turns out to be quite similar to American MBA grads.
Ensure better fit in MBA
What does 5 years in a job really do to your abilities?
One of the most significant aspect of MBA training is leadership. And it is quite hard to demonstrate ones’ leadership capabilities in the first few years of being on the job.
In many jobs, 4-5 years may just be the ideal time when employees begin to experience formal leadership roles, such as leading teams and projects.
It also takes a few years for new employees to get a meaningful grip on their job roles, responsibilities and develop the soft skills that come about with professional maturity.
This is also where our opening quote becomes relevant.
There has to be a string of logical steps that would determine your motivation to move from your ongoing career towards MBA.
If you choose to head towards MBA too soon, you may not be able to adequately justify your reasons. This is where you can get the meat for filling in your essays.
Hopefully, by 4-5 years, you would have achieved enough professional maturity to make a meaningful case for your decision – change in career, catapulting your career in its existing course, or starting a business on your own.
How would you be able to convince an adcom of your intentions unless you have enough experience to back your resolution?
Not just from the perspective of effective participation in an MBA class, adequate work experience also plays a vital role in post-MBA placement.
In these highly competitive times, recruiters take into account the pre-MBA careers of graduates.
Gone are the days when a couple of years of banking experience is all that one needed to join an MBA program and continue on in the same career path after.
Now, almost all industries and sectors are hiring MBA graduates and they have to consider the past performance of their recruits to be able to predict their productivity.
This is not so much the case with other business MS degrees such as Master in Management, Master of Accounting, etc.
The GMAC Corporate Recruiters Survey, from a few years ago, showed the factors recruiters consider when selecting candidates. Past work experience plays a large role.
In the study, of the 19 factors recruiters consider when selecting applicants to interview, job function, industry, and years of past work experience cover the top three priorities at 61%, 51% and 44%, respectively.
Compared to them, the area of undergrad study, school and even internships carry a weight of 18%, 36% and 27% respectively (Source GMAC 2012 CRS).
The study also tracked the desired years of work experience among employers.
According to the survey, it is evident that employers prefer hiring MBA candidates with 5 or more years, while for Master’s degrees, they tend to lean with candidates with fewer years of work experience.
An assumption, based on the inference made from the surveys, is that pre-MBA experience of 5 years will have better odds at being selected by recruiters as compared to candidates who come in with too much or too little work experience.
In numbers, 38% recruiters desire MBA as compared to 25% in Master in Management and 20% in Master of Accounting grads with 5 or more years of work experience.
Whereas only 26% feel that MBA less than 3 years prior work experience would be productive, as compared to 51% and 58% in Master in Management and Master of Accounting, respectively.
Success stories for candidates with 5 years of experience
Going by numbers, convenience, and future prospects, five years of work experience does seem to land applicants in a comfortable position, as long as those 5 years have been productive in terms of accomplishments.
Here we share a summary of our success stories where the applicants had close to 5 years.
– With 4 failed CAT attempts, Mukund turned towards GMAT MBA after having worked as an analyst for five years. He made it into Washington University’s Olin with 50% scholarship.
– Coming from an IT background with 6 yrs of experience, Bhaskar made it to Vanderbilt MBA. Despite his high GMAT score, he shares how presenting his profile and career goals were crucial to his admission.
– This IIT Bombay graduate with a BTech and MTech, gathered significant work experience in the finance and NGO sectors to get an admission at ISB.
– IIT Madras engineer, with 4.5 years of experience in the FMCG space, got an admit at Wharton with scholarship.
– With 3.5 years experience in CSR, followed by another 2 years in the non-profit sector, Vivek made it into Boston University’s Questrom with a whopping $125k scholarship.
– Oil and Gas professional’s aspiration to move from fossil fuel to renewable energy made him target the ESADE MBA program. It took him 3 years to understand what he really wanted from his career and 5 years to make his move towards MBA.
Our client repertoire is filled with such and a wide spectrum of other candidates – ranging from the fresh out of school to the highly experienced.
We recommend you check out our archives for more success stories.
If you need professional help with your applications, drop us an email at info [at] mbacrystalball [dot] com.
Meanwhile, here are a few articles you can gleam through.