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Does small company or startup experience affect my MBA admission chances?

Are all MBA candidates equal in the eyes of the MBA admissions committee? Or are there some magic ingredients that open the doors just a wee bit more?

The answer is hidden in the latter question. There are indeed some companies whose mere presence on your resume could take you closer to the hallowed grounds.

Let’s look at some numbers to do a small fact-check on this.

Small company or startup experience admission chances

*Big4: Deloitte, PwC, EY, KPMG; **Big Tech includes: Apple, Amazon, FB, Google in this grouping
Source: Forbes-Fortuna; Data for class of 2020; %candidates with these companies on their resume

The chart above captures the point succinctly. As per some analysis, a handful (15-20) firms can account for as many as 50% or more of an MBA class. Why, you may wonder, this over-representation then?

The answer lies in what goes behind these names.

These top companies have earned a brand for themselves for hiring top talent and nurturing them. Sure, there will always be below-par performers everywhere.

However, on an average, such firms are likely to have better talent than other firms simply because of the hiring processes and company culture thereafter.

How do the schools know that, you ask? That’s something that they’ve seen over the years, a sort of virtuous cycle settling in.

The trend is true for all top schools year over year. Schools do all sorts of analysis and are well aware that the chances of success, out of their programs for such candidates, is good. Or rather, they’ll match up to the standards they want to be known for.

If you are part of such a firm, you get the benefit of having already cleared the hurdle when you were being screened for their interviews.

As per some sources, a firm like McKinsey receives a million applications a year, hiring less than 1% of them!

The same goes for many of the top companies mentioned here.

Not only that, all these companies have a lot of similarities – clearly defined growth paths, skill enhancement avenues, employee welfare policies and such.

I don’t have big company on my resume; am I doomed?

Not quite. If that were the case, the title of this article would have been different isn’t it!

Would the adcoms hold it against you in some ways if you do not have a known brand on your resume?

Definitely not. However, they would be cautious and would need to see more evidence.

The reason is because in absence of global recognition, there will be no way for the adcom to understand several aspects –

  • What scale does your employer operate at?
  • Does it have well-defined processes?
  • Are there any ethical issues?
  • Does it take care while hiring to make sufficient checks?

The list is long. Without a brand backing, it’s tough.

Think of it this way. You want to buy chocolate and have a reasonable ability to pay.

Would you go for a brand that you’ve used before or have at least seen in the market (say coming from a company you are aware of), or go for something you’ve never seen.

Sure, you may be an early adopter or willing to experiment, going for the latter. But a large majority would go for the former.


What do business schools think of company size and brand?

We were curious to know what business schools have to say on the topic. So we reached out to Sara Vanos – Director, Marketing, MBA Programs at HEC Paris.

Company size MBA admissions

MCB: What role does the company brand and size play?

HEC: We read and examine each and every application in depth, looking for academic excellence, extra-curricular interests, references, test scores, CV and more.

During this process, when we evaluate the CV and candidate’s experiences within their companies – the size of the company is unimportant.

A ‘known’ brand can be compelling, but we go deeper than the brand, looking into the tasks, functions and achievements regardless of company size.

The CV is complemented by our essay questions where candidates have the chance to speak about achievements in depth within their current or previous roles, and this pairing helps us to better understand what they have accomplished.

MCB: What advice would you have for applicants who work for a small/unknown brand?

HEC: Here are some tips to consider.

  • Try to make your achievements as clear as possible, regardless of your company brand.
  • If you work for a local company, you can add a description of the company’s activities, if you think it might be helpful and a website address also helps us to do our research.
  • Ensure that your CV and LinkedIn profile matches one another – same company and title.
  • Use the optional essay to share any additional information on your professional background – you can explain further in this essay, if anything might not be obvious in your CV – for example why you’ve chosen a smaller company, or the projects you’ve managed and more.


The ABC of getting into a top MBA program from a no-name, small company

We earlier presented the ABC of how to get into ISB. In the same spirit, let’s try to define a mnemonic for overcoming this ‘hurdle’.

A – Articulate well

Whatever you do, this is the key. Whether you are working in an obscure place at a family business or in a startup, you have to be able to communicate your story, and the work you do, in a way that an international adcom understands.

Without this, you just won’t get credit even if you’ve done way more than your MNC peers.

Doing more is one of the reasons why many professionals in fact may choose to work with a smaller firm rather than a known brand. That move can backfire as you lose the brand sheen.

But, if you can articulate your story well, the way Abhishek did when he left a big name job for a multiple startup roles, success cannot be denied, the way he was able to get into Wharton with scholarship.

At times, you may just have too many things, the problem of plenty as we say.

This is especially true if you are, say a slightly senior candidate in a startup environment or in a startup where there are low boundaries between departments.

While you may have done a lot, if you just throw data randomly at your adcom, they won’t have the patience to weed through it for the proof of merit they are looking for.

Like Rahul did, this is where you have to be sure what you put in and what not, to smell success at a place like MIT Sloan, with scholarship.

B – Build the profile and achievements

In terms of chronology, articulation actually comes later. First, you have to actually build your profile. As might be clear by now, in case of lack of brand, the list of achievements expected might be longer.

Schools would look for ways in which you’ve done a lot more than a peer at a bigger brand – simply because its more feasible and also because that shows how you’ve made use of an opportunity rather than using it as a pretext to work less.

The last point is an important one.

The big concern when you don’t come from a brand is whether you actually work as hard as your counterparts, whether achieving success and awards needs as much effort or not.

This is where, you have to really leverage your setting to your advantage.

Something Sahil had been doing for several years, before going to Columbia. Contrary to popular belief, he actually used a family business experience to his advantage, use that not only as a springboard but also, a landing place.

It always helps if you gain some international exposure, be in places that expose you to what an international MBA can do and weave that into your story, the way Anjali did for her success at INSEAD.

This story shows that even if you are at a small/niche Indian KPO firm, you can carve out success. Not many in such a company may have international experience.

The lesson here is, can you be first among equals. Someone who shines out, loud and clear, despite the circumstances that may be otherwise constrained.

C – Corroborate

Sure, you will toot your horn. Refine your communication strategy, get it whetted and what not. But is that enough? Maybe, maybe not.

What else can you do?

Corroborate, that’s what. The way to do that is to think of ways you can get some brand association, even if not direct.

The most common way for this is to get the right set of recommenders and also, network effectively, the way Rohit did for his twin success, despite coming from a no-name Indian healthcare startup background.

The way networking helps is at some schools, you may even get the students you interact with, to recommend you to the adcom.

The exact strategy could vary and, in some cases, you may just not be able to do much about this. But, if you do, it can make a big difference and hence, worth a second thought in your overall scheme of things.

So, the mantra remains – don’t lose hope. Here’s the two step process to follow.

  1. Work with a clear plan, and start early to strengthen your profile. If you need help with that check out how we can help you build a strong profile.
  2. Then, do the equally daunting part of conveying that well, with sufficient evidence. We can help you do this with our application reviews.

All hurdles will crumble, as we’ve seen over and over again, through the years of our existence.
Also read:
Calculating your odds of success in MBA admissions
Average GMAT scores: What are the MBA admission chances?
Will too much or too little work experience hurt your MBA admission chances?
Are MBA admission chances in Round 2 deadlines lesser than in Round 1?
What type of work experience is required for top MBA programs?
On the other side of an MBA degree, find out why are more startups hiring MBA grads
References: 1, 2

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Manish Gupta
About Manish Gupta
Chief Consulting Officer at MBA Crystal Ball, ex-McKinsey, IIT & ISB topper. MG can help you get into the top B-schools. Read more about this top MBA admissions consultant. Connect with MG on Email. Or follow on Linkedin, Facebook.

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