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MBA admission with non-traditional profile and unorthodox background

MBA admission with non-traditional profile and unorthodox background

A doctor, a mariner and an architect walked into a bar. No, I am not going to tell a joke. The ‘bar’ in this case is any top GMAT based MBA program. The joke in that sentence for some is the fact that such folks with a different profile are misplaced in this kind of bar.

This article is an attempt to dispel some myths and bring a bit more objectivity for those with unorthodox profiles when it comes to MBA programs.

Before we come to that, the point to address is, what in fact is an orthodox or common background in that case?

A basic search of incoming student profiles across top schools shows that anywhere from 30-70% of the class comprises of students with a business/economics or STEM major in their undergrads.

From a job profile perspective, the usual suspects tend to be Consultants, Bankers, Technology/IT engineers and a few others.

What then about the motley group of professionals that do not belong to such categories? Should they just give up?

Well, if that were the case, we’d not be writing this article in the first place. Over the years, we’ve worked with quite a few folks from non-traditional backgrounds.

Here is an attempt to give a glimpse of what such candidates should be aware of and how do make sense of things, through a few case studies.

But before that, let’s look at some of the challenges such applicants can face. When we say such, we are keeping a group of Doctors, Lawyers, Architects, Mariners and such in mind.

Disadvantages of having a non-traditional profile


Too specific/technical

Most of these professions are highly specialized. Which is why, quite a few of them tend to be highly paid too.

However, this means that the skill development is in restricted areas compared to the traditional backgrounds, for the purpose of MBA candidature.

For instance, the more highly specialized a doctor is in his/her domain, the better the payout and respect they can command.

Lack of managerial/business experience

A lot of these candidates haven’t ever worked in corporate settings since the nature of work is many times of the freelance/independent type, or with small establishments.

A law firm isn’t exactly the biggest employer by any stretch of imagination for instance. This leads to limited team sizes and a general lack of brush with aspects involving several business facets such as financials, accounting, sales, operations and the likes.

Impact and differentiation

This may not be universally true but might be more to deal with the definition of impact. Lack of accidents might be a big metric for a mariner for instance but that means things were proceeding in a clockwork fashion.

Many of these professions are highly process driven and entail maintaining the status quo, or adhering to laid down procedures. In light of these, the avenues for standing out of one’s peer group can be limited at times.

Formal recognitions and awards might be scarce to come by and career acceleration might be driven more by years rather than performance. In such scenarios, it can be tough to stand out.

How then should the candidates think about their MBA plans and what could be some potential strategies. We will now share a few thoughts on these lines.

The purpose is to give a few ideas and thought starters, and in no ways, be a comprehensive treatise on the topic.

MBA admission with unorthodox, non-traditional background


MBA for Doctors

We have earlier covered the topic of why are doctors joining MBA programs. Purely being a medical practitioner makes it tough to bring out any directly relevant skills for most post-MBA roles that are on offer.

Almost always, we’ve seen winning applicants having some exposure, outside of the medical treatment world. This could be in areas such as hospital administration and some association with a startup or related aspects.

We’ve even interacted with highly specialized MDs (read MBA after MBBS and MD) who had top training in their fields. But in this case too, some entrepreneurial flair and experience helps them stand out.

In short, don’t think of MBA as a way to magically leave behind your medical experience. Instead, start thinking of ways you can get better understanding of what kind of career you are looking at post-MBA and then, try to gain some exposure to it, even before bschool.

MBA for Shippies / Mariners

Of the various categories explored here, this one is probably not as unorthodox as others. The reason is because, in many ways, a marine engineer or a merchant navy professional does things on a ship, what many engineers and operations executives would do on-shore.

That is exactly where you need to latch on to, if you are a mariner. It is a lot about articulating and being aware of how to reflect your off-shore experience for on-shore based roles. You can do it early in your career (read Shore jobs after MBA) or much later (read MBA after merchant navy).

The positioning needs to be thought through. The most important aspect in this category is to utilize your off-time productively.

Since out of turn promotions are hard to come by in this industry, your efforts during the off-time can be used to effectively stand out and differentiate.

MBA for Architects

This here is a really off-beat profession and it is indeed rare to find folks practicing the profession, heading straight to bschools.

A lot of such folks we interact with, tend to have moved on from being pure building designers to something more – green energy consultants, sustainability advocates and the likes.

The latter, while still very technical, is a lot more amenable for fit in a bschool environment. One such story can be found here: MBA for architect.

Even if you are in a purely design based role, it would be important to show awareness and evidence of your interest in things much beyond the technical design aspects of your job. Only then can you come up with a winning application.

MBA for Lawyers

Lawyer should have it easy but surprisingly, we’ve not seen many lawyers make a run for it. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that the profession by itself can be a fairly attractive one.

The reason we say easy is for those part of corporate law and not civil or criminal ones.

For the latter categories, there could be a sufficient gap to be bridged. Those working on the corporate law side however, can show a lot of directly relevant skills and interactions with business leaders.

Many would sit in business meetings and a smart person would pick up a skill or two just because of that. There are those who also work on financial transactions and private equity players.

For lawyers not in these realms, it would be important to build some insights and experiences, even if outside your current practice. We’ve seen some lawyers make a switch pretty late in their careers too (read MBA for lawyer).

So, never say never!

MBA for NGO applicants

From our experience, we’ve seen several flavours of it. There are some who have worked in an NGO, and then moved on to corporate world OR vice versa (read MBA for NGO applicant).

Some amount of corporate exposure always helps put things into perspective. While the roles and functions in an NGO can be similar to the corporate world, the setting is hugely different. For candidates from a purely non-profit background, it can get tougher but not impossible, if you plan early enough and take corrective actions.

The scale is different too and to add to that, making even a small-scale impact in this sector can require a lot more effort. Not surprisingly, this features as a pretty good lever to pull to prop up your extracurricular profile.

But if you’ve been in an NGO role in a full-time capacity, you’ll have to think through our post-MBA pitch well. It helps to be aware of the fact that that sector is not a high recruiter of expensive MBA resources.

How then will you justify the RoI from such an expensive degree? If you don’t plan to stay in the sector, once again like in many other cases here, see how you can showcase transferrable skills – focus on your role and function, more than the industry and its constraints.

Differentiation is relatively easier in this career path but the tricky bit is to fit into a compelling post-MBA narrative. Any amount of research and clarity you can get, will help.

MBA for HR professionals

While HR is a common function in a company, this is still an offbeat profile when it comes to GMAT based international programs.

In fact, most top MBA programs don’t offer a specialization/concentration in HR and maybe just a basic overview when it comes to the curriculum.

A lot of recruitment in HR is for local managers, rather than international folks since one can argue it’s a lot more about the art of understanding people than a science per se.

While the debate rages on, what can HR candidates do? We’ve had some who have been HR consultants but also some who have been practitioners (read MBA for HR consultant).

The job is relatively easier for the former since as a consultant, you frequently go beyond the functional boundaries. That is exactly what you need to do and showcase, if you fall in the latter category.

If you can showcase sufficient depth on that front, the post-MBA transition should not be a difficult pitch. Be mindful though that HR jobs are few and far between, so research well.


How business schools evaluate applicants with non-traditional and underrepresented profiles?

The Vanderbilt MBA has helped many MBA students manage an impressive career change. Here are some recent examples.

Student Before MBA After MBA
Ben Varhula Manager Moishe House BCG Associate
Jacob Schrimpf Professional Actor and Singer BCG Associate
Joe Payne US Army Commander McKinsey Associate
Roderick Odom Professional Basketball Player Morgan Stanley Associate
Marina Klecha Peace Corps Cisco
Liza Moskowitz Non Profit Deloitte
Clinton Johnson Enterprise Sports Management with Titans Leadership Dev Program
Ashley Detherage Neonatal Nurse Sylvan Health, local startup
Alexis Palko Banking Universal Music Group

We were curious to know how the Vanderbilt MBA admissions team evaluates applicants with unconventional backgrounds and underrepresented profiles? Here’s what, Sue Oldham (Associate Dean of MBA Operations at Vanderbilt Owen), shared with MBA Crystal Ball.

MBA admissions with non-traditional unorthodox profile “Our approach is that every applicant has an unconventional background as each applicant is unique in their own experience from educational background, professional experience, geographic location, and one’s own personal and unique story.

Each applicant, no matter how much they may “look alike” has a unique story that is only their own. We approach each applicant through that lens which is why we have a recruiting team of Recruiting Managers dedicated to getting to know each applicant.

The admissions process is actually separate from the recruiting process and that is intentional.

Recruiters are recruiting to admit. Interviewers are interviewing to admit.

The admissions team approaches each application as though it was the only application we have received.

No one piece of the application is more important than another. Each application has various pieces that are unique to that applicant and when reviewed as a whole, that is where the magic happens.”

Are there other functions and roles that you want insights on? Just leave a comment and we’ll pour over our years of experience to share some perspectives.

If you’d like our experienced MBA admissions consultants to work with you to ensure that your MBA application stands out, drop us an email: info at mbacrystalball dot com
Also read:
How I got into Wharton with scholarship with a non-traditional profile
Under-represented profile and an Oxford admit
Applicant with non-traditional profile overcomes low GMAT to win scholarship.
Candidate with unconventional gets into top MBA in Hong Kong

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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 Linkedin, Facebook or Email: mcb [at] mbacrystalball [dot] com

4 thoughts on “MBA admission with non-traditional profile and unorthodox background”

  1. Request for an insight for Army Officer background. We are jack of all trades but master of none as every 2-3 year our profile keeps on changing from Administrative to Operational and so on

    • Hello, that’s actually a good thing and that is why, most bschools like candidates from the armed forces background. The nature of work gives you a lot of transferrable skills for the corporate setting – leadership, management, creativity, thinking on the feet, operations and a lot more.

      With the right articulation, army candidates can have a pretty solid pitch for MBA!

  2. Am I at a disadvantage of being a bba graduate to crack the GMAT and get admitted in the top business schools in the world, even if I score a 780, as I am a very average student?


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