Unconventional Applicants to MBA Programs Must Consider Abilities in Innovation, Leadership, and Teamwork

To be tardy to Professor Barton Hamilton’s Managerial Economics class at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis means you will be serenading your fellow classmates with song.  One could choose as simple a tune as ‘Happy Birthday’ or, for alumni David Logan, former tenor at the Des Moines Metro Opera, ‘Nessun Dorma’ from Puccini’s Turandot, may be the more compelling crowd-pleaser.   

While unlikely Logan encountered stage fright if ever a few moments late to Hamilton’s class, students from seemingly unconventional backgrounds seeking their MBA’s, like Logan, often face uncertainty when trying to set themselves apart in the MBA application process. Business schools pride themselves on building diverse classes with students coming from a wide array of industries and educational backgrounds, but exactly how should the musician, teacher, graphic designer, and architect translate their experiences and abilities for admissions committees that employ a specific set of criteria when gauging prospective students’ potential? The key is to consider one’s ability to innovate, to lead, and to learn from and inspire fellow teammates.

Innovation: When considering your ability to innovate, think about meaningful, post-baccalaureate professional experiences when you employed critical thinking to introduce change, to develop imaginative solutions, and/or to evaluate risk. You don’t have to be a patent holder, tech entrepreneur, or engineer to capitalize on your ability to innovate in your business school application.  You could have done something as simple as made small, yet impactful improvements to a project management tool or have taken a novel approach in prospecting new clients.  Just be sure to show admissions committees your potential through story, rather than relying on claims of your success.  Specific anecdotes are always far more memorable than general statements about your beliefs or achievements.  

Leadership: Don’t worry if you haven’t yet managed a team on a regular basis.  When it comes to articulating your leadership potential, think about meaningful projects when you exercised a leadership role, which can show the reader your abilities in a convincing and memorable way.  What were the group dynamics?  What about the successes, failures, and lessons learned from the project? Can you think about a specific example when you demonstrated initiative?  What caused you to initiate certain actions and what were the results? What about a time that you provided feedback and a positive outcome resulted? 

Teamwork: Long before you take your first course, the student affairs team at the business school you choose will be dissecting your next incoming class in order to construct small study groups of four or five students who ideally will complement one another’s strengths, skill-sets, and experiences. Once you matriculate, you will have no choice, but to spend many sleepless nights with this group completing core curriculum projects. As your ability to thrive in a team setting is vital, both in business school and beyond, it is important to think about meaningful experiences you can incorporate into your application, which will show the reader a time when you translated a strategy into action for your team, encountered a significant obstacle in getting people to take action, or did something unexpected to build trust among team members. 

On the day Logan did rush into class a few moments too late, unsuspecting classmates experienced one of the greatest joys of business school: observing and learning from one another’s unique gifts in an environment committed to creative thinking and camaraderie.