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Posted at 11:20 AM ET, 01/24/2011

What do business schools want?

By Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson

Earlier this month I received an e-mail from Jenna Kellam of Baltimore, who works for a nonprofit and is thinking about going back to school for a MBA. But she wonders, would business schools want her?

"There is plenty of advice out there on how to get in to business school (volunteer and study for the GMAT, etc.) but, short of sitting down with an admissions counselor, how do I know if business school is really a good fit for me?" Kellam asked in her e-mail.

Kellam sent me three questions, which I passed along to Stephen J. Skripak, the associate dean for graduate programs at Virginia Tech's Pamplin College of Business, and Patricia (Trish) Gorman Clifford, the co-author of "What I Didn't Learn in Business School: How Strategy Works in the Real World." Clifford teaches management at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs.

Kellam: I have limited formal business education. In college I took financial accounting and hated it (the class hated me too), but I have four years of work experience in a nonprofit setting -- project management, marketing and development. Is that enough, or should I take a few business classes before applying?

Skripak: An accounting class provides a good basis. A foundational course in business statistics also serves many students well. There is a fair amount of accounting-related material in most MBA programs, so a student who "hated" that topic may not be particularly inclined towards business, unless something has changed his or her outlook.

Clifford: Certainly with limited formal business education, you can still pursue and successfully complete an MBA. Your readiness to learn and your approach to the degree and your career will play a role both in your admission to -- and success in -- an MBA program.

If you formerly hated accounting, you may be surprised to find you appreciate it more now. After having some real business experience, the ledger entries and figures you encounter in your accounting and other courses will likely have different meaning and far more relevance. Other management topics also come to life once you've had the chance to use them.

Especially if your experience is limited, make sure you seek out an MBA program that uses timely, applied cases, experiential learning and appropriate examples along with theory to ensure you understand not just what managers do, but how, why and when they use their skills to achieve their organizational goals.

If you are deficient in one area, but strong elsewhere, some schools will recommend a "bridge" course or will have expectations that you brush up on quantitative methods or business writing prior to -- or early in -- your program. Whether or not you formally study prior to application, take advantage of the resources around you. Colleagues may have deep experience where you are challenged, and non-degree programs or self-study may help you build confidence, develop specific skills or just get back in the habit of reading critically and studying.

The fact you are realistically evaluating your current skill set is a great place to begin. Some prospective students are so focused on gaining admission that they don't think enough about managing the hard work and specific types of tasks that they'll be expected to complete as a student.

I have taught students who expected business school to be one long and fascinating discussion. In some ways it is -- but reading, analysis and preparation are required to make the discussion both useful and interesting.

Kellam: I want to continue working for nonprofits, and my overall career goal is running a nonprofit that I truly care about. I know some people would suggest getting a masters in public policy, but I don't think that program fits my interests. Are MBAs beneficial in the nonprofit world?

Skripak: A fair number of MBA's go on to work in the nonprofit sector, so I do believe that the degree has value in those pursuits. There are MBA programs that are specifically designed for nonprofit management. It might be advisable to look into those options first.

Clifford: Great question. As specialized master's programs continue to proliferate and concentrations in MBAs become more varied, you have many choices. Why do you need a degree? Have you been interviewing for positions within or outside your organization and getting feedback that your academic credentials are not adequate for the jobs you desire? Do your mentors and those people holding positions you aspire to have MBAs?

An MBA can set you apart in the nonprofit world, but its value differs based on the type of role you wish to pursue and the organization. If your aspiration is to manage large fundraising projects or work on public-private collaborations, then you -- and your future employer -- may find the MBA skill set very helpful.

But core managerial functions (like operations, leadership, financial measurement and your old friend accounting) matter in all organizations. Running a hospital, managing a warehouse, leading a team of research scientists or building a national sales force may be carried out in for-profit or not-for-profit settings. In fact, the function and industry you find attractive is likely more important to your choice of degrees than whether you are for-profit or not-for-profit focused -- especially given the strong trend towards mission-driven, for-profit firms.

An MBA with a focus on not-for-profit management and an MPA (masters in public administration) with a concentration in management may compete for the same jobs. In many cases, their skills will be similar, but there are important differences in the way problems are framed and the types of challenges deemed most important at both the program and course level.

Make sure you look beyond the syllabi and evaluate the whole experience when considering alternatives to the MBA -- or programs across the MBA spectrum. Don't underestimate the impact that the varied backgrounds and interests of not only the students in your cohort, but the alumni, the faculty and the recruiters that are associated with the program you select, will have on your education and your career prospects.

Kellam: I've read plenty about the importance of a good resume and recommendations when applying to business schools, but what makes them "good"? What specifically are they looking for?

Skripak: I can't speak to what other programs seek, but I suspect we are fairly representative. We look for (1) the ability to be successful academically, as evidenced by GMAT, previous college coursework and the like; (2) a strong sense of where the person is going from a career standpoint as well as the ability to be successful in the business world -- here we look at prior experience, with "good" being defined as evidence of the ability to have a positive impact on a business -- quantify as much as possible; (3) a solid impression that a student will be a good citizen of our MBA community. Our admissions interviews strongly influence our impressions on the latter two points.

Clifford: A "good" resume and recommendations need to be clear, well organized, accurate and relevant. You want these documents, along with your other application materials, to provide a useful overview of your accomplishments to date. From your past patterns, the school will assess your potential.

Admission isn't solely based on what you already know; it is based on your ability to apply what you know and build upon it -- in short, your readiness to learn and to take the next steps on your personal journey toward becoming a business manager (I assume from your questions you are not pursuing the MBA to find a consultant position or become an investment banker).

Candidates who will both benefit from and contribute to the proposed educational program are desired by every school. Together with your other applications materials, these documents should demonstrate your suitability on two dimensions: aptitude and attitude.

Ideally your clear, well-formatted resume and persuasive, data-driven recommendation demonstrate a pattern of taking on and completing meaningful projects, a progression from basic to more advanced tasks, and a coherent sense of what makes you tick.

In addition to work experience, your hobbies, community service and general character help to demonstrate that you are ready to learn, willing to share the knowledge you already have, and will appreciate and leverage the opportunity to formally tackle the curriculum of the master's program you desire.

Be as honest as you can in your application, and trust that the school admissions teams have established a reliable sense of the types of individuals who are a good fit with their culture and the baseline skill set that is required to succeed in their programs.

Note to readers: This Q&A was conducted over e-mail, then edited for length and clarity.

Campus Overload is a daily must-read for all college students. Make sure to bookmark You can also follow me on Twitter and fan Campus Overload on Facebook.

By Jenna Johnson  | January 24, 2011; 11:20 AM ET
Categories:  Real World  | Tags:  Columbia, Virginia Tech  
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