Just about everyone, that is, other than McKinsey consultants and Goldman analysts, call themselves non-traditional candidates for business school. Why? Because they think that everyone who will populate the next MBA class comes
from management consulting or finance.
We all of know a few consultants, investment banking types, and more than a few engineers at business school. And indeed, if you look at the profiles of many business schools (here’s a link to the Wharton MBA site, where you will see a combination of 42% for those in investment banking, private equity, or other finance). But thousands of others from backgrounds in the arts, social enterprise, hard science, start-ups, and the military will make their way to MBA program of their choice in the next intake class. Really.
It’s a Master of Business Administration
Here’s something that most people don’t understand: business school is about business. More and more students come from non-profits, and more and more will go into social enterprise (otherwise, why else would Stanford Graduate School of Business’s motto be “Change Lives. Change Organizations. Change the World?” Of course schools are looking for leadership. But they also want students to appreciate what makes a business enterprise work. Dee Leopold, the heralded director of admissions at Harvard Business School, calls this business acumen “bizability.”
The term bizability reminds students that they are (nearly always) applying to a school of business. The degree is called a Master of Business Administration. The Yale School of Management had tried for two decades to sell its Master of Public and Private Management (MPPM) degree, but the school officially changed the name to the MBA in 2000. Business is about commerce, about enterprise, and even in the case of non-profits, it’s about the bottom line. Dee Leopold described it as being “grounded in the language of business.”
Bizability means that students have to, at some level, grasp business. You can still be part of the 99%, that’s fine (many of us are). I once met a student who wanted a joint degree in education and business to fund a school, but she hated the concept of business. She didn’t see the value in finance; she just thought it was all evil. That is not a great admissions strategy. You have to like business well enough to have been exposed to what makes a company tick and want to learn more.
So what if you have worked in a government or non-profit organization. You don’t have to think too hard about where you have used “business skills” to succeed:
1. Have you run – or do you work with -- the budget for your department?
2. Have you allocated resources (e.g., people, systems, programs?)
2. Have you raised money, either from investors or organizations giving grants?
4. Have you ever had your own business, like a lemonade stand, a neighborhood newspaper, or an Etsy store?
5. Do you follow business news, the financial press or the stock market? Do you know how your IRA works?
You don’t have to answer “yes” to all of these questions, but they probably shouldn’t scare you if you are thinking about an MBA.
So think about what business school is about and what having a career with a business degree means. Think about words like management, enterprise, company, operations, market, trade, and finance. Do you have an affinity for any of these ideas? If so, you are on your way, and are perhaps not so scarily non-traditional after all.