As former directors of admissions, we know that having McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, Goldman Sachs, or aspirational companies such as Google or Facebook on your resume is far from a guarantee of getting in to a top school. In fact applicants from traditional feeder companies likely face greater competition for a spot in the classroom as they seek to stand out from their many peers with similar backgrounds. Top-ranked MBA programs usually have a large pool of candidates from typical feeder companies, and will be working to accept only a fraction in order to end up with a diverse incoming class.
Many of the best schools emphasize diversity not just in gender or nationality but mix of life experience backgrounds ‒ the common thread is to have something unique on your resume, which doesn’t mean a big-name company. The incoming 406 of students at Stanford last year came from 310 different organizations. In addition to their professional credentials, many of these new MBAs would have had strong academics and/or personal extra-curricular accomplishments that were recognized as standout achievements.
It’s true that being hired by a brand name company implies that you’ve already passed a rigorous hiring process, have likely benefited from in-house training programs, and may have worked on some high stakes projects, thereby building impressive business skills and knowledge. But as admissions directors ourselves, we looked beyond company credentials. There was intense competition from feeder firms and each applicant needs to show what else he or she brings to the table beyond a prestigious company name.
Although having a big name company on your CV can be a benefit, candidates coming from lesser-known organizations can impress the admissions committee by showcasing exceptional achievements. If you chose to work in a smaller company – perhaps it offered more responsibility than a large organization, or specialized in your particular field of interest – then explain this with confidence. There’s no need to apologize and in fact you might be able to communicate how a smaller company allowed you to take on more responsibilities than working at a large organization. It’s important that you convey the quality of your work experience and also clearly define your individual accomplishments.
When we were evaluating applications as MBA admissions directors, we looked at how candidates would be evaluated by future employers as well as what the candidates would contribute to the classroom and their potential for success in the future. In general, former McKinsey or Goldman types are not as likely to struggle with their job search. Candidates who have worked for less well-known company names will need to convince the admissions committee that their career plans are realistic, achievable, and that they have what it takes to get hired post-MBA. Admissions will also be evaluating if their career plan make sense given their background and whether they will be alumni that the school will be proud of.
For candidates coming from companies that are not as well known, it’s sometimes easier to convince admissions committees that their career aspirations are achievable if they’re planning to stay in the same industry or function post-MBA, as opposed to making a complete career change. This shows that they can leverage their background to impress recruiters. If the candidate already has some functional expertise or industry knowledge that is relevant to the next job, it’s a real advantage.
For example, an applicant who came from a small tech startup wanted to transition into consulting. It was clear from his MBA application that he had acquired in-depth knowledge in the tech arena and even managed a number of high-level projects, which was rare for someone of his age. He worked on a number of new system roll-outs and he was focusing on consulting firms that worked with similar clients to his own company. He made a compelling case for how he could leverage his in-depth knowledge of the industry to help future clients solve problems. The admissions committee felt he would be a desirable hire by the consulting firms recruiting at the school. He was accepted in the program and received multiple job offers for his first year MBA internship.
The bottom line is that the admissions committee will be well aware that candidates who have a lot of motivation, drive, energy, and charisma are more likely to excel in the job search – no matter the firm on their CV when they apply.