When Jonathan Bankard decided to apply to Harvard Business School last year, the Brown University senior heard the same thing from pretty much everyone: "You won't get in." After all, they told him, everybody knows you need years of full-time work experience to get into business school.
But Bankard, who had worked or interned every summer since he was 13, been a teacher's assistant at two business courses at Brown, and founded his own startup tech company, figured he might as well give it a shot, and his parents—and ultimately, Harvard—agreed.
Bankard's father had himself gone straight from undergrad to Harvard Business School back in 1966, when close to a third of his classmates did so as well. Things have changed a bit since then: Not only do Harvard B-schoolers no longer wear suits to class but students straight out of college make up only about 1% of enrollment there and at most other top programs, where the average student has between four and six years of work experience. But that might not be the case for long (see BusinessWeek.com 2/13/06, "Who Needs the Real World?").
MORE ISN'T BETTER. While undergrads applying to B-school is hardly a new phenomenon, now more top schools, including Harvard, Stanford Wharton, and Chicago are making a greater effort to reach out to "early career" applicants with less than three years of work experience, including students like Bankard who apply directly from undergraduate programs. And contrary to what many applicants believe, even schools like Tuck and Kellogg that don't accept undergrads say that while some work experience is critical, more isn't always better.
Admissions directors say their efforts are an attempt to correct a trend ongoing for the last decade and a half, during which increased competition in MBA admissions helped push the average years of work experience at top schools from around three years to five.
And while the number of college seniors admitted to top B-schools will likely remain a tiny percentage of the total (the University of Rochester is one exception), many admissions directors hope the renewed focus on younger applicants will eventually help expand the entire applicant pool by bringing in more people (and in particular, more women) applying one to three years into their careers (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/13/06, "Skip the Résumé").
SLOW TO CATCH UP. Recent demographic and sociological trends have made expanding the applicant pool an increasingly important issue in B-school admissions offices. The overall number of applications to MBA programs has declined for several years, and full-time MBA programs have seen the biggest drop (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/9/05, "MBA Applications: Still Skidding").The age distribution in the U.S. is changing as well: 20- to 24-year-olds already make up a greater percentage of the population than they did 10 years ago.
The applicant pool, however, has been slow to catch up. In the 1990s, as business schools got more competitive and the booming economy offered more opportunities, many people started delaying their applications for a few years in the hope of boosting their chances.
The increasingly competitive environment also gave B-schools an incentive to up their average years of work experience, because doing so helped raise average salaries upon graduation. "The word on the street became: 'B-schools will only be interested in you if you have five years of work experience,' " says Brit Dewey of Harvard Business School. And although that belief has since become ingrained, admissions directors say just it just isn't true.
Paul Danos, Dean of Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, says that even at Tuck, where general practice requires at least two years of full-time experience (except for students in the combined MD/MBA program), having fewer than the average number of years is not a disadvantage.
"A person with three great years of experience has just as good a chance as someone with five," he says. "It's not so much the number of years, it's what they've achieved."
ADVANTAGES. Applying earlier often carries benefits for individuals. Since early-career applicants generally draw smaller salaries than they will later in their careers, a break for B-school is less of a financial sacrifice. And, especially for women, it reduces the chances that career and family will be put in direct conflict (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/1/04, "Breaking B-School Gender Barriers").
Encouraging students to pursue their MBA earlier in their careers can be a boon for companies as well. At Chicago, for example, early-career initiatives were spurred by appeals from the school's corporate partners concerned about retaining their top talent. Director of Admissions Rose Martinelli spent this summer talking to top consulting and investment banking firms about encouraging their entry-level analysts to apply to business school after working for two or three years, instead of going elsewhere first to gain more experience.
And Bolton notes that some companies, like Proctor & Gamble (PG), actually prefer to hire MBAs with only a few years of work experience, before they've been molded to another company's corporate culture. "When you're trying to serve a diverse group of companies, having a diverse group of students is a real benefit," he says.
One place where attitudes are changing is Penn's Wharton School. Thomas Caleel, who was appointed as Wharton's director of MBA admissions and financial aid last year, says that under his predecessors, Wharton wasn't very welcoming to candidates with less than four years of work experience—a philosophy that "didn't make a lot of sense," he says.
Although Wharton had always admitted a few Wharton undergrads per year through the school's submatriculation program, just 1% of students in Wharton's MBA class of 2007 had two or fewer years of work experience. Under Caleel's leadership, that percentage has already risen to 3% for the class of 2008.
B-SCHOOLS' HARD SELL. Caleel has traveled extensively over the past year to get the word out to undergraduates that there's no "right time" to apply to business school—and he's not the only one. When Stanford's director of MBA admissions started five years ago, Stanford made five to six college visits a year. This year the school will be doing nearly 100.
At Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business, Executive Admissions Director Laurie Stewart says the school has "reinvigorated" its longstanding 3-2 program, which allows Carnegie Mellon undergrads to earn their BA and MBA in five years, by actively recruiting on campus. About 5% of Tepper's MBAs now come the through the 3-2 program.
And at Virginia's Darden School, Interim Director of Admissions Everette Fortner says the business school has recently renewed its efforts to build relationships with its undergraduate feeder schools. This spring, Darden invited career counselors from 10 schools to come to campus and learn about Darden and business schools in general.
The University of Texas McCombs School of Business also quietly did away with its two-year work experience requirement for students last year. Although the school still "strongly recommends" two years of work for most applicants, it has opened the doors to a small number of high-achieving undergraduates through the newly created McCombs Scholar program.
While some critics worry that applicants without significant work experience are unprepared for top MBA programs (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/13/06, "Degreed but Unprepared") many admissions directors say that younger students have a lot to bring to the table, especially since today's students graduate college with much more compelling internships, leadership roles, and entrepreneurial experience than students just a decade ago.
Several schools now offer college seniors special accommodations during the admissions process in order to make applying as "risk-free" as possible. Harvard, Chicago, and MIT waive their admissions fee for all college seniors, and Stanford waives the fee to any senior receiving financial aid.
Both Stanford and Harvard offer one-on-one feedback to any college students who are not admitted, so they can learn how to improve their application for the next time. This year, Stanford says that college seniors will be interviewed by admissions staffers, rather than alumni, who may be unsure about how to evaluate such students.
PUT IT OFF. Yet some admissions officers admit that even the most academically gifted students may not be ready to begin an MBA program. Deferred admission is another way schools are allowing top-notch undergrads into their programs without sacrificing work experience.
Harvard has historically admitted 10 to 20 students per year on a deferred basis, and recently Stanford started granting deferrals to admitted college seniors as well. MIT currently accepts six students per year through the StartingBloc program, aimed at budding social entrepreneurs, and gives students the option of matriculating immediately or deferring for up to two years.
In 2005, McCombs launched a new deferred admission program called Jump Start for students who are academically qualified but in need of work experience. Companies including Deloitte Consulting and JPMorgan Chase [http://www.businessweek.com] (JPM ) agree to hire the students for three years, and McCombs offers candidates deferred admission to the MBA program.
Admissions directors say that planting the seed early—speaking to college students about business school before they have made their big career decisions—is a way to pull in more applicants who might not have otherwise considered B-school. It also sends a message to applicants that more experience doesn't necessarily provide a competitive edge. "When you say you can come straight from undergrad, you see more people who feel they can apply at two years out," says Bolton.
The real message for B-school applicants: Don't let a shorter-than-average résumé discourage you from applying. Most admissions directors would agree that it's quality, not quantity, that counts.