Being a Nontraditional Applicant is a Blessing and a Curse

I’m what admissions officers like to call a nontraditional applicant. That means I didn’t major in business, economics, or finance, and I don’t work in an industry you’ve heard of. The most common reaction I get when I tell people about my background is, “Oh, that’s really interesting,” which is NOT the reaction you want to get from the admissions committee.

As a reapplicant, I’ve been down this road before. Last year, Dream School liked my nontraditional background but wasn’t convinced that I could handle the coursework despite my high GPA and perfectly respectable GMAT score. Waitlist City. This year, Dream School asked me to take additional coursework with the implication that if I did well, they would accept me. Great news – better than straight waitlisting and certainly better than flat-out rejection – but still extremely frustrating. What do I have to do to impress these people, cure cancer?

That got me thinking.

Having a nontraditional background can give your application a boost because you look intriguing. But it can also be a curse because admissions officers need some way to measure your ability to succeed in the program. And if there aren’t any other applicants that look like you, there’s no one to measure you against.

There’s a lot of advice out there for b-school applicants who want to set themselves apart. Volunteer for a nonprofit! Gush about your eternal passion for badminton! Stand on your head and recite Shakespeare! This advice works great for all those investment bankers who majored in finance, but what about us poor souls (we do exist) who stand out TOO much? How do we get the adcoms to take us seriously instead of saying, “Oh wow, that’s really unusual…maybe too unusual,” and tossing our applications in the Maybe pile?

The answer, I think, is both straightforward and exasperating – you have to give them something to measure you by, and you have to do it better than someone with a traditional background. It’s sad but true. In my year between applications I took an accounting class to fill in my quantitative experience. Even though I knocked that class out of the park, Dream School still wanted more proof that I wouldn’t drown under their course load.

So learn from my experience and don’t let your nontraditional background hold you back. Here’s my advice for making your application as strong as it can be:

  • Figure out what your weakness is. Management experience? Quantitative experience? Low GPA? Look at the average stats for the school you want to attend. If you are below or in the lower end of average for that school, you should either improve that part of your application or target a less competitive school.
  • Retake the GMAT until you get a score that is SOLIDLY in the middle or high end of your school’s average. On the low end is probably not good enough.
  • If your weakness is work experience, consider waiting a year or two to give yourself enough time to build a stellar resume. Seek out significant leadership experiences at work or in your extracurricular activities.
  • Where you work matters as much as your title. B-schools are good at placing students in corporate jobs, so you should ideally have worked for a large company. If this is not possible, offer to volunteer for a big name company in exchange for experience.
  • Take a class. Take multiple classes. It doesn’t matter where you take them, but they should be in traditional, standardized subjects like Calculus, Statistics, Economics, and Finance. Shoot to get all A’s.

I sure wish I’d known this before I applied, but hopefully my experience can help someone else. Remember – give ’em the best you’ve got, and then give them some more. I think if you follow these steps, you’ll eventually land a spot at the business school of your dreams.

As for me, I’m gonna forge ahead with my supplemental class and keep waiting for that call from Dream School…

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12 thoughts on “Being a Nontraditional Applicant is a Blessing and a Curse

  1. JenGorman says:

    Go for the DreamSchool, girl! Don’t let a few rejections get you down. And congratulations on getting accepted to two schools – that’s an achievement! Thanks for this great post. I know how you feel…

  2. Sassafras (@SassafrasMBA) says:

    Welcome to the blogosphere, gmbschool! I stumbled over here from your comment on Em. Bee. Ay. From what I can gather you’re hopefully on the road to success in your (re)applications! 4 schools and 4 interviews–is that right? I’m hoping big news is coming your way in a few weeks!

    • bschoolgirl says:

      Hi Sassafras, thanks for your kind words! I’m certainly hoping to get some good news in the next month…at least to know where I’m going next year so I can FINALLY start planning for the fun stuff. Hope your own b-school journey is going well! Cheers.

  3. Jackie says:

    Hello! I’ve loved reading your blog since I stumbled upon it a few days ago, and I’d love to link to this post in a post I’m writing about being a non-traditional applicant, because this post is so amaze. Let me know if that’s okay by you! 🙂

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