At the most recognized top-tier programs, applicants with several years of full-time work experience are at an advantage. There are three main reasons that business schools prefer real-world experience:

  1. With experience comes knowledge and maturity.

  2. Individuals who have worked full-time are more likely to know what they want out of a business school education.

  3. If you’re already working, you’ll bring your professional background and up-to-date perspectives to your classes. Business schools want students to learn from their peers as well as their professors. Your ability to contribute to a school’s community, culture, and environment will be important when it comes to admissions.

There Are Exceptions to the Rule

Of course not all schools are alike in what they require. Less competitive schools may be more relaxed about what they’re looking for in their applicant profiles. They might not emphasize work experience to the same extent as do other more selective programs — in fact, they might not factor it into admissions decisions at all.

Likewise, if you’re planning on earning an MBA part-time, you might find that you don’t need to position yourself for admission as aggressively as you would for a full-time or more competitive program. Many MBA candidates attend their local business school powerhouses as part-time students. Some employers in business-oriented fields might have ties to particular programs, with a tuition reimbursement plan in place for employees. In such cases, your years of prior work experience might be less important than your other qualifications. As someone who is capitalizing on a tuition reimbursement program, you are clearly already "in-the-mix" for a successful business career; your task will be to express who you are on your applications, aside from your work experience.

Online MBAs might be more flexible with their admissions criteria as well, though requirements will vary from program to program. If you’re considering earning your MBA online, it’s best to check with prospective schools directly.

How Will You Talk About Your Work Experience?

There is no simple formula to guarantee acceptance to business school. An individual’s number of years in the workforce is just one of many factors schools will consider. But there are smart ways to create a narrative around your work experience, which might move your application to the "yes" pile. Your materials should not just focus on your job function and the number of years you’ve been in the workplace, but on who you are and your personal growth as an employee. Take advantage of the fact that many schools take a healthy, holistic approach to admissions, and feel comfortable expressing yourself as a whole person.

At most business schools, there is a strong preference for applicants who have worked full time for a minimum of one to two years. At the top ranked programs, the average is three to five. This will vary by school and by program type. But again, although the amount of experience you have matters, even the most exclusive schools will care more about the quality of the work you’ve performed and the professional and interpersonal skills you can demonstrate. Listing jobs on your resume will not be enough; how you talk about those jobs will matter too.

Applying to Business School as an Established Professional

Candidates with 5 or more years of high-level professional experience might find that they are too advanced to benefit from a traditional two-year MBA. These more mature candidates might consider an Executive MBA (EMBA) program, or a hybrid that admits more seasoned students with sponsorship from their employers. Both program types feature classes on weekends to accommodate the busy schedules of working professionals.

Students who pursue Executive MBA or hybrid programs should demonstrate a high need for the degree at this time in their careers, and recognize the benefits of learning from equally accomplished peers in a classroom setting. The "just right" type of work experience for such programs will be determined by the schools’ independent admissions committees — but they generally expect at least five to eight years. At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, for example, the average number of years in the workforce is 11 for EMBA candidates, and only four for regular MBAs. At NYU Stern School of Business, EMBAs have 14 years of work experience on average. These programs expect applicants to be working full time throughout their school experience, and will position graduates to have an even greater impact as business leaders.

When Your Only Experience is Part-time Work or an Internship

Depending on the MBA program, it may be appropriate to list part-time jobs or internships as work experience on your application. If this is the only experience you have, then your task will be to make that count. Any work experience can be meaningful and valuable, even if it is unpaid or part-time. Demonstrate to your prospective schools that you have gained professional insights and valuable understandings through these early-career roles.

Applying to School with One or Two Years of Work Experience

No matter how light your work experience may be, it is important to articulate your maturity, achievements, and growth on your applications. This can be tough to do with just one year of work experience. You may not have not had much time to demonstrate leadership or competency. So how can you prove that you’re ready for business school?

Frame some of your work experiences by answering these two questions:

  • How have your grown?

  • What have you learned?

In the absence of deeper work experiences, it’s important to share meaningful insights about your journey so far. It might be helpful to look at other areas of your candidacy, such as your community service work, as well. Leadership and teamwork experiences need not be limited to paid employment.

Younger MBA hopefuls are also at an advantage when submitting applications that show off a strong academic profile. In addition to listing your degree or degrees, include any undergraduate awards or scholarly honors you’ve received.

If you have scant work experience and your academics are weak as well, it may be worthwhile to wait a few more years before you apply to an MBA, and continue working in the meantime. You should consider the ROI of going to Business School when making this decision. If working a few more years means you will be more likely to win admission to a better program or school, the payoff could be great. In addition, going to school with some experience under your belt might mean that you will get more out of your program on an intellectual level — a win-win.

The Key to Admissions: Telling Your "Work" Story

Business School is not a one-size-fits-all application process. The process of finding the right program — and getting in — will depend on your particular position and narrative. There is no single recipe to follow on your application, other than to be yourself. This is your place to tell your story and serve the admissions committee something authentic and impressive.

Not every story or strength you share has to relate to job function. Demonstrating social and emotional intelligence has become increasingly important in MBA applications. And even a short resume can show evidence of aptitude and analytical ability.

With that in mind, here are some other helpful ingredients to include in your narrative:

  • How have you had an impact? Is there a clear before and after picture of the work you’ve done? How have you made a difference for your clients, company, or co-workers, or in your community service position?

  • How have you developed in your career so far? In what ways do you hope to develop further?

  • Have you been recognized for your accomplishments, either officially or through informal feedback from employers or colleagues?

  • Do you have experience working on a team?

  • What is your leadership experience? What is your leadership potential?

  • What inspires you?

  • Have you experienced a failure or setback? If so, what did you learn?

  • Are you at the right place in your career to truly benefit from an MBA? How so? Is there a unique market opportunity that is time sensitive? Are you looking to switch industries? Or are you simply hoping to advance your career?

  • What are your professional goals and objectives? Be specific: how have your past work experiences led to this application?

Common Applicant Profiles – Where do you Fit In

Many companies encourage their employees to go to school to accelerate their career advancement. Some of these employers have ties to favored (often local) business schools, and produce well-qualified applicants for those programs. This might be an excellent option for you, if available.

Other companies, such as investment banks and consulting and financial services, are considered "feeders" to the top business programs. They hire undergrads right out of college, with the understanding that they will leave for business school or another job at the end of a set training period. These employers are known for producing highly qualified applicants, so MBA candidates from such companies may have an easier time selling their work experience. But these students may also seem predictable, and have a harder time dazzling in the admissions process. They might have to work hard to stand out from equally qualified peers in the applicant pool.

By contrast, employees from underrepresented companies and professions are of high interest to business schools. Admission officers from the more competitive schools seek these candidates out for the sake of diversity and to create well- rounded student bodies. Candidates from the Peace Corps, Teach for America, not-for-profits, healthcare, medicine, education, family businesses and other professions may be viewed more favorably than those from the finance sector. The key for those candidates will just be to demonstrate strong quantitative skills. Business school is quantitative and rigorous. Applicants from softer fields may present with strong credentials and leadership abilities, but less experience working with numbers. A high GMAT math score can go far to alleviate any such concerns.

Another somewhat surprising source of business school applicants is the U.S. military. This may seem like a less traditional path, but military personnel are strong candidates for any program. They know how to lead and manage, often under extremely difficult circumstances. They are also disciplined and dedicated. Finally, they have often traveled all over the world and have been exposed to many cultures. Admissions committees value these candidates because they are experienced and well suited to study alongside peers with diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

The Final Work on Work Experience

Business schools greatly value work experience, leadership, and teamwork. A diverse and well-rounded group of students makes the b-school learning experience dynamic and applicable to real-life. But it is a misconception that only those with a high level title, or coming from a prestigious company, have a shot at a spot. In place of impressive workplace credentials, aptitude and attitude may go just as a far. Find a program that is a fit for your goals and experience, and show them who you really are through your application. That authenticity is sure to impress, whether you’ve been working for six months or 16 years.

Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.