Make the Leap From College to MBA

Although most MBA students start business school with a significant amount of work experience, there are a select few who begin their MBA programs immediately after college.

Business school alumni who have made the jump from college to an MBA program say that this option is not for everyone. Some say that in hindsight, they wish they had waited to attend business school until after gaining more work experience, but others say they are glad they went directly from college to business school because it allowed them to fast-track their careers.

Alissa Zito, a vice president of communications at Step Up Women’s Network, a youth mentoring organization, says she has no regrets about starting business school immediately after she finished college.

“I was really eager to just continue straight through and make sure I completed my personal goal to get that graduate degree,” says Zito, who earned her MBA from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

She says one significant advantage of taking that path is that recent college graduates are already accustomed to being full-time students.

But others who took the direct route say there are disadvantages.

“There are so many things that you learn having real-world experiences that can be applied using principles learned in MBA programs,” Will Schneider, a Texas-based executive who earned his MBA from the University of Colorado—Denver, said in an email. “However, if you haven’t had those experiences yet, while you can understand them in theory, they don’t ‘stick’ as well as they do when you can truly apply them from life experiences.”

Here are three tips experts have for college students evaluating whether to enroll directly in an MBA program.

1. Evaluate the strength of your argument for attending business school immediately

Business school deans say for most MBA applicants, working before business school is advisable, but there is a notable exception to this rule: college students who have firm career plans and who offer a compelling case for why they need an MBA as soon as possible.

“There are some applicants to an MBA program who are extremely motivated, who have a very high potential, who have a very aggressive timeline for themselves and have demonstrated things that are above and beyond what you would normally see in someone coming from an undergraduate program,” says Isser Gallogly, associate dean of MBA admissions with the Stern School of Business at New York University.

As part of its highly selective Berkley Scholars Program, Stern offers a full-tuition MBA scholarship plus living expenses to college seniors seeking an MBA.

“These are people who are movers and shakers, and they are not the kind of people who want to sit around, wait a couple years and then come back to it,” Gallogly says.

Anjani Jain, senior associate dean for the MBA program and professor in the practice of management at the Yale School of Management, says any college senior applying to an MBA program should understand their goals and calling, even if those will evolve over time.

“It’s important to think through those aspirations carefully and to have a clear sense of where the MBA fits in and why the substance and nature of an MBA program is critical to advancing those aspirations.”

2. Identify MBA programs that embed work opportunities into the curriculum

“I would certainly look at programs that are very applied, because you need that practical experience,” says Dawn Edmiston, clinical associate professor of marketing with the Mason School of Business at the College of William and Mary.

Edmiston says MBA students without post-college work experience will later have a disadvantage in the job market if they do not gain substantive work experience during their MBA program.

“Look for programs that provide you with practical projects, potentially consulting projects and opportunities to do field consultancies within the program,” she says.

Some business schools, like the Yale School of Management, offer a program tailored to the needs of early-career students. Yale’s Silver Scholars program includes an extended internship after the first year so students can gain work experience before graduating.

3. Don’t settle for a low-quality MBA program

David Schein, director of graduate programs and an associate professor with the Cameron School of Business at the University of St. Thomas—Houston, says these applicants sometimes make the mistake of choosing non-competitive business schools because they think it will be easier to gain admission at these schools without work experience.

“If you’re a good student and you’re an ambitious person, which is why you’re getting an MBA, pick a competitive program,” he says, “and I think that’s going to be more important than whether you did it direct from college or you did it afterwards.”

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