B-Schools Where Zookeepers and Ballerinas Are Welcome

MBA programs attract more nontraditional students

The life of former San Diego Chargers center Courtney Hall took an unconventional turn four years ago, going from the National Football League--including a trip to Super Bowl XXIX--to the academic rigor of the University of Chicago. Not sure what to do after an eight-year NFL career, Hall refocused on an old interest--finance. Now, the 34-year-old is finishing a four-year joint law and MBA program at Chicago.

Hall is part of a small but growing breed of MBA student: the nontraditional applicant. To admissions officers, the term "nontraditional" flags any candidate who hails from an industry outside feeders such as consulting, marketing, investment banking, or technology. In the past three to five years, many top B-schools have redoubled their efforts to attract candidates with atypical work histories, such as nonprofits, the Peace Corps, the military, and science. Columbia University's School of Business has even admitted a zookeeper, a caterer, a ballerina, and a concert pianist. Nontraditional students now make up 20% to 25% of the classes at some programs, twice as many as a few years ago.

These students don't have the exposure to financial analysis that a junior analyst at an investment bank would have. In Hall's case, although he studied economics at Rice University, he hadn't opened a math book in years. With no time for prep courses or tutoring, he crammed all his studying for the Graduate Management Admissions Test into a three-day break from his grueling NFL schedule a few years ago. He scored an admirable 680 out of a possible 800.

Off the athletic field, Milan Sevak, a former Bronx (N.Y.) science teacher, did a lot more to better his odds. While many applicants take a GMAT prep course or read study guides, Sevak did it all, shelling out about $1,100 for a review course, taking several computer practice tests, and devouring every GMAT guide he could find. The work paid off: Sevak, who wants to return to education in a management role, is now in his second year at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

So what should you do if you want to be a maverick MBA student? First, like any applicant, you need to assess what each B-school has to offer. Try to match your specialty to a school that has concentrations or programs in that area--especially if you're planning to stay in your field. If you're a low-level manager at a nonprofit and hope to be an executive director one day, think about Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, where you can earn a certificate from its public management program by completing additional courses. At the University of Michigan Business School, you may soon be able to earn an MBA with a concentration in education.

When writing your application essays, don't apologize for your background. Instead, find a way to play up your career path. You'll need to convince the admissions officers that the road you chose will add to the school's culture and more than make up for any quantitative skills or business acumen you may lack. Schools want students who bring unique skills and approaches to campus. "Our objective is to create a microcosm of the world for the MBA classroom experience," says Liz Riley, director of admissions at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

Remember, the degree doesn't have to be a ticket to a traditional MBA career. Sevak, the former teacher, hopes his MBA will help him become a superintendent--or give him the skills he needs to start a charter school. All the better if an MBA can open doors in a field you already know and love.

By Rebecca Weber

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