How to make the best of being a “non-traditional” MBA student


by Jenn Yee, guest blogger

I arrived at business school without a shred of background in economics, statistics, or higher-level mathematics. Kellogg called me a non-traditional student, but most of my pre-business-school friends just said I was flat-out crazy.

With a background almost exclusively in media and education, I went into business school a little naïve about how much would be expected of me academically, socially, and emotionally. It took a little while for me to adjust; I felt uncertain about the strength of my background. Additionally, everyone looked so shiny and happy in the halls “ I wasn’t sure if anyone else was having this experience.

It turns out that quite a few of them were.

Here are some things I learned while attending business school with a non-traditional background, and how to cope.

Having a non-traditional background makes you more interesting at cocktail hour.

Sometimes coming from a career track that isn’t one of the big three “ management consulting, finance, or consumer packaged goods (CPG) “ can make you the life of the party. When I first started at business school, my peers loved hearing war stories from my job at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and why my first startup job was a flop. Same applied for recruiters that held happy hours and coffee chats “ people were really interested in the variety of my experience, and gossip about celebrities in the media industry.

Your resume stands out on its own.

Much to my surprise, a major media company with its own venture capital arm requested that I be on the summer internship interview short-list for a job for which it was otherwise interviewing only people with private equity and venture capital backgrounds. When I arrived for the interview at a hotel in downtown Chicago, the woman who headed the group told me that she wanted to see a few people with strong media backgrounds “ too often people with finance backgrounds know very little or aren’t passionate about the industry, even if they are very qualified. Don’t underestimate your expertise in the industry from which you came “ even if it is a little untraditional “ it can work to your advantage.

The Administration is your friend.

As I said, I struggled academically when I first arrived at business school, and because I felt like I was the only one having this experience, I also felt like I didn’t have anyone to turn to. So I turned to the Administration in an attempt to understand whether or not I’d pursued the right degree. I visited with several members of the administration and student services, and finally one Dean told me the thing that helped me immeasurably. He said,

You may feel like you’ve always excelled academically, and now you’re not. You may feel isolated, while everyone else looks shiny and happy in the halls. You may feel like you came here knowing what you want, and now you don’t. Believe me, I’ve worked here for 20 years, and 20 years multiplied by 600 students tells me you’re not the only one having this experience.

A couple of things to do to help you along the way:

Swap skills with your classmates. If you are good at writing or giving presentations, offer to help a classmate who needs help in that area and who can help you shore up some of your academic weaknesses. In college, I swapped English tutoring for squash lessons. In business school, I’ll never forget when my classmate Emal took some time after a group meeting to go through Microsoft Excel Keyboard shortcuts and formulas with me.

Be a sponge. Never stop learning about the business world, even if you’re not in class. On a boat cruise in Belize with classmates before school started, I learned exactly what private equity is, and at bars in Evanston, learned more about sub-prime mortgages and who Jamie Dimon was. Your classmates are a wealth of knowledge “ and the tuition you’re paying isn’t just to learn what they teach you in the lecture hall.

Appreciate the diversity of people around you. I say this to whatever MBA audience will listen, but never take for granted the friends you might never have made if you didn’t attend business school. I have classmates who have worked in virtually every industry as engineers, brand managers, consultants, rocket scientists (I actually know TWO of these), bankers, political assistants, social entrepreneurs “ and count each of these individuals as my friends and advisors. I would not have, nor could have found this kind of group in any other graduate school. I hope that I added value to their networks, too, by being non-traditional.

This piece was written for the Manhattan GMAT Blog by Jenn Yee, the Founder & Publisher of, an online lifestyle magazine that provides MBAs with national content covering popular topics such as Career, Family, Love & Dating, Social Life, and Style. Follow MBAsocial on Facebook and Twitter for the latest in business education news, social life and advice.

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