Is "Blue Chip" Experience Really That Important in MBA Admissions?

I never cease to be amazed by how far some urban legends about MBA admissions get on the Internet. The darn things just won’t die. Again and again, people come to me with concerns that obviously took root after they had read one or another of these myths on a Web discussion board – where, of course, the myth was presented as a piece of expert advice.

One myth that seems especially popular right now is that you can’t get into a top business school unless you’ve worked at a blue chip firm. Don’t even try to apply to Wharton or Harvard or Chicago, the advice goes, unless your resume shows employment at a Fortune 500 company. And, by logical extension, anyone who’s interested in eventually going to b-school should make employment at a blue chip company their absolute top priority.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, a lot of b-school students have worked at Goldman Sachs, Citibank, etc. But there are reasons for that fact that have nothing to do with admissions bias.

Think about it. Big companies employ a lot of ambitious people, so it’s not surprising to find greater numbers of them in any representative group. You’ll find a lot of Fortune 500 alumni in MBA programs – but you’ll also find a lot of them at business networking functions and on the customer list of your local Wall Street Journal vendor. You’ll find a lot of them in the phone book, too. The numbers alone don’t mean anything.

Sure, having blue chip experience can give your application an edge – up to a point. Blue chips are competitive employers. They do a careful job of screening and testing applicants, and of training the people they hire. A good track record at a blue chip firm suggests you’re someone to be taken seriously. But blue chip experience in and of itself won’t get you into business school, and lack of blue chip experience won’t keep you out.

Business schools don’t accept or reject applicants on the basis of how prestigious the person’s employer is. They accept or reject applicants on the basis of how much promise each person shows as a graduate business student and future business leader. Someone who turned a dying corner grocery market into a profitable one, or who helped a small family business find a niche to prosper in, or who covered all the bases for a mid-sized accounting firm, shows promise. Someone who’s gone to work at a big investment bank every day for three years and dutifully carried out a set of structured tasks over and over again might show competence, reliability, diligence – but not necessarily promise.

Actually, I’m tempted to argue that the blue chip myth has it exactly backwards. You might even have better chances of gaining admission to b-school with experience at a small- or mid-sized company than you do with experience at a large one. Why? Because a smaller employer gives you more opportunities to see how an entire enterprise works, to understand different operations, to try things, to take chances – and to goof up and take responsibility for it, and learn from the experience. You’d have to fight for that kind of experience at most large companies.

When it comes to b-school applications, the crucial thing isn’t where you worked but what you did. My advice to MBA applicants is to identify what is special about their work and life experience and how that special story – their ‘wow’ factor – makes them a natural pick for the school to which they are applying.

My heartfelt advice to graduates looking to position themselves for MBA admission in the future is to look for work that excites you. If working for a blue chip firm excites you, then by all means seek work at a blue chip firm. But if sports excite you, take a chance on a job that lets you work in sports marketing. If customer relations excite you, look for work that gives you varied and deep experience there. You make yourself a more attractive MBA applicant when you show that you’ve been a leader – and the leader in us is most likely to come out when we’re doing something we care about.

So ignore that advice about blue chip experience and b-school admissions. It’s an urban legend. Business school admissions committees will be sizing up you, not your employers. The only ‘trick’ to b-school admissions (if it can even be called that) is to be true to yourself and your goals, and to seek out opportunities that allow you to develop to your fullest potential.