Guest Post By Judith Silverman Hodara, Fortuna Admissions and former Head of Admissions at The Wharton School
Every year, as Wharton’s Head of Admissions, I fielded calls from anxious pre-college parents. They were seeking advice for their ambitious adolescents on choosing between undergraduate programs. Which school would best position their child for a future MBA at a top tier school like Wharton, Harvard or Stanford GSB?
As Director of Fortuna Admissions, I still hear versions of this question from liberal arts majors who are worried about positioning their profile to top tier MBA programs.
First, let’s address some prevailing myths and misperceptions.
For starters, you don’t have to study business to get an MBA. You can study history, literature, psychology, philosophy, or international politics—to name just a few subjects—because business isn’t just about the numbers. It’s also about people and relationships, and the dynamic and ever-evolving ecosystem in which businesses exist. A broad spectrum of subjects and experiences will prepare you well for going on to pursue advanced education in business, if that’s your passion. You don’t even need to major in economics! There’s no expectation from MBA programs that you would have chosen an undergrad degree in a business-related field.
What would be strategic, however, is to choose an undergraduate program that affords the opportunity to explore business-related subjects. For example, if you’re interested in international economics, you’ll want to make sure it’s offered at your undergrad school of choice. Same with business-related courses like accounting or finance. When MBA programs assess your academic background, they’ll be looking for a track record of excellence including solid quantitative skills. Undergraduate coursework in subjects like accounting or finance can demonstrate your ability to handle the rigors of an MBA classroom. However, you can also find that in math and statistics classes for liberal arts majors.
A lot of young people get overly fixated on having a prestigious school on their resume, often at the expense of finding the right “fit.” They think that if they don’t have a brand name school, they won’t be viable for an MBA or get noticed by top companies, which, frankly, isn’t true. MBA programs (and future employers) want to see that you’ve maximized the opportunities afforded to you. Remember that you’re committing four years of your life to the undergrad experience, so you’ll want to ensure it’s a place where you’ll thrive. Factors like size and location or culture and community vibe are fundamental to assessing the right fit for you.
I’ve read lots of application materials submitted by MBA candidates who didn’t go to an Ivy League institution and made tremendous impacts. You can go to a state college and really show some leadership or distinction that positions you for future success in business. As the maxim goes, sometimes being a big fish in a small pond affords greater opportunity to stand out and make a difference. Without a doubt, you should pursue those activities and academic opportunities that excite you and those that you feel are going to stretch you as well.
Qualities most valuable to MBA programs—such as self-reflection, collaboration, leadership, intercultural experience, and exposure to diversity—can be demonstrated through the undergraduate experience in manifold ways. You needn’t have done your post-undergrad internship at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey to convey your aptitude for decision-making and penchant for leadership.
The central thing to remember is this: No matter what school you attend, you’ll want to have a positive impact in your community. That can happen inside or outside the classroom. Business schools are impressed by candidates who discover something they care deeply about and throw themselves into it, shaping themselves and the community in which they live. That doesn’t mean racking up volunteer commitments to embellish your resume; there are myriad ways you can engage with impact on your college campus by doing the things that matter to you—on the soccer field or the theater stage, in student government, tutoring underclass students, or doing research with professors in areas of your interest.
I recently worked with a gifted young woman with an undergraduate degree in art history, which inspired a passion for increasing minority representation among her college’s feminist community and ensuring such unique perspectives were valued and voiced. Her self-reflection, leadership, and analytical acumen made her a very compelling candidate, and she was ultimately accepted at an M7 school. Another candidate I advised distinguished himself to top MBA programs by conveying what he learned about decision-making processes through his undergrad degree in philosophy. His outside-the-box experience and ability to draw connections made all the difference.
Part of the beauty and privilege of being an undergraduate student is taking the time to figure out what matters to you by exploring a universe of possibility. Your experience in doing so—no matter where it is that you do it—will foster the introspection, authenticity, and clarity of purpose that makes you an attractive MBA candidate.
So don’t waste time chasing some perceived ideal of what you think you should do and be. There is no such thing as the perfect candidate or the perfect path. There’s a lot of different ways to get there, and MBA programs are impressed by candidates who can powerfully convey where they’ve been, where they’re going, and a logic that connects the two.