How Many Years of Work Experience Do You Need Before an MBA?

Most recent info on work experience at some business schools. Links to sources are at the end of the post.

People applying to MBA programs often ask me how many years of work experience I think they should have. This question is second only to requests for my GMAT study plan. While I enjoy meeting new people, I figured writing this would be more efficient for everyone.

So, how many years of experience do I think you should have before applying to an MBA program?

Somewhere between three to five years at least, depending on what you did before. If you worked in consulting, you may be able to get by with three years, maybe even two. If you’re coming from industry, you usually need more time than the ex-consultants. An assignment lasts two to three years in many large corporates, so somewhere in the range of four to six years sets you up nicely.

There are two reasons for my answer. Prior experience improves the learning experience for everyone and is extremely valuable in your search for a job after the MBA.

Your work before the MBA provides a bank of experience, insights, and anecdotes that you can draw on to contribute to class discussions. It also improves your learning experience by allowing you to reflect on previous situations and understand what was going on or how you may have approached things differently using what you are now learning. Even when it was only things I heard of in passing, such as discussions for and against increasing prices, my work experience proved very useful during my study this year.

The second reason is also important. Except you will start something, you will probably be looking for work after your MBA. You will need to prove to potential employers that you can solve complex problems, analyze data, lead and work with teams, and so on. Many potential employers test this by asking about what you have done before. Examples drawn solely from class or your study group will not be enough, especially when you are applying to the same jobs as your classmates — who will have work experience from many amazing companies.

After writing this, I realized an INSEAD alumna I reached out to in 2012 answered this question saying essentially the same things in fewer words. I added her response below:

If you are sure about doing an MBA, I wouldn’t even try to get into INSEAD after 3 years, unless you end up doing consulting. The best time to do an MBA is once you have some real experience under your belt. It’s hard to get that in 3 years in an industry setting. Realize also, that when you’re looking for a job post-MBA, you’re competing with folks from your own class, who also have MBAs. If you have more experience, you’re much more attractive to future employers compared to your peers.”Alilak.

Links: Stanford GSB data, INSEAD data, Wharton data, LBS data, HBS data, Chicago Booth data.