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Women and the MBA: A Perfect Match

Women from all kinds of backgrounds are finding that the MBA or another graduate business degree is a great way to achieve their career and personal objectives. In fact, roughly 40% of GMAT® test takers are women. But graduate business schools would still like to get more applications from qualified female applicants.

When we talk to admissions officers, they tell us that some female applicants have ideas about the MBA degree that may not be true and that even worse, these misconceptions may prevent women from applying to business schools that would be delighted to accept them.

Take a look at some of these “myths” below, and see if any of them are keeping you from taking the next step toward business school.

Myth: An MBA is really best suited for those who want to work for a big company.
Reality: An MBA can help you to be successful in almost any organization.

Although there are many successful executives in large corporations who have MBA’s, there are also MBA’s working in nonprofits, health-care organizations, higher education, arts management, the military, and government. Some people get MBA’s in order to start their own businesses or manage a small family business. Thirty-eight percent of the graduating MBA class of 2016, surveyed just prior to graduation, said they planned to work in organizations with fewer than 1,000 employees.

One of the best things about the MBA degree is its versatility. Armed with an MBA, you can pursue a career in a wide range industries and in very different types of organizations. So, big business or small business, you can help drive the success of your organization. The MBA is not all about big corporations; it’s about business.

Myth: All business schools are alike when it comes to culture.
Reality: There are big differences among schools, and some are better than others at attracting and supporting women on campus.

We know from our many surveys of MBA students and alumni that women choose business schools differently. They are more likely than men to look for a school environment where they’ll find other people with similar life experiences and backgrounds. Women also tend to seek different kinds of educational experiences and skills development and to value the various aspects of their MBA experiences differently from men.

All business schools are not the same, just as all businesses are not the same. The learning environment and campus culture at some schools are particularly welcoming and supportive of women.

A good way to tell whether a school will be able to provide the kind of experiences and culture you are looking for is to talk to school representatives, current students, and alumni. The more information you can get from them, the more effectively you can evaluate a business school program and how well you fit into it.

When researching particular schools, it may also be helpful to take a look at the published percentages of women in the entering class and the number and variety of women’s organizations on campus. How many women are on the faculty? Find out what speakers came to the school this year and last, and ask how many women were asked to speak at the school. You will find differences among schools, and you may find some moving to the top of your list of preferred schools, and online options have become a favorite as well.

Many schools target qualified females with special recruiting efforts, including scholarships and financial aid. Make sure to research these opportunities as part of your investigation of schools and programs.

Myth: You have to be really strong in math to do well in an MBA program.
Reality: The MBA curriculum offers a balance of different kinds of courses.

There is no doubt that an MBA program teaches you how to think analytically and builds on your existing quantitative skills. Such courses as accounting, finance, operations management, and even marketing use numbers and analytical concepts to help you learn how to make better business decisions. For many MBA’s, the development of these skills is what makes the MBA degree so valuable; graduates are able to use their quantitative and analytical skills not only in operations but also strategically, to sell their ideas in organizations.

In fact, when we asked female MBA’s a year after graduation what they wished they had done more of in graduate school, their top three answers involved analytical skills.

But maybe you are less than confident about your current mathematical abilities; perhaps you didn’t take a lot of math in college. Rest assured, you don’t have to be an engineer to master these concepts and skills in an MBA program. In fact, lots of liberal arts graduates excel in MBA programs.

Some MBA students say that taking classes in some of the basics at a local college before they enrolled in business school increased their confidence in their first year of school. If a school to which you have applied has concerns about your analytical skills, they may ask you to do some additional preparation.

Myth: All business schools and their students are viciously competitive.
Reality: Competitiveness among the student body is a function of culture, and business school cultures vary significantly.

The whole subject of competition is a complicated one. If your definition of competitive people is those who try hard to do their very best, then most MBA’s would fit that definition—both men and women. Most people who go for an MBA do so because they want to achieve and be successful. And won’t it be great to go to school with people who care about how they perform?

That being said, there are schools where the environment is more collaborative than at others. The best way to find out about the culture of a school you are considering is to talk to students and alumni— particularly women—and ask them about the school culture.

Myth: I won’t get into business school if I have a non-business background.
Reality: MBA’s come from every kind of background, including liberal arts, science, law, social sciences, and education.

Women enroll in MBA programs for a broad variety of reasons, and each class is different. Students from non-business backgrounds can bring very valuable approaches and experiences to their MBA classes and be very attractive to employers.

Business schools and employers do not consider a non-business undergraduate major a “deal breaker.” School admissions officers look for diversity when they assemble incoming classes, and part of the diversity they look for is in undergraduate backgrounds.

Employers tell us that the most important things they look for in MBA job candidates are strong communication skills, a proven ability to perform, a good cultural fit with the company, and the skills acquired in the candidate’s MBA program. Having a particular background prior to business school is not seen as highly important by most employers.

Most MBA programs have a core curriculum that is designed to teach you business fundamentals such as accounting, marketing, finance, organization behavior, and the like. So it doesn’t really matter what you studied at the undergraduate level—you will get the basics from the core courses. After you complete the core courses, electives will let you focus on your areas of interest.

Myth: MBA career tracks seem highly defined and demanding. If I get a job that requires an MBA, I won’t be able to balance my job with my life.
Reality: Getting an MBA increases your career flexibility.

Some MBA’s enter large organizations with highly structured career tracks and long work weeks. But for every MBA who chooses that path, there is another who does something completely different.

In fact, many people are motivated to seek an MBA to increase their career options and flexibility. The MBA can be of particular interest to people who are considering how to balance the demands of career and family. This used to be a concern primarily of women, but men are paying increasing attention to work-life balance and family concerns.

An admissions director at a well-known school uses a transportation analogy to describe the freedom an MBA can give you, likening it to driving a car: “Getting an MBA gives you more options. It is the difference between taking the train and driving a car. With the train, someone else decides the schedule and drives. But with the car, you get to decide where to go, when to stop, and how fast you want to go.”