1. Amount of work experience: While top programs typically want a minimum of two years of experience, HBS and Stanford are trending younger. The quality rather the years of work experience is the issue. So apply when you are ready and don't feel obligated to wait till you have three to five years of experience. Keep in mind that it really the quality rather than the quantity that programs like LBS, Wharton, Kellogg, and Chicago GSB are looking for.
2. Kinds of work experience you should obtain:
-Evidence of leadership potential. One critical consideration is whether your work shows evidence of leadership potential. You should make efforts to lead projects, initiate specific proposals, and/or take other actions that will show this. Potential can be demonstrated by both large and small things, but it should be there.
-Cultivate teamwork/team leadership skills: put yourself into as many team situations as possible. Even when you are not the leader, show initiative and take on extra responsibilities. By doing so, you will create the kind of track record and develop the kind of experience that shows your ability to thrive in team centered work that is usually a core part of MBA programs.
-Add value beyond what your employer expects: Cultivate your creativity and initiative through your work. Give 110%.
The above actions will result in a stronger resume, better recommendations, and better stories for your essays and interviews.
3. Academic knowledge. If you have not done so, take college level courses in Micro/Macro Economics, Statistics, and Accounting. Take the courses from a major traditional university with online/distance/evening extension program. While it is not necessary to take such courses prior to entering an MBA, by doing so, you will by at great advantage over those who have to struggle with the basics. If your GPA is not great, work hard to get high grades in these courses as proof of your academic potential.
4. Get involved in something outside of work. Volunteer experience is one such option. Another is playing a leadership role in a social organization such as sports club. Another is showing commitment to hobby (martial arts, your jazz band, whatever). Schools want students are balanced and actually do something outside of work.
5. Improve your English or 2nd/3rd language ability. If English is your second language and you are not yet a very advanced level speaker, work on improving it. For everyone else, study another foreign language. If you are thinking about schools like INSEAD, it is ideal, at minimum to come in with competence in a second or perhaps third language.
For those focused on 2009 admission, think about the one thing you would still like to improve in your background and in addition to GMAT and TOEFL preparation, try and focus on it. I know this is much easier said than done.
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