Have you ever heard that you can’t get into a top business school unless you have worked at a blue chip firm? Don’t even try to apply to Wharton or Harvard or Chicago, the mistaken theory goes, unless your resume shows employment at a Fortune 500 or similarly recognizable, reputable company.

Next time you hear this you will just have to smile politely and change the subject before you have to endure any other bad advice. While many b-school students have worked at the likes of Goldman Sachs and Citibank, the fact of the matter is that big companies employ a lot of ambitious people, and of those, there are a fair number of Ivy League MBA applicants. By the same token, you’ll find a lot of Fortune 500 veterans in MBA programs. But the numbers alone don’t mean anything in terms of admissions.

“What I would emphasize is that many times schools really like to see candidates from smaller companies, depending on their roles. And I emphasize roles,” says Kent Harrill, MBA, a senior admissions adviser. While blue chip experience can give your application an edge because these firms are competitive employers, admissions officers will be looking beyond the cachet of your big-business experience. “Working out of undergrad for large, blue chip companies, you’re sometimes regulated to a specific function or two during your career, which is fine. However, at smaller, growing companies, you usually have to wear a variety of hats, which can really help you at business school and in your post-MBA career,” adds Harrill, who earned his graduate business degree at Cornell University and served on the university’s MBA admissions committee, where he made accept/reject/waitlist decisions on more than 1,000 applications.

“In addition, at the leading schools, usually more than half of all graduates will found a business during their careers,” Harrill notes. “Having a similar experience before business school can really help in those ways.”

That’s why what is most important to admissions committees is what you did at work, not where you did it. 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 will have to demonstrate the potential for more than that in their MBA applications. Regardless of where you have worked, make sure that your applications and comments during interviews illustrate what is special about your work and life experience, and how that unique attribute makes you a natural pick for the schools you are targeting.

It will be especially important to identify and elaborate on themes that demonstrate your leadership, which is more likely to emerge if you have been doing something you care about, whether your past employers are titans of industry or small upstarts. Admissions committees will be sizing up you, not your employers. In addition, part of admissions officers’ assessment of your potential will include the question of whether you are true to yourself and your goals, and if their program will provide you the vehicle to fully develop your potential.

It’s important to remember that although it looks as if a larger percentage of blue chip company employees are accepted to the top b-schools, it’s not because of their employer record. If you have good career progression, extracurriculars, and don’t use the same generic story themes that work slightly better for the blue chip applicants, your admissions chances are no lower for having worked at a smaller company. Business school admissions committees are looking for the right person for their school, not an employment pedigree.

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