Readers of this blog may note that it tends to be officer heavy in focus. This is only, however, because most applicants to top business schools happen to be officers. Enlisted personnel can certainly be highly competitive to attend a top program. From my own observation, there tends to be an average of one former enlisted per top school per class… as a very rough generalization.
I am often asked by NCOs if they are competitive. The first thing I will note is that my evaluation of competitiveness is actually independent of rank and MOS. I don’t think schools really care a whole lot whether you led a fire team or an infantry company. What is far more important is how you performed in relation to your peers. Business schools also don’t want their military class to only represent the ground combat forces, so just like officers, it’s totally fine if one comes from a more administrative role than if he just walked off a recruitment poster. Again, what is important here is performance and accomplishment within your role, and your overall track record of excellence and success in everything you do.
The main thing that I believe holds many NCOs back is their choice of undergraduate degrees. While schools like Harvard certainly value a diverse background, I have not seen much precedence for accepted students to come from anywhere but top 25 undergraduate programs, and normally top 10. That doesn’t mean that if you have a degree from APSU, Troy, Texas Central College, or UMUC, that you would be ineligible for admission, but I am saying that I have never seen that happen. Enlisted personnel often go through these programs thinking they are getting ahead by completing their degree while in still in service, but what they don’t realize is that those degrees will not open the same doors as a top undergrad… for the same reason that a Harvard Business School degree opens more doors than lesser ranked schools.
The enlisted personnel I have seen accepted at top business school programs also had top undergraduate degrees, from Harvard, Dartmouth, Cornell, etc. In other words, as an NCO, you are judged based on your resume in the same way that an officer is (performance within role, undergraduate education, GPA, GMAT, quality of recommenders, and quality of essays) – in my opinion you do not have to worry about the fact your responsibility was different than your officer counterparts.
So bottom line for enlisted personnel who want to go to a top business school: make sure you apply with a top ranking undergraduate degree. It’s ok to do some distance learning while you are still in the service and save money, but consider finishing your last two years on a physical campus of a top national program and applying to b-school from there. It’s your best shot unless you already have a top undergrad degree.
Note: If you are exploring undergraduate education opportunities, you should check out Fidelis Education. It was created by a former Marine and an HBS grad, and is intended to help get you into the best possible undergrad school possible.