A Former Journalist at Business School - Experiences of a "Non-traditional" MBA Candidate

Raisa Bruner

I am not your typical MBA candidate. For nearly seven years, I was a staff writer with TIME Magazine in New York City, where I covered music, culture, and entertainment. (I also worked remotely during the pandemic from a small town in the western U.S., writing about the economy and generational politics.)

Journalism kept me busy, but as I watched the media industry crumble around me, I wanted to understand the business context more fully. As the type of person who loves school, I decided it was time to go back.

I am the definition of a “non-traditional” MBA candidate, and I knew this experience could—and would—come with special obstacles in my path; after all, I hadn’t taken a math class in more than a decade, and my Excel skills were weak at best. But I also knew that the MBA programme that accepted me would want my perspective, and would respect that I could add something unique to class conversations and the makeup of the cohort. 

That’s exactly how my time at INSEAD unfolded. To apply, I spent a week studying for the GRE and was able to take the test online during a summer vacation. About six months later, I submitted my completed application.

I hoped that the admissions committee would see my unusual resume as an advantage, not a drawback. In the meantime, I doubled down on preparation by consuming more daily financial news, cobbling together a curriculum of business-focused podcasts, and racking up a reading list of MBA-adjacent books. I also explored the option of taking a pre-MBA prep course, but decided that INSEAD’s weeklong Business Foundations intro classes were my best option. 

I arrived in France in a whirlwind. I had quit my job the week before, snagging my French student visa just in time. August in Fontainebleau is hot and quiet, the shops closed for “les vacances,” the cobbled streets dusty. Even the bees buzzing in through the open windows of my studio seemed drowsy. 

But my start at INSEAD required every ounce of mental (and physical) energy I could muster. While I enjoyed my evening walks in Fonty’s tree-lined park, Business Foundations and P1 classes were not a walk in the park for me. The adjustment from a lax remote-work schedule to an all-day in-class experience—complete with nightly cocktail hours at the bars lining the cobblestone alley a few blocks from my apartment—was a shock. And the demands of school meant I had to get my brain to absorb academic information as if I were back in high school.

I was not alone, though. At INSEAD, everyone excels in different ways; being clueless at financial accounting like me, for instance, didn’t mean I didn’t belong at all.

During Master Strategy Day, one of the most intense INSEAD student experiences during the year’s first half, my group pulled together a presentation that earned us a second-place finish in the all-school competition. MSD was proof that I could achieve here, too.

Now that we’re in P5, I have become relaxed. Electives have sparked my interests, and exposure to speakers has given me a range of ideas about possible post-MBA plans. But it was the recent Capstone—a three-day simulation in which students are assorted into groups to “run” a company—that solidified for me just how much I’ve learned here. Randomly assigned to a role as CEO, I led my team of five to success, winning our section competition and earning a special award for the positive feedback we received from external role players. 

We were five students from five different continents and different professional backgrounds, and the three days were an intense exercise in teamwork, communication, trust, and a solid serving of blind confidence.

Winning felt like a hard-earned pat on the back from INSEAD.

As a “non-traditional” MBA candidate, the learning here has gone both ways, and I’m grateful for it.