Applying to Business School when you’re 30+?

June 03, 2015 | by Matt Symonds

Why does it seem like most top full-time MBA programs focus more on applicants in the 20 – 30 year old age range rather than those who are older? It’s not as if you’re too old to learn, and for many it’s not until later in their careers that they decide to focus of a formalized business education.

To give you a sense of what some of the classroom demographics look like at a few of the world’s leading full-time MBA programs, the average student age for this year’s new class at Harvard is 27, while at Chicago Booth, Kellogg, Columbia, Tuck, Haas, and UT Austin the average is 28. Fuqua comes in with the highest average student age, 29, for a top U.S. program. Although several schools including Wharton, NYU Stern, and Cornell do not release this statistic, the average years of work experience (pre-MBA) for these schools is in the range from 4.6 years (NYU & Booth) to 5 years (Wharton, Tuck, Haas, UT Austin, Fuqua).

And though the average years of work experience for Stanford’s Class of 2014 was at a 10-year-long high, the number fell slightly for the classes of 2015 and 2016, to 4 years. However, the school’s rage for years of work experience spans from 0 – 15 years.

The picture is somewhat different in Europe, where students typically have more years of work experience relative to students in U.S. based program. The average years of work experience at IMD is close to 7 years, 6 years average at Cambridge, 5.8 years average at HEC and Oxford, 5.6 years average at INSEAD and 5.5 years average at LBS.

Most schools do have some more experienced students in their MBA classrooms, including both MIT Sloan and Tuck, which include 37 year olds in their full-time classrooms. UCLA Anderson and Oxford Saïd range even higher, with some students in their 40s. However, the overall bell curve of distribution still centers around students in their mid to late 20s.

But admissions committees can recognize talent, and there’s still chances of admission for those more experienced applicants who can demonstrate why they need an MBA, have clear and realistic career goals, strong academics and test scores, a track record of accomplishments, and a strong fit with the institution.

So why do we see so few students in their 30’s in the full-time MBA classroom? Several factors driving this include self-selection, opportunity cost, and the desire for change. For those who are already successful in their careers, having already achieved upper levels of management with high salaries, and with a family, the opportunity cost of a full-time MBA can appear disruptive and unnecessary. Full time MBA programs actually see fewer applications from older applicants because this population is either choosing to forego and MBA, or opting for part-time or Executive MBA style programs. With a few exceptions (HBS, Stanford, and Tuck), all the top schools offer Executive MBA programs, and will often direct more “seasoned” (MBA speak for older) candidates applying to the full-time program towards the school’s EMBA option.

So what are full-time MBA program admissions officers really thinking about when considering the age and profile of applicants?

In particular, top US schools are primarily focused on young and smart candidates who can still be molded, and may be wary of more experienced candidates whose career progress has plateaued and who are hoping an MBA will get them on a stronger track. Older career switchers can also be worrisome when considering career placement, especially when it involves a career change, so admissions will evaluate how realistic are the applicants’ desired career plans. However, admissions committees do consider strong applicants in their 30s with a remarkable track record of success, and who contribute significantly to their organization or community. But the reality is we typically see that the most qualified full-time MBA candidates often apply early in their career, and there’s major competition between the best schools to woo the strongest applicants.

Some of the pressure on admissions committees stems from traditional feeder companies and hiring institutions. Many of the traditional feeder industries to b- schools, such as consulting and financial services, expect their employees to complete an initial two or three years of service before pursuing an MBA. Then at the recruitment level, these same companies have a preference for younger MBA graduates for entry-level post MBA positions that require long hours and/or travel. Though controversial, there might be a perception that more seasoned candidates, especially those with families, are looking for a more balanced work schedule.

Schools also attempt to put together an incoming class that works well together, with students who appreciate each other and can learn from each other and interact well together on teams. From experience, schools have seen that older candidates may have a hard time fitting in with a younger cohort. While there are exceptions, including younger students who find it challenging to integrate, we have seen that more mature students can struggle to fit in socially so fit is a critical element when it comes to age considerations.

And another factor that schools will avoid discussing publically focuses around MBA rankings. Since some rankings are based on post-MBA salary increases, older MBA applicants who already earn a good salary are less likely to see a large percentage increase in their post-MBA salary. However, the 27 year old who makes $60,000 prior to business school who gets hired for a $140,000 position at Bain or Morgan Stanley coming out of the MBA will improve the data provided by the school to The Financial Times and others.

With these factors in mind, what should you do as a 30+ applicant to help your chances of admissions?

First, start thinking about how you will justify your reason for applying now. You could have reasonable circumstances for why you’re applying now to a full-time MBA – such as completing a military tour of duty, already completing an advanced degree, a commitment to a start-up, etc. Some non-traditional tracks may also lead to candidates applying later than the average finance or consulting track candidate. And it’s not uncommon for some international candidates to be older because of the educational system in their home country and the age at which they graduated, or if they had to complete military service. Many MBA programs make exceptions for these, but you must make sure to communicate these in your application.

30+ applicants should be realistic about post-MBA job plans and be cognizant that they might have to start at a lower level, especially if they’re making a career shift, and they may not see an initial salary increase.

Make sure that your career goals are consistent with what’s realistic for an older student (i.e. don’t expect to work for McKinsey if you already have 10+ years of work experience). You don’t want the school to have any doubts about how you’ll impact the job placement stats. It’s important to have an articulate plan that is achievable given your profile, and leverages the additional experience you bring. The career vision is even more critical for older candidates, as the schools expect you to have an even more solid plan than younger candidates, and they’re looking for good reasons to believe that you won’t struggle with your job search.

You should also focus on how you can convey that you’ll be a good fit for the school’s student community. Emphasize your level of engagement in the community and commitment to a particular passion or hobby.

Come up with a reason that turns your extra years of experience into an advantage. Have a good reason for why now is the best time for you to apply, and the anticipated success and impact you’ll have with the MBA. Underline the value of your additional experience and deeper perspective that you will bring to the program.

Before applying make sure to talk to admissions representatives at the schools you’re considering to get feedback and make sure they will be a good fit. There are plenty of opportunities to attend information sessions for a range of MBA programs, including full-time and Executive MBA programs, so these can help you assess if one program would be a better fit over another.

But if you know it’s the full-time MBA experience you want, then go for it – just plan carefully, demonstrate fit, communicate growth, and let them know what you have to contribute.

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