Why Older MBA Applicants Need To Be Wiser

March 17, 2016 | by Matt Symonds

Matt Symonds is a Director of Fortuna Admissions and regular contributor to Forbes. The following is adapted from his original article posted March 8, 2016.

Can you still secure a place in one of the world’s best full-time MBAs when you are over 30? It is true that the top business schools focus on 20-somethings. But the fact that you are likely to have more professional years on your resume can be leveraged as a strength, not a weakness.

Though 28 seems to be the sweet spot across the top 20 US schools, all of them have students with more than 10 years or more of experience. In Europe the profile of MBA students trends a little older.

One of the reasons that there are fewer full-time MBA students over 30 is that simply they are not applying. This is partly explained by the opportunity cost of full-time study, which is typically higher for older candidates.

And if you are hoping to make a career switch, the reality is that McKinsey and Goldman Sachs are looking to recruit associates and analysts in their late 20s to keep salary costs down, work them tirelessly without family constraints, and maintain an unspoken age hierarchy in the firm. Business schools cater to what employers want.

However, nobody gets into business school if they don’t apply, and if you are clear about what you are looking to get out of the business school experience, then keep reading.

Why do I need an MBA?
Regardless of age and/or work experience, an applicant must honestly consider and truthfully answer, “Why do I need an MBA?”

As a base line, you must have:
1. Career goals that are well defined and realistic
2. Competitive grades and test scores
3. A record of achievement and relevant accomplishments
4. A clear sense of intellectual and social fit with your target school

Walk in the shoes of the Admissions Officers
It helps to know what is going through the minds of admission officers when they are considering a 30-somethings application for a full-time MBA program. Based on the Fortuna team’s experience as gatekeepers at the world’s top business schools, we can share the following insights:

Upsides For You
• You’ve had time to develop a track record of positive achievements in your work and extra-curriculars.
• You have some great stories to tell about your impressive accomplishments and how these are indicative of your personal motivation for success.

Downsides For You
• Business schools know from experience that many strong candidates usually apply early in their career, i.e. in their twenties. Competition between schools for bright young talent is fierce.
• It is widely felt that young, energized, and highly motivated candidates can still be trained, molded, and made to conform. On the other hand, an older candidate may be more set in their ways and not be as open to new ideas.
• Admissions officers are not the only ones who know that career changes can be difficult. It is your responsibility to convince them otherwise.

At The MBA Recruitment Level
If you have had some workplace experience, the results in the eyes of job recruiters can be twofold:
• You will gain real, on-the-job experience. “This is what it’s like,” they want you to know. “If you can’t take it, better get out now.”
• “We have now had the opportunity to observe your work from a practical point of view. Frankly, you do not fit into our working model. We advise you to consider other avenues.”

Recruiters know that an entry-level, post-MBA job requires tremendous energy, motivation, and sacrifice. Can an older candidate deal with this?

Further, teamwork and “fit” are essential ‘givens’ in most industries. Recruiters want to encourage this by cultivating an atmosphere where students with similar attributes and goals will recognize and feed on the talents of others, ultimately learning to work well together on a level playing field. Age differences can create cultural differences.

As a mid-30s MBA candidate, you might already be earning pretty good money. It is possible that your post-MBA salary will take you down a notch or two before/if you see any substantial increase.

Biz Ed Alternatives
As a 30-something you must also consider how well you are doing in your current career. Have you already reached satisfying upper levels of management goals with a salary to match? Do you have a family life that would be disrupted by you going back to school? The answers to these questions can greatly affect the opportunity cost of a full-time MBA.

Given such considerations, some 30-somethings are staying the course or taking advantage of part-time Executive MBA (EMBA) programs. With some exceptions, including Harvard, most top schools have an EMBA program and often encourage older candidates to consider an EMBA program where the pressures are not as demanding.

Improving Your Chances
Many MBA programs will look at over-30 applications and make exceptions for timing issues such as completing a military tour of duty or a start-up commitment, but you must make sure to communicate these in your application.
The bottom line is that you as a 30-something must take everything about you and turn it all into a huge positive. More so than younger candidates, you must have a solid plan, concrete ideas, and be able shine a bright light on the fact that you would be a valuable asset because of your experience and knowledge.

30+ applicants should be realistic about post-MBA job plans and be cognizant that they might have to start at a lower level. Career vision is even more critical for older candidates, as the schools are 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. Talk to admissions representatives and attend information sessions for both full-time and EMBA programs. Come up with a reason that turns your extra years of experience into an advantage.

You have chosen to become a 30-something MBA Candidate, and must know what you’re up against. The tools and advice you’ll need are all out there and available to you. Get them and use them.

Sign up for a