Am I Too Old To Get An MBA?

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by Deborah Knox on

You’ve never felt better in your life. You just ran your fourth marathon, ranking in the top 20% of finishers. You’ve totally hit your groove at work, taking names, taking lunches, and taking home a nice bonus, despite the economic downturn. At thirtysomething, you’re accomplished, confident, seasoned, and ready for your next step: getting a full-time MBA at a top program.

After beginning to research schools, however, you get the niggling feeling that you might be in a dead zone, being a bit too old for full-time MBA programs and a bit too young for Executive MBA programs. If you were to examine the distribution by year of college graduation for HBS’s Class of 2013, for example, you might have ample cause for discouragement.

Source: “More About the Class of 2013” “From the Director” blog, June 21, 2011.

For simplicity’s sake, if we assume students graduate at age 22, those who graduated in 2003 or earlier would be 30 or older. This is merely 5% of the entire class, or 47 out of 916 students. MBA candidates 32 or older represent 1.3% of the class. Thirtysomethings represented just under 2% of the class of 2012 and just under 3% of the Class of 2010. It’s data such as this that initially disheartened my client Saif*, who’d turned 31 when I began to work with him in July this year.

“Like everyone else, when you start thinking about applying for an MBA, you worry about the usual things: GMAT, recommendations, essays, interviews. However, when I was researching schools, I discovered another worry—my age. While I wasn’t much older than average, I learned that only a few candidates get accepted after they’ve passed 30.”

Given Saif’s goals, getting a full-time MBA from a top school was critical, so he decided to apply to four of the most competitive programs. (We will revisit his candidacy.)

So Is My Age a Problem or Not?

While the word on the street regarding older applicants’ chances of admission tends to be grim, if you look at the data, it’s clear that top schools are accepting candidates who are well into their 30s. Someone in UCLA Anderson’s Class of 2013 is even the ripe old age of 42, and MIT Sloan accepted a 60-year-old into their master’s in finance program this year.

What’s harder to determine at first glance is how many of them. HBS is possibly the only school that makes a histogram available from which we can come up with an age distribution. If you apply some of those great skills you’ve developed from preparing for the GMAT, you’ll notice that the average ages in the table below are closer to the lower end of the schools’ age ranges. We might then surmise that the age distribution skews more toward the younger end of the spectrum than the older one.


Deborah Knox is founder and CEO of Insight Admissions. While she works extensively with traditional MBA applicants, she loves the challenge of assisting qualified nontraditional candidates. Devoted to the study of leadership excellence, Deborah has also served as a researcher and editor on numerous book projects for best-selling management author Jim Collins.

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  • Reaver

    Some years ago, at least in Europe where obtaining a master’s degree is no big achievement, people who enrolled to MBA:
    – had a couple years of expierience, and more 8 years than 2
    – already went up the ladder more than once, or moved their business past the start-up phase

    Now MBA is marketed as a place where you can meet professionals from various fields, establish valuable networks of contacts and acquire business knowledge that you could leveraged in moving into more senior positions or changing industry, fair enough.

    But tell me how 27 year old, who’s been in his career for 4-5 years is going to give me his perspective on business strategy based on his very limited operational expierience? Networking? Are you joking, their network is usually at similar (low) level of professional seniority so we are talking here about guys that are despreate to move as fast as possible from senior analyst to project manager.
    As for cases ask yourself if business case based on facebook that was presented to plethora of other students prior to you is going to be an eye opener?
    Textbook knowledge and frameworks? Today everything is online, so it’s up to you to decide whether dwelling on Mr. Porter’s 5 forces (who btw. went bankrupt) for hours in class, instead of reading about it on wikipedia, is an advantage.

  • Reaver

    I’ve been gradually coming to the very same conclusion, but you’ve articulated it all perfectly.

    There is a huge confusion around how/why b-school is relevant to entrepreneurship. It’s not, deans want students to think that way and students are confused cause the label says ‘business’ school so theoretically it should equip them with some magical skills that will enable them to setup on their own and make millions upon graduation.
    What b-school really can do is to make someone entrepreneurial in a corporate environment, but it won’t make anyone an entrepreneur. So you will be skilled at administering something that was already built, that’s relatively safe. You will be good at organizing your work and referring to the frameworks from textbooks and case studies, but that’s really it. It’s an inconvinient truth and they won’t say it loud.

    I’d say that if you want to start your own gig:
    – be afraid of time
    – believe that you can influence the reality
    – forget about the diploma

  • Deborah

    Is 48 too old to get into a MBA program? Would it be worth it?

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  • hernan cortez

    I know its been a while but as an objective stranger with a business background, I find your “why do I want an mba” reasoning to be dishonest or poorly thoughtout. I suspect you were rejected due to this reasoning.

    Why do you need an mba to do something entrepreneurial. With the experiences you described having you have more than enough to go out and start your own business. Given that you’ve worked at such reputable companies before, why do you need to go to hbs to network? And if you did not learn business development skills and capital market skills when working in your healthcare company and VC you aren’t going to learn it in Harvard. Didn’t you already work in several startups. You had a major position as a director, why did you leave it, you are already earnng more than any hbs school grad.

    You failed to relate how b-school would help your career. And your career is inconsistent, you are all over the place. No one knows what you are going to do if you get in.

    Entrepreneurs don’t need mba’s, not when they been working for 9 years, they should be smart enough to figure out how to raise the capital on their own. HBS can do nothing for you. You are wasting your time trying to get in. This is why I say you are either a poor communicator, or being dishonest. Your stated objectives don’t align with what you are clearly trying to do.

    Your first step is to honestly state what you realy want, then maybe I can help you. Look at the people on shark tank, a bunch of entrepreneurs who became millionaires with networths in the hundreds of millions, NONE went to HBS or the major b-schools. You don’t need B-school to be an entrepreneur. In fact the leading research from the top b-schools (i know, i went to one) demonstrates that b-school grads from the elite institutions make the WORSE entrepreneurs.

    This is because the smarter you are and the more you know, the more likely you are to come up with reasons why what you are thinking of doing will never work. No disciplined investor would ever look at a company like Pogs or Pokemon, basically a picture of an animal on a piece of paper and think this is going to make billions. You’d be laughed out the room.

    You want proof of that look at what the elite b-schools grads did to the LBO industry. A trial of destroyed businesses so long that they don’t even call it LBO any more they call it “private equity” because LBO became a dirty word. another good example would be downsizing or offshoring. etc. B-school grads make poor enterpreneurs. We look how to squeeze out efficiencies of companies someone else largely built who never went to a b-school. Usually destroying the company in the long run.

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