Am I Too Old To Get An MBA?

If you look at the data regarding the Class of 2012 compiled from Business Week in the table at the end of this story, you’ll see the middle 80% range for the months of work experience for each school in the list. Most of the schools featured hit the top of their range at the sevenish-year mark. If we assume that people graduate at age 22, go right to work, and have no gaps in employment (I realize these assumptions aren’t foolproof), that would suggest that 90% of these schools’ students were under or just hovering around age 30. Take heart, however; the European schools, Yale, USC Marshall, UCLA Anderson, and MIT Sloan have inched further into 30+ territory.

So top full-time MBA programs don’t take lots of thirtysomethings, but I began to wonder if these older folks were applying at the same rates as they were accepted. For example, if 10% of applicants to a particular program were age 30 or older, were 10% of those accepted 30 or older? I’d hoped to answer this question when I decided to write this article, but I found it difficult to get a precise answer. According to Bruce DelMonico, Director of Admissions of the Yale School of Management, these proportions are “roughly equal,” and according to Darden’s Assistant Dean for MBA Admissions Sara Neher, the ratio is “about 1:1.”

HBS’s Admissions Director Dee Leopold addressed this question a bit more obliquely with, “It’s not as if we get this overwhelming avalanche of applications from this demographic.” Other schools were hesitant to talk about the age topic in detail or at all. Julie Strong, Senior Associate Director of Admissions at MIT Sloan, directed me to the school’s nondiscrimination policy, which, amongst other things, prohibits discrimination based on age. After a little more sleuthing on my part (read: googling), I discovered that the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 prohibits discrimination based on age in educational programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. I then realized that I wasn’t going to be able to get an exact answer.

Nonetheless, I found it quite puzzling that HBS’s rate of acceptance for applicants 30 or older for the Class of 2013 was 5% (using the assumption I made above), whereas Darden’s was 12% and Yale’s was 20%. Some of this may be due to self-perpetuating myths—HBS wants younger candidates, so older candidates choose not to apply; Yale is a kind of alternative, so they attract more outliers in terms of background and age. Or is Yale getting more higher quality older candidates than HBS? Probably not enough to explain the fourfold difference. It seemed to me that some schools must be making decisions about how many older candidates they really wanted to take.

I still wondered, though, if older candidates were evaluated differently from younger candidates in any way. Did the GMAT matter more than grades since applicants had completed the former more recently? Did the choice of a post-MBA goal matter more (e.g., did applicants want to go into an industry known to take younger candidates)? Did how they spent their many years of time prior to applying to B-school matter more? I posed these questions to a number of admissions directors, some of whom said they looked for the same attributes and characteristics in all candidates while others expected more from older candidates. Below are the main takeaways.

Why Now?

Whether they ask this question explicitly or not, most schools want to know why applicants are choosing to pursue an MBA at this point in time. For the thirtysomething candidate, this question can take on the flavor of “Why did it take you so long?”

One of the best reasons you can have is that you’ve been involved with the military for a number of years and your obligations have just ended. Pilots are a prime example. You’ve clearly been doing something meaningful with your time while also building formidable leadership skills and discipline. These candidates are highly sought after these days, with Leopold noting, “They bring a perspective that is highly valuable to our classroom. That [the military] is the most frequently mentioned background that students and faculty would like to see more people from.” Neher mentioned that management consulting firms love to hire folks from the military, and I’m sure the same can be said for investment banks.

If you’ve taken time to get an advanced degree (e.g., a PhD in biophysics or engineering, or an MD) and are at an inflection point in your career—perhaps wanting to manage people, or lead or found an organization—you also have a good excuse! And you’ve already demonstrated your academic mettle, so they can trust that you’ll like school and will throw yourself into it. Just make sure not to appear to be a degree collector who is otherwise avoiding reality.

There are fields in which it can take a number of years to establish expertise and move high up enough in the organization to realize you don’t want to be doing what your boss is doing. For example, maybe you’ve been running audits for many years at a top accounting firm and now you have to sell work. This turns out not to be what you imagined and you really want to change careers. Alternatively, it may take you some years to discover you’ve reached an upper limit at your job. This often happens for engineers, who may move up to lead large-scale engineering projects, but who realize that all the “interesting” decisions regarding strategy and resource allocation are taking place on the business side of the business, not the engineering side. In these cases, you have a solid reason to account for the time you’ve taken to apply.

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