Am I Too Old To Get An MBA?

On a related topic, on a few occasions I’ve been contacted by older applicants from outside the U.S. who have gotten an MBA at a less competitive school in their country, and who want to get a U.S. MBA to get the brand and access to the network. While this desire is understandable, this can be a hard sell. You need to demonstrate that there are things you absolutely need to learn to achieve your career goals that your current MBA does not provide and that your target school will. For instance, perhaps your previous program didn’t provide any experiential leadership training and you want to be managing a large organization, or maybe you’ve moved into the sustainability domain and need specialized coursework in this area. I advise checking with your target schools about this before applying.

While Saif has moved up quickly in his firm, having held numerous leadership positions, his understanding of management is largely self-taught. (You should see his library of business books, including some heavy-duty economics tomes that he reads for fun. . .) He has an immense amount to gain by being in a structured, integrated MBA program, and as such, he isn’t overqualified in my opinion.

Should I Apply at This Point or Am I over the Hill?

Taking all of the above into account (and taking a “better safe than sorry” approach), this is what I suggest:

  • First and foremost, make sure you’re very competitive. Are your GPA and GMAT falling within the 80% range for your target schools? If not, build an alternative transcript. You might even consider doing this if your GPA and GMAT are much below average. Do you have a track record of increasing work responsibility, evidence of impact on your organization, and a way to articulate what you have learned and how you have grown over the years since college graduation? Can you also provide evidence of leadership and contribution outside work? If not, you might want to look at less competitive programs, particularly part-time MBA options. And are you part of an over-represented group (see “Indian and Chinese MBA Applicants Face HIgher Rejection“)? If so, you already have a huge strike against you and your chances are microscopically slim.
  • If you’re looking to switch careers, do your research and find out if making the move to your new career of choice is likely. Talk to firms with whom you’d like to work and cultivate relationships with people who would be in a position to hire you.
  • Prepare the best application possible, which includes being very clear about your goals, your need for an MBA (beyond brand and network), and your fit with and likely contribution to each program in question. And apply first round rather than second or third round, before the class has already filled up with older applicants.
  • Consider applying to at least a few schools that have a higher average age, assuming you’d be happy to attend their program. If your post-MBA career is likely to be very global in nature, take a look at some of the European schools, which appear to be “maturity friendly” based on the average age of 29 for their incoming students. Oxford Saïd, for example, values substantial work experience, a high level of maturity, and evidence of leadership (vs. “leadership potential,” which some stateside schools consider sufficient).
  • Don’t completely reject the part-time and EMBA options, especially if you need the skills more than the brand and the network. (This is probably most true for people staying in their existing firms or industries, or for entrepreneurs.) While these paths may take longer, you won’t have the opportunity cost of missing two years of income, you’ll learn virtually the same material, and you won’t have some smart-alecky 24-year-old telling you where you’re wrong.

Saif received interview invitations from all four of the programs to which he applied. This proved to us that he was a viable candidate. I’m happy to report that he got offers from Stanford, HBS, and Wharton. Overall, it looks like he pulled the bell curve a little bit in the other direction.

*Saif is a pseudonym for my client, who wanted to maintain his anonymity.

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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