Why are the world’s leading full-time MBA programs so focused on 20-somethings? After all, you’re never too old to learn, and for every youthful founder of Facebook, Instagram or Spotify there are thousands of others whose business success has arrived much later in their career.
A scan of the class profiles at the world’s top full-time MBA programs paints the picture. The average age of this year’s incoming students at Harvard is 27, while at Chicago Booth, MIT Sloan, Kellogg, Columbia, Tuck, Haas, Michigan and UT Austin the average is 28. While Wharton, NYU Stern and Cornell do not release an official figure, the average years of pre-MBA work experience at these schools ranges from 4.6 years (NYU) to 5.5 years (Wharton).
And though the average years of work experience for Stanford’s Class of 2014 was at a decade-long high, the figure fell slightly for the Class of 2015, to 4 years.
EUROPEAN BUSINESS SCHOOLS PREFER SLIGHTLY OLDER MBA APPLICANTS
In Europe the picture is only slightly different, with an average age of 28.6 at London Business School, and close to six years of work experience on average at INSEAD. France’s HEC Paris and Switzerland’s IMD are the only top 20 schools with an average age of 30 or more.
Pretty much every school can point to more mature students in the MBA classroom. While the age range at MIT Sloan and Tuck includes 37 year olds, and UCLA Anderson and Oxford Saïd both have students in their 40s, the bell curve of distribution clearly centers around students in their mid to late 20s: 80% of the class at Columbia for example are in a range from 25 to 30.
But talent is talent, and older MBA applicants who can make a great case for why they need the MBA, have well-defined and realistic career goals, with competitive grades and test scores, a track record of achievement and a clear sense of fit with the institution are still in with a chance of admission.
OPPORTUNITY COSTS ARE ONE REASON FOR THE PAUCITY OF 30-SOMETHINGS
So why so few 30 –somethings in the full-time MBA classroom? Part of the reason lies in self-selection, opportunity cost, and the need for change. If you are doing well in your career and already reaching upper levels of management with a commensurate salary and a settled family life, the opportunity cost of a full-time MBA can look very different, if not downright disruptive. In reality, full time MBA programs see relatively fewer applications from older applicants because this population is either opting out, or choosing part-time EMBA type programs. With the exception of HBS, Stanford, and Tuck, all the top schools have an Executive MBA, and will often point more “seasoned” (MBA parlance for older) candidates applying to the full-time program in the direction of the school’s EMBA option.
But when we agreed with John to write these mythbusters for Poets&Quants the idea was to share the Fortuna team’s inside experience of life in the admissions office at Wharton, INSEAD, Booth, LBS, Haas, Kellogg, NYU Stern and other top schools. So what is really going through the minds of admissions officers for full-time MBA programs when considering the age and experience of applicants?
Applicants in their 30’s with an impressive list of achievements to their name, and who make a difference to their organization or community will always be considered. But we typically see that the best candidates often apply early in their career, and there is hot competition between top schools to woo them. Top US schools in particular are looking for young and bright candidates who can still be molded, and may steer away from older candidates whose careers may have stalled and who want an MBA to get them on a stronger track. Career switchers are also tricky; the career management offices need to be certain that they can help the thirty-something change their path; and with 10 plus years in one field, this is not always easy to achieve.