ONE HURDLE: A PREFERENCE FOR YOUNGER GRADS BY MAINSTREAM MBA RECRUITERS
Traditional feeder industries to the MBA, such as consulting and financial services, often have expectations that you will complete an initial two or three year cycle in the industry before heading to business school. And at the recruitment level, these same firms prefer to hire younger MBA graduates. Their entry-level post MBA positions require long hours and/or travel so they are looking for candidates who can commit to this kind of schedule. Though contentious, there might be a perception that older candidates who are at a different stage in life (some have families) want a better work schedule.
Schools are also looking to build a class with a composition that works well – with students who will appreciate each other and will be able to learn from each other and work well together. Based on experience, schools are aware that older candidates may struggle to fit in with a younger crowd. Of course there are exceptions, including younger students who struggle to integrate, but schools sometimes see older MBA applicants showing less motivation for teamwork, where they are alongside younger and less experienced students, and also struggle to find their feet socially in their class cohort. So fit is an important factor when it comes to age considerations.
And perhaps the most cynical factor that no school will ever openly admit to has to do with MBA rankings. If you are an MBA applicant in your mid 30s who is already earning good money, it is unlikely that you will see a huge percentage increase in your post-MBA salary. However, the 26 year old earning $65,000 prior to business school who lands a $135,000 position at McKinsey or JP Morgan coming out of the MBA is going to boost the data that the school provides to the Financial Times and others.
HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR ODDS IF YOU’RE IN YOUR THIRTIES
Bearing these factors in mind, what can you do as of the older MBA applicants in order to improve your chances of admissions?
Think first about how you can justify applying now. There may be reasons why you are only now applying to a full-time MBA, for example additional time spent in education, completion of a military tour of duty, a career switch a couple years after undergrad, commitment to a start up, etc. Non-traditional tracks can also often lead to candidates applying later than the average finance or consulting track candidate. And some international candidates will be older because of the educational system in their home country and the age at which they emerged from undergrad, or compulsory military service. Schools make an allowance for this, but you need to make these circumstances clear to the business school in your application.
Older students should be realistic about post-MBA job plans. If you are older and are trying to enter a new field, be aware that you might have to start at a lower level and therefore may not see a salary hike.
Your career goals should be consistent with being an older student i.e. don’t say that you want to work for McKinsey if you already have 10 years work experience. You don’t want the school to have concerns about how you will look in the job placement stats. So make sure you have a clearly articulated plan that is achievable given your profile, and leverages the additional experience you bring. The career vision is even more important for older candidates: schools expect you to have a more concrete plan than younger candidates, and they are looking for reassurance that you aren’t going to struggle with your job search.
COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT IS A KEY FACTOR
You also want to think about how you can communicate that you are a good fit for the school’s student community. Point out your level of engagement in the community, networking activities and commitment to a particular interest or hobby.
Develop an argument that turns your extra years into a plus. Proactively address the point of why now is the right time for you to apply, and the success and impact you will have with the MBA to complement the rest of your experience. 20-somethings don’t have a monopoly on great ideas, on abundant energy, or the single-minded pursuit of greatness. In fact you can have all of the above and more – so emphasize the value of the additional experience and broader perspective that you bring to the MBA program.
And to help you find the right fit, speak to admissions representatives at the schools you are considering to get feedback before applying. There are plenty of opportunities to attend information sessions for the full-time and Executive MBA programs so candidates can assess if one program would be a better fit based on their background and experience.
But if it is the full-time MBA experience you want, then go for it – just be ready to plan carefully, demonstrate fit, show growth, and convey what you have to contribute.
Judith Silverman Hodara and Caroline Diarte Edwards, Co-Directors at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Directors of MBA Admissions at Wharton and INSEAD respectively. Fortuna is composed of former Directors and Associate Directors of Admissions at many of the world’s best business schools, including Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Chicago Booth, NYU Stern, IE Business School, Northwestern Kellogg, and UC Berkeley Haas.