Twenty-somethings don’t have a monopoly on talent, energy or the audacious pursuit of world-changing excellence. But to scan the class profiles at the world’s leading full-time MBA programs, you’d think they have a monopoly on business school.
The average ages of this year’s incoming students at Stanford GSB and HBS are 26 and 27 respectively – the lowest among the US M7, where 28 remains the norm for Wharton, Columbia, Chicago Booth, Kellogg and MIT Sloan. European schools tend to skew a bit older, with an average age of 29 at top programs like LBS and INSEAD. Switzerland’s IMD and France’s HEC Paris are the only top 20 schools with an average age of 30 or more.
At a glance, 27-to-28 looks like the sweet spot in terms of MBA eligibility, which can feel disheartening if you’re over 30. But talent is talent, and older applicants who can make a powerful case for why the MBA and why now – along with a well-reasoned and compelling career vision, competitive quants, an impressive track record and a clear sense of fit with the school – are still very much in the running. And if that’s you, then it’s possible you’re better-positioned than the 20-something wunderkind.
“You’re never too old,” declared NYU Stern Associate Dean of MBA Admissions and Program Innovation, Isser Gallogly, during a panel discussion at last year’s CentreCourt MBA Festival in New York City. “It comes down to work experience, it depends on what your background is and what your goals are.”
“In this year’s class one of our members who is 34/35 just got an offer from McKinsey, so it can happen,” said Cambridge Judge head of MBA Admissions, Conrad Chua, at CentreCourt London in 2017. “We’re looking at whether you have a clear idea of what you want to get out of an MBA. So for those candidates in that range, a lot of them want to make a career transition – maybe start a new company, for example – but what we really want to see is that you understand that you’re coming back to a classroom. You might know some of the stuff, but you’re also willing to learn, and willing to share, and willing to be in a group where there’s people seven-to-10 years younger than you. How are you going to react in that situation?”
Gallogly and Chua affirm why it’s important not to listen to the naysayers, nor succumb to the tyranny of the ‘incoming class profile.’ Just like those eye-popping average GMAT scores, average age is just one data point in your overall profile. It doesn’t measure your motivation or determination to enter or transform your chosen field. But it’s also good information, because the average gives you a gage to the competitiveness of your profile. This is where it’s about making your uniqueness and difference as an older candidate work to your advantage.
Here are six ways to improve your chances of admission if you’re a 30-something MBA candidate:
- Convey compelling, logical and age-relevant career goals. Your career vision should be consistent with being an older student. Meaning, don’t aspire to being a junior analyst at an investment bank when you already have a decade of work experience – you don’t want to give the school concerns about how you’ll look in the job placement stats. This means clearly articulating a plan that’s logical and achievable given your profile, and that leverages the additional experience you bring. Your career vision is even more important if you’re older – programs want assurance you won’t struggle with your job search and expect a more concrete plan than younger applicants.
- Show you’re realistic about post-MBA job plans. If you’re older and trying to enter a new field, be aware that you may have to start at a lower level and may not see a significant salary boost. Moreover, you need to demonstrate how your work experience will translate into your intended field after graduation. While your ambitions may evolve during your program, it also needs to make sense given your trajectory at application time. As NYU Stern’s Gallogly quipped, “I use the grandma test: If you can sit down and explain why you want to go to business school to your grandma and she says ‘good’, then probably it will make sense.”
- Justify your timing. Whether you spent additional time in education, fulfilled a military commitment, made a career switch shortly after undergrad or committed to a start-up, there may be logical reasons why you’re only now applying to a full-time MBA. Some international candidates will be older because of the educational system in their native country or a compulsory military service. Programs do make allowances for these and other reasons, but you need to illuminate the circumstances in your application. Any absence of clarity will lead the admission committees to make their own assumptions.
- Underscore your fit with the student community. While communicating your excellent fit for a school’s culture and community is key for all applicants, it’s especially true if you’re older than the norm. Point out your level of engagement in the community, any networking activities you’ve participated in and relationships cultivated, and communicate your shared commitment to a school’s values and ideals.
- Frame your extra years as a plus. Emphasize the value of the broader perspective, additional experience and greater self-awareness that you bring to the MBA program. Proactively address the point of why now is the best time for you to apply, and the positive impact and success you will have with the MBA to complement the rest of your experience.
- Solicit feedback from admissions representatives. Before you apply, consider speaking to admissions representatives at your target schools to give you a stronger sense of fit and perspective to inform your application. There are ample opportunities to attend information sessions that allow you to assess if one program would be a better fit than another based on your experience and background.
If it’s the full-time MBA experience you want, then go for it – just be prepared to plan carefully, show growth, demonstrate fit, and articulate what you will contribute to the classroom and community.
When I first published on this topic with my Fortuna Admissions colleague Caroline Diarte Edwards, we delved into the reasons those admissions numbers favor the young (Getting Into B-School When You’re 30+). What we heard from readers further affirmed that older candidates shouldn’t rule themselves out just because of age.
“It’s actually a great time in my career & life to do an MBA,” commented a 34-year-old white male with a finance background, who won admission to an M7 School. “I know what I want and why the MBA will help me, all my experience has been international which will add value to my classmates, and I can actually fully pay for my MBA without debt… so my post MBA decisions will not be driven entirely by immediate debt repayment obligations.”
From my experience as Wharton’s head of admissions, I can tell you that applicants in their 30’s with an impressive roster of achievements, and who make a difference to their community or organization, will always be taken seriously. But it’s also true that many of the best candidates are applying early in their career, when the perception is they can still be molded, and competition between top schools to woo them is fierce. You challenge – and opportunity – is to allow awareness of this and other dynamics at play to make your application stronger and more convincing.
To end with encouragement from the admissions office, we circle back to NYU Stern’s Gallogly.
“For us, we’re really looking for this extra talent. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with business, you don’t necessarily have to have X number of years of work experience,” says Gallogly. “We’re about people who we see as smart and capable of leading heavy change. That can come from anywhere.”
Judith is a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former head of MBA Admissions at Wharton. Fortuna Admissions is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 12 of the top 15 business schools.
More from Judith: Should Women Apply for the MBA Differently than Men? , The ‘Introduce Yourself’ MBA Essay, Top Tips for MBA Recommendations: How Much Does Prestige Matter?, Wharton Team-Based Discussions – What To Expect And How To Prepare, Smart Guidance For Round Two Applicants