Average age of the class at HBS is 27 years. At Columbia, it’s 28. That’s usually the range for most U.S. B-schools: 27-28 years. Some schools, however, don’t provide average age of their class; instead they provide average work experience, which usually is 5 years (to name a few: Wharton, UCLA, and MIT – 5, Stern – 4.5, and Stanford, a relative outlier – 4). The average work experience too points toward a similar average age.
Though the average age of most programs is not too far from 30, B-schools do have some specific concerns about the candidature of applicants falling in 30+ age bracket, though very few air it openly. (There is nothing sacrosanct about 30; it’s just a metaphor for older applicants.)
One of the few voices have been that of Kevin Frey, Managing Director of Rotman’s full-time MBA program, who, referring to their internal study of more than 1,000 MBA graduates, considers older applicants (10+ years of work experience) to be an employability risk (more on it further down the post). If that’s the case, then it’s naïve to assume that other schools aren’t conscious of employability and other risks of older applicants, and are not using extra filters to evaluate such applicants.
So, if you are a 30+ applicant, your admission journey could be slightly tougher than, say, a 26-year-old applicant, and, therefore, you’ve to be more deliberate in your approach in allaying some of the obvious concerns of admission committees.
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This is the most important concern of admission committees when evaluating the application of an older applicant.
In an internal study, Rotman School of Management identified five warning signs for an MBA student to be an employment risk, with long work experience being the second most significant of them. Kevin Frey says:
It’s [employability of an older applicant] a big, big risk factor. That person is three times more likely to be unemployed post grad than our control group which had three to five years of work experience. It was highly predictive.
And, your post-MBA employability is indeed a factor that weighs on admission committees when going through piles of applications. Here is what Michigan Ross says about this criterion:
The Admissions Committee will review your resume, recommendation letter, and interview (if invited) to assess:
… your potential to succeed in your desired career path [emphasis added].
Why are older students such an employability risk?
They typically have 10+ years of work experience, and in their job search mostly look for roles that leverage their past experience. That’s not easy. Most on-campus jobs are tailored for a mainstream MBA student (4-6 years of work experience) which may not fit an older student in terms of responsibilities and compensation. So, unless the student is willing to compromise on his compensation and experience, and convince the recruiters about her/ his fit in a role meant for younger students, there will be fewer (that’s only relative) on-campus job opportunities for older students.
Therefore, they’ve to tailor (more than younger students) their job search through school’s Career Management Office, alumni network, and own network for a role commensurate to their profile. Because it’s a less-structured, more-selective process in comparison to on-campus recruiting, it may extend beyond graduation, which adversely affects school’s recruitment statistics, an important criterion in most B-school rankings. (This is not to say that older applicants don’t get good placements. They do. It’s just that their recruitment process can be longer and less structured.) For example, whereas U.S. News ranking considers employment statistics, both at graduation and three months after graduation, FT ranking considers employment statistics three months after graduation.
That’s not all, though. Compared to, say, a 26-year-old making a jump from USD 70,000 (pre-MBA) to USD 140,000 (post-MBA) in her/ his compensation on joining a management consulting firm, an older student, with few exceptions of course, doesn’t see such quantum jump, which may again adversely affect the B-school’s ranking points (FT, for example, considers increase in compensation as one of the factors in its ranking).
Recruitment statistics of MIT Sloan and Chicago Booth, for example, indicate that, on average, there isn’t much difference between compensations of younger and older students, which generally means less % increase for older students:
Source: Employment reports of MIT and Chicago Booth for the class of 2016
What do you do?
This is what Tuck advises to older or younger applicants:
Age is not a factor we consider during the admissions process. However, if you feel like you’re either quite a bit above or quite a bit below the average years of work experience, make sure you clearly articulate the quality of your experience, why an MBA is needed at this point in your career, and how you will contribute [emphasis added].
So, you should:
Articulate why you need a full-time MBA at this stage of your career. It’s natural for the admission committee to wonder why you want to pursue a full-time MBA when you are well entrenched, and already in the middle management, in your Company.
Articulate your post-MBA career plans well. By outlining a clear post-MBA plan (preferably one which builds upon your past work experience and can be credibly achieved), you need to allay the fears of admission committee that you won’t become a liability on employment front. And if your plan is predominantly independent of on-campus recruiting (for example, if you plan to join family business, your pre-MBA employer, or make use of your network in your current industry), then say so strongly in your essays. It’s a clincher.
You need to be thoughtful in articulating your career goals, though. Some industries such as investment banking and consulting are perceived to be more suited for younger graduates because of long working hours and frequent travel. There are, of course, exceptions wherein 35+ year-olds make it to top companies in these industries, but they are exceptions. Articulating a career path in such industries even if you may find some connect with your current work, may leave an element of doubt, to say the least, in the mind of admission committee, something that you won’t want to do.
The admission committee, besides your post-MBA employability, may also be wary of your academic rustiness as your last degree program might be too distant in the past.
What do you do?
Try to reach the average test score of your target schools.
If your work involves or has involved quant work, mention it.
Fit with the school
Again, there is a general impression that older candidates find it harder to amalgamate socially with their younger classmates and, having already worked in leadership roles, are less motivated to participate in activities involving teamwork.
Wharton, for example, says:
We find that candidates with less years of work experience are better positioned to contribute and engage more in the Wharton community.
What do you do?
Show your enthusiasm to participate in on- and off-campus activities, preferably corroborating it by examples from your workplace and community where you were socially active.
Articulate how you can enhance the classroom experience through peer-to-peer learning, an important aspect of any MBA program, by leveraging your longer work experience. You certainly have more to offer here.
Here is an example of an applicant to Canadian programs who faced two uphill tasks, one of them being high age.
You face greater odds than a younger applicant, but these odds are not insurmountable. You need to be more thoughtful and intentional in your essays and recommendations articulating a credible, achievable post-MBA career path and the need of an MBA at this stage of your career.
As an option, provided they fit your criteria of shortlisting schools, you may pick few European schools such as IMD (average age: 31), HEC Paris (average age: 30), and INSEAD (average age: 29) where the average age of incoming class is relatively higher.
If you are a 30+ year-old applicant and want to pursue a full-time MBA, go for it. Don’t listen to naysayers. UCLA even has a 40-year-old in its class.