Older MBA Applicant? Here Are Some Tips So That Your Age Doesn’t Hold You Back

Are you an older MBA applicant to a traditional full-time program? A number of clients and prospective clients we speak with each year are surprised to learn that they fall into this category and that their years of work experience can be a point of weakness in their application. Please don’t abandon your dreams of a full time MBA if you are an older MBA applicant, however, as there are things you can do to get the admissions committee comfortable with and excited about your robust experience.

What is an Older MBA Applicant Exactly?

If you look at the average years of work experience of incoming students at the top ranked programs, it sits squarely and consistently at five years. Those five years are upon matriculation, so, on average, students apply when they have four years of experience and are roughly 26 years old (if they entered the workforce right out of undergrad).

Clearly this is an average so there is a range, but it’s not as wide as you may think. HBS no longer publishes the dispersion of work experience within its classes, but when it last did, only 67 students or roughly 7% were 30 or older. Columbia Business School shares that the middle 80% of its class is between 25-31; if half of the remaining 20% is older than 31, that translates to about 80 students per class. Being older than average is not a deal killer, but it makes an incredibly competitive application process even more selective.

Age is not the only factor that determines whether the admissions committee will view you as an older MBA applicant, however. If you went straight into a master’s program out of undergrad, your age might not directly correlate to your years of work experience and the admissions committee will take this into consideration. An early career pivot (from, say, technical engineering to consulting) may have also led you to be on the older end, which is explainable. But that’s just it, they will expect you to explain it – don’t let them make assumptions for themselves.

What Concerns Admissions Committees About Older MBA Applicants?

Business schools’ concerns with older MBA applicants are two-fold (for the most part) – employability and your own satisfaction with the degree.

If you’ve been researching top MBA programs, you’ve likely come across the employment statistics and reports they publish each year. The percentage of students employed upon graduation is a hugely important metric for them. Major post-MBA employers come to campus expecting to speak with students at similar points in their careers and with similar expectations as to the level and compensation at which they will be hired. Business schools want to maximize the pool of students in this ‘sweet spot’ for employers to make it worth the employers’ while to come to campus for recruiting. This, in turn, helps maximize the proportion of students who are employed at graduation.     

As you can infer from the prior paragraph, top MBA programs consider employers to be one of their key ‘customers’. Solid employment statistics ensure the ongoing viability of their program. The other key ‘customer’ of top MBA programs is its alumni. Alumni engagement, satisfaction with their degree, and enthusiasm for donating to their alma mater is another thing that keeps MBA programs afloat.

Business schools know that alumni tend to be satisfied with their degree if they had a great, engaging experience on campus and perceive that they have realized an acceptable ROI in their tuition investment.  True or not, the perception is that late 20-somethings have fewer outside responsibilities and will therefore devote themselves more fully to the campus experience than older students.

So, You’re an Older MBA Applicant, What Should You Do?

The reason we share the concerns the admissions committee may have about older MBA applicants is because understanding these concerns can help these candidates strategize.

Convince Admissions Committees You’re as Employable (If Not More) Than Younger Applicants

To defray concerns about employability, it’s even more important than for younger candidates to have a concrete, tactical short-term MBA career goal (i.e., the job you will pursue after graduation). Further, your career goals should be fully vetted through research and live conversations with alumni who have followed your targeted path before you. In addition to ensuring that your target post-MBA job lines up with your expectations / desires, it’s important to understand whether it typically appeals to older MBAs. Some paths may not be a fit for those with young kids at home if they entail long hours and extended, frequent travel. It’s truly a matter of personal preference, but you want to be realistic and, perhaps, weave your research into an essay.

Even more importantly, use your ‘extra’ years of experience to your advantage! As you are likely aware, leadership experiences and career progression are of prime importance to admissions committees (because, to harp on this once more, strong leaders who have been promoted in the past tend to be easily employable). Make sure these qualities come across loud and clear in the ‘personal brand’ you portray in essays and interviews. Further, to revisit what we said earlier on, don’t hesitate to thoroughly explain your career path thus far – why you’ve made the moves you have and how these experiences have equipped you to achieve your goals.

Really Lean into Your ‘Why MBA’, Specifically ‘Why Full Time MBA’

In addition to making sure you are employed at graduation, MBA programs want to ensure you are successful throughout your career. They care about you, yes, but successful alumni who are leaders in their fields tend to be great guest speakers, adjunct professors, and mentors to current students. Show the admissions committee that you have a crystallized and aspirational vision of your future and, critically, how an MBA fits into it. This messaging is important for all applicants, of course, but it is even more crucial for older applicants who may have already achieved success without the degree.

In addition to really building out your ‘why MBA’ rationale, make sure to cover off on why you are choosing the full-time route and not, say, and executive MBA or evening/weekend program. EMBAs and part-time programs tend to appeal to older MBA applicants – we have even seen the question of ‘why not a part time program’ asked in admissions interviews for older full-time applicants. It’s on the admissions committee’s mind, so don’t leave them with a question about which option is better for you. Address it proactively and directly.

Another important part of your ‘why MBA’ story is helping the admissions committee envision you as a student in their next class. Show them you are excited to be involved in certain clubs and what role you will play in them (leadership positions, etc.). As past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, share how you have been involved outside of your day-to-day responsibilities in the past. Tie in these prior extracurriculars to ways you will be involved during business school. The key is to show that, even though you are a few years older, you will still have the wide-eyed enthusiasm for learning and engaging in the MBA experience as your younger peers.

If our advice for how to convince the admissions committee that your robust work experience will be an asset and not a hindrance seems nuanced, that’s because it is, quite honestly. The best way to ensure your messaging comes across is to have a few trusted colleagues, friends, or family members read your applications (without pre-prompting) and ask them for their honest assessment.

We can help too! We have loads of experience advising older MBA applicants and ensuring they set themselves up for success. Reach out to schedule a free consultation.




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