It’s a difficult question: for most people, a true “career” only starts around 30, after several years of education and learning the ropes in low-level positions. However, given the competitive nature and rates of top MBAs, and the limited amount of spots available for applicants, the over 30 MBA applicants can be somewhat of an anomaly. There are even programs emerging that make B-schools even younger: Stanford GSB launched a Future Leaders Program for college students, while other top schools are admitting undergraduates through deferred admissions programs.
The trend, however, actually goes in both directions. Schools are beginning to tap into the market of over MBAs for several reasons: class diversity chief among them. As the number of B-school applicants stagnates, expanding student age ranges is also a good business decision. The average MBA applicant’s work experience ranges from 4 years at Stanford GSB to 5.5 at Wharton, meaning added experience can easily be leveraged as a strength rather than a weakness, even if the average age for top business school applicants hovers around 28. Notably, Harvard had 10% of MBA students with 7 or more years of work experience, while Columbia and UCLA Anderson both accepted students in their 40s (!!) in recent years. In fact, all top U.S. business schools have students with 10+ years of experience, and European schools tend even older than that.
So why are there comparatively few older MBA students? Well, for one thing – not as many are applying. Older applicants have careers, responsibilities and families, and the economy is good, so there’s an opportunity cost in terms of lost wages during a two year MBA. Considering 32 year olds earn more on average than 24 year olds, the MBA proposition is far riskier for older applicants. Further, while MBAs accept older students, not all companies are hiring them – particularly in coveted fields like strategy consulting, investment banking and private equity, where top firms want analysts in their late 20s to keep salaries down and productivity up (none of those pesky families!). Furthermore, schools are seeking to game media rankings, which emphasize salary increases. So if you’re already earning 90K$+, you’d drag that average increase down, not something schools are seeking.
Do You Need An MBA?
Ask yourself some questions: Are your career goals defined, and do they require an MBA? Are you willing to go back into the “student” mode to get in? Including passing the GMAT and writing MBA applications? Does your career to date showcase your abilities? Do you have a target school? If you answer these answers honestly and believe an MBA is best for you – go for it! Then, when it comes to applying, lean on your strengths, the advantages you have as an older applicant, from your professional track record and achievements to the stories you can use when applying to schools.
This last point is particularly important for framing the narrative around your application: you want to be seen as the applicant who was so hungry to get into business that they skipped the MBA for the first part of their career, not the person who waited too long. You’ll also want to showcase stories that emphasize your flexibility, as schools want to “mold” their MBA students without facing resistance. This goes double for showcasing your ability to change roles and not be “stuck in your ways.”
Is an MBA worth it, financially speaking?
Most obviously, you’ll have to consider whether taking two years off to study, all while paying for enrolment, makes sense. Potential applicants with families or caretaker responsibilities will want to pay particular attention to this point. Furthermore, depending on your existing salary, would an MBA mean an increase? Career-switchers moving to new fields in particular, can even face the dreaded salary decrease if they begin in introductory positions, and it may take several years to recover. For many applicants, that’s a deal-breaker. On the other hand, if you’re pursuing an MBA with the blessing of your current employer and plan to return to accept a promotion, then an MBA may be an extremely attractive proposition. It really depends on the individual applicant, their goals, their financial situation and what they hope to get out of this advanced degree.
So if you’re over 30 and have a clear plan of action for your MBA and your post-graduation career, there’s no reason not to apply: crunch those numbers, work out that life plan and take the plunge. You’ll have lots to contribute in class and will bring a new perspective to a classroom that’s increasingly valuing diverse points of view. Contrary to the saying, the early bird isn’t the only one who gets the worm.