Hi there! I’m glad you’re here. I assume that you’ve been think about your career lately – maybe you’re wondering where it’s headed. An MBA might seem like a good next step – and it could very well be! Since you likely got here by googling something like ‘Am I too old for an MBA?‘, I take it that you have at least six years of work experience and that you may have ten, fifteen or even twenty years under your belt.

I Overview

Question: Am I too old for a full-time MBA program?
Short Answer: Probably. (Don’t leave yet!)

While you might be too old (or have too much work experience) for a traditional, full-time, 2-year MBA program, there are other programs that may be a better fit (a part-time MBA, an Executive MBA or a 1-year, full-time MBA for mid-career professionals). There’s also the (very strong) possibility that you don’t need an MBA at all to reach your short and long-term goals. A lot of the time when people in their 30’s and 40’s start seriously considering an MBA, it’s because they’ve hit a career plateau. Getting off the plateau and on to the next hill is all about marketing yourself on ‘paper’ (resume, LinkedIn) and in person (interviewing well). An MBA can be a great option (I’ve got one myself so I don’t want to undermine the value of the degree) BUT….an MBA is also just one extra line on your resume. If the rest of your resume needs work or your ‘story’ needs structure then (MBA or no MBA) you’ll need to address those issues before you’ll get any leverage in the job market.

Keep reading this article if you’d like to understand why traditional 2-year MBA programs prefer candidates with 2-7 years of work experience and/or consider reading one of the following articles at mbaSTORY.builders

Whether you’re focused on advancing professionally or gaining admissions to a top MBA/EMBA program (or both), it all boils down to honing your professional story and conveying it to others. Reach out for a free consultation if you’d like to discuss your profile or have specific questions about MBA Admissions Consulting Services or Career Services (see our sister website resumeSTORY.builders).

II Variable Work Experience

Why traditional, full-time MBA programs are for people with 2-7 years of work experience

There are two sorts of MBA programs: 1) traditional, full-time MBA programs, 2) part-time MBA programs, and Executive MBA programs. If you have 6-7 years of work experience, you’re borderline too experienced for a traditional full-time MBA program. If you have eight or more years of work experience, you’re already too experienced.

So what are your options? Don’t worry; you have options – more options than you might have imagined. You can do a part-time MBA, an Executive MBA, or a full-time MBA for mid-career professionals – all at top business schools. You could also advance your career without an MBA. In the next section, I’ll explain why, if you have 8+ years of work experience, the value you’ll derive from a part-time or Executive MBA program is the same value you would have derived from a traditional, full-time MBA program.

Full-time MBA programs cater to what the employers (who pay to recruit at MBA programs) want.

From the business school’s perspective, the ideal MBA applicant falls within employers’ target work experience range (2-7 years) and is likely to receive a full-time offer within three months of graduating (probably thanks to on-campus recruiting).

Business schools must cater to the employers who hire MBAs on campus. These employers are usually looking for generalists to fill associate-type roles, and (no surprise) they tend to hire less experienced people for these roles.

Business schools must also cater to rankings (such as the US New MBA rankings). One variable US News looks at is the percentage of MBA students who are employed within three months of graduation. Another variable is how much money former MBA students are now earning.

 after leaving school + salaries).

Those variables (employer needs and post-MBA employment numbers) explain why too much work experience can be an Achilles heel for older MBA applicants. Suppose the admissions committee admits a more experienced candidate. In that case, the business school annoys on-campus recruiters by reducing the pool of candidates. Also, the school jeopardizes its ranking if the more experienced admit does not find a job right away or decides to co-found a startup and doesn’t have a salary. 

This brings up an important point: even if someone with 8+ years of work experience is offered admission at a traditional MBA program, she will benefit from a different recruiting opportunity than her less experienced classmates. As they say in Spanish, “La Leah es diablo por vieja,”…and I’ve been doing this long enough to know what you’re thinking 🙂 When you started mulling over the idea of completing a traditional, full-time MBA program, you were envisioning access to recruiting at top-notch organizations. You may have had thoughts of accelerating your career or reinventing it completely. Once that possibility is off the table, a lot of the value of a traditional, full-time MBA melts away.

It’s normal to feel you’ve hit a professional plateau sometime in your late 20s and early 40s. What to do about it is a holistic conversation, one that’s specific to the individual, her background, and future goals. 

Consider the following:

  • Perhaps you have a ‘marketing’ issue rather than a genuine need for an MBA. Beyond the recruiting opportunities, generally, when people think about a traditional, full-time MBA, they assume the degree will confer a certain amount of ‘polish’ and ‘prestige’ on them, providing professional opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. Because they genuinely believe this, in my experience people won’t even bother going after their dream job because they’ve already determined that without an MBA it is near impossible. What trips people up is this attitude of defeatism coupled with ‘magical thinking’, which overestimates the importance of an MBA. If you’re looking to transition your job or career path, you need to craft a compelling story for it. That means you need a resume capable of selling you – not for the job you have now, but for the job you want. The polish you need can be obtained by a) identifying the right roles to target, b) crafting an impressive professional narrative through your resume, cover letter and interviewing skills.
  • Don’t get me wrong – I think that, in many cases, an MBA is perfectly appropriate and can boost your career. Here are some questions to ask yourself in making that determination: Do you have a game plan as to how you’ll leverage your MBA? Have you identified specific roles/organizations that you’ll target? Do you know when you’ll do this (immediately after being accepted into an MBA program? half-way through? upon graduating?)? Have you done your due diligence? Will the MBA be valued in your future role/organization? A game plan is extremely important because Part-time and Executive MBA programs offer what essentially amounts to zero career support. Trust me on this. They’ll have a half-day seminar on resume writing or a few one-on-one sessions with someone in career services but after partaking in them you won’t be further ahead in your job hunt.
  • With an MBA or without an MBA, it’s going to be up to you to do all the heavy lifting involved in landing a new role. That’s why developing a professional narrative, killer resume, cover letter and interviewing skills are going to end up being a lot more useful to you than the course you just took in Strategy and Competitive Advantage or Pricing Policy. As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, many people seem to go into the MBA application process with what I call ‘magical thinking’. The symptoms of ‘magical thinking’ include a) career goals that are not well defined (i.e. the person has not identified specific roles at specific organizations that they intend to apply to); b) vague references to how the ‘network’ will be invaluable to them in chartering the next steps in their career; c) undervaluation of time and an overvaluation of the value of the MBA degree itself (in other words, making a career leap now is probably going to be more valuable to you than waiting for another 2-3 years when you’ll have completed your MBA).

III Variable Fitting In

Why recruiting at traditional, full-time MBA programs makes sense for recruiters

It makes sense because the demographic at these programs (people with 2-7 years of pre-MBA work experience) is homogeneous. Even though some of those people might have spent the first couple years of their career in Sector X and others in Sector Y – none of them are deeply entrenched in any one industry or any one functional role. From the recruiter’s perspective they’re all smart, young, malleable professionals who can easily make the leap into another role or industry at this point in their lives. Not to mention that because they’re all still ‘generalists’, they’re all still relatively inexpensive to employ.

In addition, employers that recruit at business schools want to maintain a certain age hierarchy within their organization (this is either overtly stated within the organizations HR circles or, more commonly, covertly implied). That translates into McKinsey and other top consulting firms preferring its associates to be around 28-30. Another example would be a consumer products company like P&G – generally they don’t want a freshly-minted-MBA, 38 year old…wet-behind-the-ears brand manager because the brand manager’s boss will likely only be 36 herself. I know that you are thinking of your cousins friend right now…the one who went to Wharton and got a job at P&G and he was 87. But the commentary I’m giving is based on the normal distribution and by definition most people are within the statistical mean rather than being statistical outliers (i.e. your cousin’s 87 year old friend).

The entire business model of consulting firms is to pay associates and analysts a relatively cheap salary vis a vis what the firm bills the client at…..run the consultant until they drop and then it’s ‘up or out’. (‘up or out’ is a saying at McKinsey…it means that either you are going to be promoted to partner or you need to leave after working as an associate for a few years).

Now at 36 you miiiigggghhhttt get an offer to join McKinsey as an associate or P&G as a brand manager. Bear in mind that all the other associates will be between 28-32…and that’s fine. A 36 year-old is more likely to have a family than a 30 year old and the 36 year-old is not going to perceive himself to have as high a quality of life as the 30 year-old (hours and salary being equal) because by 36 you are just less enthusiastic about the 80 hour work week. By extension that same 36 year-old is going to offer less ‘value’ to the employer and statistically is more likely to leave within the first 24-36 months of employment – creating a potential negative ROI for the business.

IV Variable Opportunity Cost

…which is why an MBA often has a Negative ROI for older applicants.

Wondering what the return on investment will be for someone graduating from business school at 36+ years old? The answer is that the ROI needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis.
Now as a rule of thumb (regardless of your age) a top MBA is going to give you a lot of leverage at two critical points in time:
1. between year 1 and 2 of your MBA when you get access to an internship in a role or industry that you otherwise would not have…..this internship helps propel you to
2. the end of your 2nd year when you are able to recruit for a full-time job in a role/industry you otherwise would never have been able to.

Approximately two years after graduating from b-school…the cache of your degree heads south. People aren’t looking to where you went to school as much as to what you’ve achieved and more importantly if they like you and want to promote you. If a person is considering applying to an MBA program at say 33/34 years of age because their career has stagnated … an initial concern I would have is that if, at 34 people aren’t that impressed with a person’s work or don’t like that person enough to promote him … there might be a trend there and an MBA is not going to help.

Is 2 years opportunity cost + $150k worth it for someone wanting to get an MBA at 34 or 35….my feeling is probably not. Yes there was one guy in my class of 300 who was 37. I was 29 and looked at him like he was Father Time. He came from Bain and started the MBA with an offer to return to Bain – which is exactly what he did. In his case he just needed some rubber stamping. Since he had a good job and salary waiting for him post-MBA it didn’t pose a problem for the school’s numbers that year. But Father Time was an exception not a rule.

Before getting an MBA try to think of other ways you could shift your career in another direction. Networking, building an online presence (expertise), taking time off with no pay to pursue a different skill-set (start-up etc.)

How old is too old to APPLY to top US MBA programs? Then the answer is pretty clear cut. Harvard and Stanford ‘like ’em young’ 🙂 Be in your 20’s (ideally) when you APPLY for those programs.
Wharton, Sloan, Kellogg, Chicago will look at a little bit older candidate….IDEALLY you should be no older than 32, and even 32 makes me a little uncomfortable.

A 36 year-old, newly minted MBA you pose a huge risk in terms of the school’s rankings because chances are that person might not find a great job coming out of b-school. That same 36 year -old will have taken the place of a 28 year-old in the class roster …. a 28 year-old that any number of their employers would have been happy to hire. Unless you are Father Time and Bain promised you your old job back post-MBA and the Admissions Committee was cool with it….chances are you will not get an offer at a top MBA program….and chances are an MBA wasn’t worth your while in the first place.

A lot of people realize too late in their careers that a top MBA would have benefitted them. If you have 8+ years of working experience you should evaluate whether an MBA could still benefit you and whether the ROI is positive over the next ten years. If the answer is yes, you should start looking at part-time and executive MBA programs. If the thought of doing anything less than a full-time MBA at a top school breaks your heart then you need to ask yourself the question: Do I want an MBA because it serves a practical goal I have in terms of REALISTIC career advancement at this point in my life? OR Am I simply after the elevated status I believe a top MBA will somehow endow me with? A lot of times people just want that gold star on their resume without realizing what they will actually or could actually do with an MBA.

V Case Study Harvard Business School

HBS Average age of HBS MBAs

HBS is one of the first schools most people consider applying to when they set out on the MBA application process. I regularly speak with applicants who identify HBS as a top choice when constructing their portfolio of reach, target and safety schools. In determining whether you will apply to HBS, be aware that the school prefers younger applicants. The median age is 26-27 years old and the median number of years since graduating college is 4.

If my qualitative analysis left you unconvinced, there is nothing like hard data to put a mind at ease. Here we have the breakdown for the HBS MBA classes of 2012-2016 – pulled directly from the HBS blog. Now HBS doesn’t categorize its students according to age (although they have published their average age: 27 years old). HBS looks at applicants in terms of when they finished their undergraduate degree. A student can be 1, 2, 3…. year(s) out from undergrad.

Harvard actually doesn’t use age as a guideline for class composition – they calculate the number of years since a candidate finished college. To figure out where you stand, calculate the number of years between when you would ENTER HBS in the Fall of your first year and the year in which you finished your higher education. Candidate X graduated in 2013 aged 24, he is 26 and applying to HBS in Round 1 of 2015. That means he’ll be 27 when he STARTS at HBS, so 27-24=3. Candidate X would be 3 years post college by HBS’s calculation. This method makes a lot of sense because HBS, and other top schools, are looking for candidates who satisfy the needs of the employers who recruit at their school. By calculating the number of years since graduation HBS allows for people who start their higher education later in life (because of military service or a gap year) and for people who pursue a Masters degree directly after undergrad.

If we turn our attention to the graph below, it becomes very evident that there is a steep drop off point somewhere around 29 years of age or 7 years since finishing college. Only 10% of HBS MBA students are 29-30+ years old & completed college 7 years ago or more. Is that because HBS receives a disproportionately large number of applications from younger candidates – there are no public figures available to answer that question but using my own clients as a sample set of reference – I’d say the answer is no. So what that means is that the further you creep away from the median, the more difficult it is going to be to get a place at HBS. It is a sad story really because there have been older candidates I’ve known who at 30+ would be perfect for HBS…but from HBS’s point of view, these people would have been perfect 3 years ago. Another school that tends younger is Stanford. And a similar age distribution applies there. If you are an older applicant I’d suggest looking at schools with a slightly higher average age: Wharton, Sloan, Chicago, Kellogg and many others have an average of 5 years work experience and an average age of 28.