You're Never Too Old or Too Young for Business School

Your drive and leadership skills matter much more to M.B.A. admissions officials than age.

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The profile of the typical business school applicant has changed significantly over the past decade. Once upon a time, few would contemplate applying without first having the requisite 5 to 7 years of work experience under their belts. The prevailing wisdom held that older candidates would have more to contribute to class discussions because of their substantial real-world experience.

Flash forward to today and you'll see schools taking a closer look at younger candidates, including those with no work experience. The reason for this shift is that business schools fear some applicants would attain so much success after only a few years that they would not want to go back for an M.B.A. Some candidates really are ready for business school right after graduating from college; some have started a company while in school, played a strong role in a family business, or gained relevant experiences in other areas.

[See U.S. News's rankings of Best Business Schools.]

But as more M.B.A. programs welcome younger applicants, and in some cases actively court them with programs geared toward younger students—such as Harvard Business School's 2+2 Program, Yale School of Management's three-year Silver Scholars M.B.A. Program, and the deferred enrollment option for college seniors offered by the Stanford Graduate School of Business—anyone over age 28 may feel that she or he doesn't stand a chance of getting in.

When a client asks, "Am I too old (or too young) for an M.B.A.?" I respond that it's not about chronological age. It's more about maturity, readiness, and where you are in your career. Sometimes these things can be linked to age, but that's not a certainty.

Instead, think about what you want to gain from and what you can contribute to an M.B.A. program. You may be 22 but have a ton of insight to share and highly focused career goals. That would give you a leg up on the 28-year-old who is lost and just using the M.B.A. as something to fill the time.

So while I have seen posts in online business school forums that essentially tell people there is "no chance" past a certain age, and older candidates do face certain obstacles, these applicants get into the top programs every year, and can and should apply if an M.B.A. is the necessary stepping stone to advance their career. If you're contemplating business school in your mid-30s, the key is to demonstrate confidence, how you've progressed professionally, and what you've contributed on the job.

[Get advice directly from business school admissions officials.]

A 38-year-old candidate who has spent more than a decade in the same position without showing progression will have a hard time being admitted to a top M.B.A. program. This is not because of age. Rather, it is because the candidate may not demonstrated growth during that time. If you're applying to an elite school like Harvard, which values great leadership, you should've already developed terrific leadership skills. Many people with great leadership skills have achieved so much by the time they near 40 that they're not interested in going back to school.

However, if one of these people is interested and can demonstrate great achievement balanced with a legitimate need or desire to return to school, then they have a good chance. Proving that you are a strong and accomplished 40-year-old leader, and balancing that with the fact that you want to improve in order to get to the next step, is tough to pull off. That said, "old" people are admitted every season!

Younger applicants, meanwhile, have their own set of obstacles to overcome. They'll need to demonstrate to the admissions committee that they have the focus and maturity required to succeed in an M.B.A. program.

[Weigh the pros and cons of taking the GMAT in college.]

Since a huge part of the b-school classroom experience is the exchange of ideas from diverse individuals, younger candidates will also need to prove that they have enough life experience to contribute to an incoming class. Business schools are looking for authentic experience, not just students who subscribe to the Wall Street Journal. Finally, younger applicants will need to show an admissions team they have a strong reason for returning to school so soon after graduation.

Regardless of whether you are young or old, if you can achieve what is written above, you will have a good chance of getting into a program that is the right fit for you. Your age should never be the sole deciding factor of whether to apply to business school.