How to Determine When the Time Is Right for an M.B.A.

Prospective graduate business applicants should weigh cost, schedule, and professional timing.

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Is there such a thing as a right time to apply for an M.B.A.? Many prospective b-school applicants confront this question when they feel that their current career trajectory has stalled. For others, pursuing an M.B.A. straight out of undergrad is a no brainer, as they avoid putting their lives on hold for two years—and forgoing a potentially significant salary to do so.

The Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the Graduate Management Admission Test, reports that applicants under 24 are the fastest-growing group among those who take the GMAT. But how do you know whether you're really ready to tackle the intense demands of a full-time M.B.A. program? Whether you're wrapping up your senior year or have already clocked three to five years in the workforce, there are several factors you should evaluate to determine if it's time to take the M.B.A. plunge.

First up, make sure your head is in the game. Business school admittedly includes its fair share of cocktail-fueled socials and late-night carousing, but most people will tell you that they've never been busier, or slept less, than when in b-school. Between classes, quizzes, team meetings, recruiting, clubs, and a veritable smorgasbord of special events, the life of an M.B.A. student can seem like a nonstop circus act.

Taking two years to get an M.B.A. is not just a business decision, it's a life decision that may include the interests of boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, and children. Do you have the discipline to balance the grueling workload of an M.B.A. program with your existing work or personal obligations?

[Read about how some business schools welcome students' significant others.]

If the answer is yes, the next step is to get real about what it's going to cost you. Assuming the cost of an M.B.A. program is one of the most expensive academic decisions you'll ever make once you factor in living expenses, course-related travel expenses, and, for older applicants, the loss of two years of income while pursuing the degree full time. You can certainly find inspiration in No Debt M.B.A., a blog by a 20-something professional with a seat at one of the top five M.B.A. programs who plans to graduate in 2013 with no student loans. But most applicants to the elite schools should brace themselves for six-figure debt—at least for a while.

On the bright side, GMAC's 2012 Alumni Perspectives Survey reports that on average, alumni across all participating graduation years recouped one third of their financial investment in their graduate degree immediately after graduation, and saw a 100 percent return on investment after four years.

[Check out the best jobs for M.B.A.'s.]

Deciding whether you have enough work experience is a trickier issue, as more schools roll out the welcome mat for younger applicants. One example is Harvard Business School, whose 2+2 Program specifically courts outstanding college seniors. Most M.B.A. programs still require at least two years of work experience, but not the five or even seven years that used to be the norm. If you can demonstrate maturity, highly focused career goals, leadership skills, and enough life experience to contribute to an incoming class, your age or thin amount of work experience become far less important.

It's no surprise that an M.B.A. expands your skill set and your network of contacts, as well as significantly increases your long-term earning potential. Candidates should talk with family, friends, and mentors—and potentially an M.B.A. application adviser—early in the application process to determine where they are in the so-called "window" for business school.

But only you can judge when all of the necessary elements have come together to make the time right.