“An MBA? Why aren’t you going for an EMBA?” You’ve probably heard this from friends and acquaintances when they learn that you are planning to pursue full-time graduate business studies, even though you are several years older than the average MBA applicant. This may also be the response of MBA admissions committees – unless you make a convincing case for pursuing a regular MBA at this point in your life and career. You may have very good reasons for seeking an MBA and not an EMBA. But the adcoms won’t know that unless you explain it persuasively in your application essays. Instead, they may make negative assumptions, such as “unfocused,” or even worse, “too set in your ways,” and “too difficult to place.”
What exactly is an “older applicant”?
Generally, an older applicant is someone who is about 5+ years older than the average age for a given school; another way to view it is 1+ years older than the upper age of the middle 80% age range. For example, Columbia’s 2020 average age is 28 and the middle 80% range is 25-31, so if you’re 32 or older, you fall in the “older applicant” category for Columbia.
Within that generalization, however, there are nuances that beg attention – most notably, the reason for applying later. Back to our example, if you are applying to Columbia as a 32-year-old who wants to pursue a career in finance, the adcom may only view you as an older applicant in certain circumstances:
- Adcom more likely to view you as an older applicant: You started in advertising after college, then shifted focus and entered an investment bank as a marketing and sales professional. Now you want to transition to a finance-specific role.
- Adcom less likely to view you as an older applicant: You earned a Ph.D. in math after college, then joined a hedge fund in a quant product development role, and now want to help lead the business.
What’s the difference? The first example shows some (thoroughly understandable) zigzagging during the process of goal development, whereas the second example shows a direct, straightforward path. The second applicant above would not necessarily raise the concerns that a typical “older applicant” does (though, that comfort level would diminish with each year beyond 32, and would not pertain to a 40-year-old!). Examine your circumstances. Most older applicants fall into the “more likely” category above, but not all.
Addressing the “difficult to place” concern
MBA admissions committees are hugely concerned with the post-MBA employability of applicants and thus consider this factor seriously in their assessment. In a tight employment market, this concern is all the more urgent. They know that it will be harder to place you than someone with similar qualifications who is younger, because the younger applicant more closely fits the expectations of the recruiters.
There are two important steps you can take in your essays to counteract this possible negative factor.
- Delineate concrete goals. Use practical terms to spell out your goals step by step, identifying position titles, companies or types of companies you might work for, and expected responsibilities and challenges.
- Develop and describe a plan for obtaining employment post-graduation that does not rely exclusively on the school’s recruiting process. As an older applicant, it is especially important to demonstrate your resourcefulness and awareness of the placement challenge. Older career-changers are in particularly hot water unless they show that their network and resources can get them a job in their new field. Your plan should include a description of your marketability and “positioning,” contacts you may have in the field, and action items. Not only will such a plan overcome the “place-ability” concern, but it also will strengthen your competitive advantage overall.
Addressing the “lack of focus” concern
Say, like many (probably most) people, you went through some trial and error after college to discover your best professional fit. That process, while landing you in the “older applicant” category, gives you some assets as well:
- Insight into your strengths, weaknesses, and interests based on mature self-reflection
- Relative breadth of experience
- An interesting “story” to tell about the development of your goals
Use these assets to counteract the notion that your road to your goals evidences lack of focus. In doing so, you can simultaneously tackle a critical issue – why you need a full-time MBA now. Integrate the following two aims in your essays with the following tactics:
- It is imperative to present a positive reason for pursuing a full-time MBA now.
Thus, reasons such as “reaching a plateau” and “desiring a change” will not suffice – they will only enhance the “unfocused” image. Explain why this is the right moment to devote two years to an MBA – it should be linked to your next career step.
Next, identify several skills or aspects of knowledge that you will need to succeed in those goals, that you do not presently possess, and that the MBA program in question will provide.
Then connect those dots in the “why MBA/why this program” part of the essay. Taking this approach will enable you to follow up your concrete goals with a compelling rationale for earning an MBA now.
- In more or less detail, for conventional goals essay questions, link your career experience to your goals.
Your challenge is twofold: (a) discuss a career that is longer than average while leaving space in the essay for other important information; (b) make your current goals seem an inevitable, logical outcome of your experience.
The key is to be selective in what you discuss. Do not just condense your experience. Review your goals, and then determine which aspects of your experience are most relevant to them.
Take the “more likely” applicant above. In discussing their early marketing experience, this applicant would focus less on creating ad campaigns and more on analyzing market needs, noting that they discovered a previously unrecognized talent for and enjoyment in analytic work. After establishing this logical basis for their goals, they add that their marketing experience will give them a deeper qualitative understanding of real companies’ operations – turning a possible negative into a positive.
Addressing the “set in your ways” concern
While you must show focus and direction in your goals, some schools have voiced concern that older applicants are more set in their ways and thus less interested in or able to absorb the “transformational experience” that their program provides. Using your essays to demonstrate an innovative streak and openness to new ideas is the ideal way to counteract this possible objection. You might tie these qualities in to your goals, your non-work activities, and/or your reason for pursuing a full-time MBA.
Special contribution as an older applicant
Being an older applicant may give you an edge in how and what you will contribute as a classmate, in one way in particular: older applicants tend to have experience across industries and functions, which creates a multi-dimensional, dynamic perspective. Basically, it is the “1+1=3” idea. If you have worked in both the hierarchical finance industry and the flatter, agile high-tech manufacturing industry, for example, you know the two industries. But you also have a comparative view of how different functions and positions work in two vastly contrasting environments, and the effects of those environments – which environment encourages and discourages which types of achievement, which produces what problems, and so forth. Experience in varied functions has a similar benefit. If you believe you bring this type of value, in your essays don’t just state that fact, but portray it through specific examples.
Finally, consider your older-applicant status when making your list of schools. Some programs, such as Kellogg, will be more receptive to a thirty-year-old applicant than will others.
Your status as an older-than-average MBA applicant is an obstacle that you can turn into an asset if you formulate an effective essay strategy. After the adcom reads your application, they will wish that all applicants had such a fascinating developmental process, such compelling and well-articulated goals, and so much to contribute to their classmates!
Are you looking for the guidance and support of an experienced consultant as you devise your strategy to apply as an older applicant? Check out our MBA Admissions Consulting & Editing Services to learn how we can help you gain acceptance to the MBA program of your choice despite – or even, in spite of – your age!