Am I Too Old for an MBA?

Admissions directors say you're never too old to pursue an MBA-- but older students will have some convincing to do to prove they belong in a full-time program.

Charlotte Hasse was working as a marketing team lead for Bloomberg in New York City when the company shifted operations and told employees they could apply for jobs in Washington, D.C. if they wanted to stay onboard.

Standing at that crossroads, Hasse took a look inwards.

"It gave me a good opportunity to look at myself and see what I wanted," she says.

What she found was that she wanted to go into business strategy, and that her background in marketing and law wasn't enough to cut it in that field. So, after 11 years in the workforce, Hasse went to get her MBA at the University of California San Diego's Rady School of Business.

MBA students are traditionally in their twenties—the average age for matriculating students is 28 in the United States—and schools typically accept students with an average of five to seven years of work experience.

But every year, MBA programs receive applications from students like Hasse who are further along in their careers. Some of them are hoping to pivot into a different field; others have a background in, say, science or technology, but want to bolster their business skills. Some are leaving the military and transferring into the private sector. Others have been made redundant at their old jobs and are using their redundancy money for further education. Still others work for international companies that encouraged them to take time off to study in the United States.

Never too old for an MBA?

MBA admissions directors say that you're never too old to get an MBA. But if you're further along in your career and want a solid chance of receiving an acceptance letter from a full-time program, there's one ingredient you need: self-awareness.

"Generally for people who have more experience, you really want to think about what are you trying to accomplish in going back to school," says JoAnne Starr, assistant dean for graduate programs at Rady. "My general observation has been that people who have a good bit of experience don't typically want to go back and start at a junior level at some different career. It doesn't make a ton of sense economically, or professionally.”

“So ask yourself: why is going back to school interesting or important to me?"

Stephen Sweeney, director of full-time admissions at McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, says older students should also be aware that in a full-time MBA program, they will be studying with younger, less experienced students—and that the jobs they will be offered after the program might not be on par with their prior employment.

"From a cultural perspective, from a recruiting perspective, look at the average salary [of MBA graduates]," says Sweeney. "If you're 45 years old and an executive for a firm, you might not make the same salary. For a lot of folks that's okay, because they're really looking to make that pivot [into a different career] through an MBA."

Admissions directors say that they've certainly witnessed success stories of older students thriving in full-time MBAs. UCSD’s JoAnne Starr cited a story of a successful entrepreneur who attended Rady's MBA program full time and treated the program like a learning sabbatical.

"He thought the idea of two years of school was cool and fun," says Starr. "He understood that he was going to be much older and more experienced than classmates, and thought that was fine. It's a great success story, but he came into it understanding why he was applying to a full-time program, understanding he might not look like everyone else in the room, and thinking about how he might interact with others around him."

Executive MBAs: designed for older students

Of course, many business schools offer alternatives to full-time MBAs: Executive MBAs, which are part-time or modular programs catering towards mid-career professionals. Admissions directors at some business schools say that they often nudge older students towards these part-time alternatives.

"In general, MBA programs are open to all candidates, but students who are more mature and have more experience, we encourage to do Executive MBAs because we think they would benefit more," says Anna Rechnio, Executive MBA recruitment manager at Cass Business School in London. "If they want to do a full-time course, they would still have a great experience and it would still be a very beneficial program for them. But when we receive an application from more mature students or students with more experience, we would encourage them to do executive course."

In fact, Charlotte Hasse, who will assume a role at tech strategy company Gartner Consulting after she graduates this spring, says her biggest challenge was convincing schools that she belonged in a full-time program.

"Not all schools believe that it's never too late to get a full-time MBA," Hasse says. She says some schools pushed her towards Executive MBA programs, and that she had to remain confident in her conviction that a full-time program was right for her.

Hasse also advised other experienced students to ensure that they can show schools that they are still willing and able to learn.

"There's an expectation that the farther out you are from undergrad, the harder it is for you to transform the way a full-time student should transform," Hasse says. "You have to show them that you are still malleable."

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