Back to School: The Work Experience Dilemma

Think you're too old for an MBA? B-school recruiters break down the (old) age question.

Am I too old? A cynic might say that if you have to ask, you probably are. But that’s something you’re not likely to hear from most MBA admissions directors.

True, most full-time MBA program students are somewhere in their mid- to late twenties or early thirties. For business school recruiters, however, age is not necessarily a determining factor when assessing an application.

Students above the average MBA age range go back to school for a wide variety of reasons. As industries expand, contract, and restructure, people find themselves with uncertain career paths or in a volatile field that was once stable. Older students are often blazing new trails, from the decision to head back to school to finding a job in the current market.

Although there is no strict definition for an older MBA student, the differences between them and younger students are usually readily apparent. Students in their thirties and forties typically have to balance more personal obligations, like family, with the rigors of business school. Sometimes they are looking to change careers, whereas a younger student may be trying to fast-track to a managerial position.

Of course, older students often have a wealth of that bane of ambitious undergrads – work experience. Business schools value work experience, partly as a measure of a candidate’s potential, partly to liven up the classroom experience. Having more experienced students from diverse backgrounds forces the entire class to confront new situations and perspectives.

In short, students should feel confident that their work experience and atypical profile will add to their application, not take away from it.

Finding a fit and fitting in

When researching prospective schools, older students may find different types of programs tailored to meet some of their concerns. Part-time and Executive MBA (EMBA) programs, for example, have an evening or weekend schedule that often appeals to students who are currently working.

"Students may want to gain additional knowledge through an MBA program, but not let go of a job if they have one,” says Cynthia Wharton, director of employer recruitment at the University of South Carolina’s Moore Business School. “In other instances, students may want to be in job search mode during the day and continue with their schooling at night."

But while getting into business school is one concern, getting through it is another. Many people who have been out of school for awhile have concerns about how they’ll perform in the classroom. Zelon Crawford, graduate recruitment director at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, finds that older students typically adjust after an “initial scare.”

“Some students have difficulty with statistics,” says Crawford. “It generally takes a little more time to ramp up to the amount of work and working in student groups.”

For older students, schools with informal tutoring services can be helpful, notes Crawford. In addition, taking a formal class before heading back to school or reviewing preparatory materials on certain subjects may be useful.

On the hiring end, older students need to recognize that companies do not traditionally look for older students to fill associate-level positions. With this in mind, Crawford advises older students to look “outside of the structured recruiting process.” That means things like active networking with classmates and alumni, which often leads to entrepreneurship ventures or other kinds of collaboration.

“Students should definitely look for a school that has a strong alumni network,” says Crawford. “Right now, it's all about networking and connectivity.”

For students looking for a career change, MBA programs and hiring companies look for similar things: talent and certain skills, to be sure, but also potential and compatibility.

“Not all employers are looking for older students, just as not all employers are looking for younger students,” says Cynthia Wharton at Moore Business School. “Employers are looking for the right fit.”

“For older students, it is not just about enhancing one's personal tool kit, but also learning how to rebrand,” she adds. “Remarketing oneself is an important part of what one is able to do in an MBA program.”

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