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Applying to Regular MBA Programs as an Older Applicant

“An MBA? Why aren’t you going for an EMBA?” It’s often the instinctive response of 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.

It 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 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 three or more years older than the average age for a given school. Columbia's 2008 average age was 28, so if you're 31 or older, you fall in that category for Columbia.

Within that generalization, however, there are nuances that beg attention - specifically, the reason for applying later. If you are applying to Columbia as a 32-year-old who wants to pursue a career in finance, the adcom may be more or less likely to view you as an older applicant, depending on the circumstances.

  • More likely: You started in advertising after college, then shifted focus and entered an investment bank as a marketing-and-sales professional, persistently working your way over to a finance-oriented role, and now want to originate and lead transactions.
  • Less likely: You earned a Ph.D. in math after college, then joined a quant-focused mutual fund company in a 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 identification, whereas the second example shows a direct, straightforward path. So do not go strictly by the "three-year rule." The second applicant above would not necessarily raise the concerns that a typical "older applicant" does. 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, such as exists now, 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.

  • Delineate concrete goals: practical and spelled out 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 placement center. While most graduating MBA students utilize on-campus recruiters to find a job, more and more use their own contacts and resources. As an older applicant, it is especially important to demonstrate your resourcefulness and awareness of the placement challenge by doing likewise. 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 less-than-straight 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 these 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. Per the discussion above, you have delineated concrete goals. Now, 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.

  • Many MBA essays ask you to summarize your career progression or indicate how your career supports your goals. Even if you don't encounter such a question, it is important to link your career experience to your goals in the goals essay. Either way, 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 his early marketing experience, he would focus less on creating ad campaigns and more on analyzing market needs, noting that he discovered a previously unrecognized talent for and enjoyment in analytic work. Or he might discuss the unexpected satisfaction he derived from calculating cost/benefit formulas for ad campaigns and how it prompted him to explore a more quantitative career. After establishing this logical basis for his goals, he adds that his marketing experience will give him a deeper understanding of real companies' operations as a future analyst - 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 (which would be "1+1=2").

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 and Wharton, will be more receptive to a thirty-year-old applicant than will Harvard or Stanford.

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!

About the author: Linda Abraham is founder and president of Accepted.com. Accepted.com’s experienced, international staff comprised of professional authors, seasoned admissions experts, and former admissions staff at top b-schools. They have helped applicants gain acceptance to over 100 MBA programs around the globe. Learn how they can mentor you through the grueling MBA admissions process.

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