How to apply for an MBA as a younger applicant
Who are “younger” MBA applicants?
Most MBA programs have candidates between 2-9 years of work experience at time of matriculation (start of the program). The average is around 5 years. Therefore, “younger” means 2-5 years’ work experience, whereas “older” would be 5-9 years’ work experience.
The average age of MBA candidates has seen a downward trend since the 2008 financial crisis. Before 2008, the average age for an MBA candidate was just over 30, whereas now it is closer to 27. There are a few reasons for this: Fewer companies are willing to pay for a candidate’s MBA in the interest of career development, a policy that was commonplace before 2008. For a company to invest this much money, the candidate would have to have a strong track record with the company. Conversely, many candidates now pursue an MBA specifically to switch careers.
So will the pool of accepted applicants get younger and younger until the admissions committees start bringing wet wipes to interviews and MBA programs will institute nap time in the middle of the day? Probably not. As long as a few key professional milestones are expected of MBA candidates, for example promotions. To be able to show these candidates usually need 3-5 years’ work experience.
If you only have 2-3 years of work experience
Most MBA programs require at least two years’ work experience at matriculation (start of the MBA program) as a hard-and-fast rule. So if you have less than 2 years of experience, don’t apply for MBA programs yet. Consider a Masters in Management (MiM).
Similar to an MBA, the MiM program is offered by many of the same top business schools and is specifically designed for students who are just leaving an undergraduate program or have just taken a gap year after this program.
Note that it’s rare to do a MiM and then an MBA later. So realistically you’ll be choosing between these two. That’s because there is a lot of crossover between a MiM and an MBA program. In practice, MBA programs are aimed at people with a non-management academic background and a career plan that requires them to learn about business and management.
If you have less than 3 years of work experience, you should still consider delaying your application. Every year a few candidates are admitted to business schools with less than 3 years of work experience, usually after demonstrating exceptionally fast professional progression. But they’re the exceptions. If you have between two and three years of work experience, it is almost certainly better to wait another year.
Explain why you’re applying early
If your work experience is just over two years and you’re just doing an MBA because the economy looks terrible right now, please do not mention this in your application. Getting into an MBA program as a younger applicant is about YOU, not about macro factors such as the economy.
Rather, try to explain why you need an MBA right now, not in three years’ time when you have more work experience. For example, if your entrepreneurship idea is fresh and you need the MBA to commercialize it before others do.
What you, specifically, can bring to the cohort
The average age of MBA applicants is around 27. The whole MBA process will put you among people who are 3-5 years older than you, so a key part of your application will prove that you can keep pace with these people who, objectively, have more experience (and, subjectively, wisdom) than you.
So ask yourself what, specifically, makes you a better candidate than the next 27-year-old in line?
Your experience may come from internships or work experience during university or perhaps even a company you founded in high school. Or maybe as a younger applicant you’re up to date on a cutting-edge coding language or social media platform. Whatever the case, make sure that this experience is relevant and interesting and shows you working at a truly professional level. That way, you can demonstrate your ability to work alongside these older candidates at a level similar to or better than theirs.
Demonstrate your impact
The key to demonstrating impact is tangible effects. Think about how you helped your organization. This usually means something that you can write down, take a photograph of, or even better, log in a spreadsheet because numbers sell. And tell stories. Be the person who did X, rather than making vague platitudes like 90% of other applicants.
Bad: “I worked hard and people liked me.”
Good: “I was able to save the company $33,000 a month in lost revenue by refactoring our invoice-tracking software protocols.”
Bad: “I demonstrated leadership in my role.”
Good: “Although the challenge initially seemed insurmountable, I convinced my team that it was worth pursuing. I delegated work according to skill and experience levels and spoke with the team individually as well as in group settings to make sure that people felt they were working to the best of their ability and also that the entire group was pulling its weight effectively. There were moments of concern, but in discussing these issues, we found that there were easy compromises to be made by adjusting the task load for different individuals. Ultimately, although I was not technically the senior member of the team, I was applauded by senior management for taking initiative regarding this project and seeing it through to completion.”
Is it ageism that business schools are looking for applicants of a certain age? Given that work experience is an application criteria, no, it is not. The question, then, is what those extra years of experience provide?
The answer is maturity. It’s difficult to be 22 or 23 years old. Shockingly, many (if not most) older people have even been that age at some point in the past. Many of these older people remember how dumb and impetuous they were at 22 or 23 and they’re wondering the same about you.
In short, keep the beer bong vids off your Tik-Tok.
In long, it’s your responsibility to prove to the AdCom that you are in fact able to do three key things.
First, communicate effectively: manage expectations, conflicts, and negotiations with the ease of someone with experience and who isn’t overwhelmed by emotions at every turn. Intelligent, empathetic communication is an enormous part of life in the business world. Neither cowering away, terrified of friction, nor running roughshod over others will ever be a good look to the AdCom.
Second, demonstrate judgment: show that you can make considered, cautious decisions and follow through. Show that you have a reason to make choices and that you stick to those choices, and, of course, that these choices have a track record of working out. Judgment is good in principle, but it only counts in practice.
Third, self-awareness: a sincere ability to recognize what you’re doing well at, as well as what you’re not doing well at. The ability to take constructive criticism. The ability to understand that your views may be biased and acknowledge that fact. The ability to understand that you are going to fail at things and that that is OK as long as you–crucially–examine each failure and learn from it. It is this examination, particularly understanding what is under your control and what isn’t and changing what you can, that is the core of self-awareness.
If you demonstrate effective communication, sound judgment, and excellent self-awareness, the AdCom will have no concerns as to whether you are mature enough to join the cohort.
Demonstrating leadership as a younger applicant
It is important to demonstrate leadership as much as possible to compensate for the fact that you’re entering the cohort as a younger student. It’s likely that you haven’t had the opportunity to demonstrate leadership as much at work as older members of the cohort.
In this case, it is important to compensate: show leadership in other places, which will mostly involve extracurricular activities such as clubs, teams, sports, etc.
Think about it like this: if you can’t lead in the office, then where can you lead? Brainstorm some ideas and pursue them, or get involved in mentorship programs. For example, you most likely went to a good university, so you know the admissions process better than a lot of people. You can use this knowledge to help high school students with their university applications.
Then, think about what you can bring to the cohort that is different, before, during, and after your time in the MBA program. Think about your skills academically: is a strong suit for you somewhere that you might be able to exchange tutoring with other students? Think about socially: what, pun intended, do you bring to the party? These unique features of YOU are the important thing that the AdCom will be looking for.
Remember, AdComs see a lot of people with similar profiles, and they want a way to distinguish you from the pack. It is your goal to be “the woman who gave trapeze lessons to children in Belize” or “the guy who decided that he did not want to continue his French Horn studies at the conservatory and joined the consultancy instead.”
If you have 2-5 years’ experience, you absolutely have a great chance of getting into a top MBA program, but you need to prove that you have a clear career vision that gives you a real reason to pursue an MBA right now. Show what makes you outstanding as compared to people several years older. Make your impact within your organization clear, using numbers.
Demonstrate your impact within your organization and be sure to show how you are just as mature as all those “old” people. Explain clearly what you, personally, can bring to the cohort.
In short, be clear about what you have to offer and why you want to pursue an MBA now. You’ll either have a clear answer or, just maybe, you’ll realize you could give it a couple more years of work experience after all.
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