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As business schools continue the trend of recruiting students right out of college and tailoring programs to fit that young demographic, it can be hard for older MBA applicants to imagine where they fit within the system. Proving you’re a dynamic professional, trying to get back in to the studying habit, and juggling your extra responsibilities can be a difficult task, but it’s not impossible. In fact, many older applicants can make some of the best candidates if they know how to prepare.

A decade ago, the typical student admitted into business school had five to seven years of work experience under their belts, but schools have started reaching for younger adults. Harvard Business School offers the 2+2 Program, which allows accepted students to defer enrollment for two years while they get work experience, Yale School of Management has a three-year Silver Scholars Program in which college seniors are accepted into a three-year MBA program, and Stanford Graduate School of Business also lets college seniors defer enrollment.

Today, the average age of MBA students, according to Travis Morgan, Director of Admissions Consulting for Veritas Prep, is 26 or 27 with about four years of work experience. The low averages can be attributed to the fact that most recruiters aren’t looking at people with 10 or more years of experience as candidates for recruitment and that schools often try to choose people who will fit in with their classmates and may get involved in extracurricular activities, Morgan told us. Older students often have different priorities than joining organizations or attending social events with classmates.

“Therefore, older candidates have a particularly important task of showing MBA Admissions Committees why getting an MBA now makes sense and how they will uniquely contribute to the program while attending,” Morgan says.

With more of these young faces in the classroom, students who are 30 or older may feel out of place, but adults who’ve been out of school for more than a decade have plenty of program options available to them. Besides traditional full-time programs, which may work for some older candidates, many also choose executive MBA programs or part-time programs. Executive MBA, or EMBA, programs have become more popular world-wide and are designed for mid-level managers with eight or more years of experience so they’re often a better fit for candidates in their 30s or older, Morgan says.

Facing the GMAT


Whether they’re applying for a full-time program or part-time, (almost) every business school applicant is going to have to face the GMAT. The entrance test is a major component in admissions at the top business schools and it can be a struggle for older students who’ve been out of school for so long.

“The biggest obstacles are normally balancing their time, getting back into study mode, and preparing for standardized testing, which they haven’t taken in a long time,” says Lee Weiss, Kaplan Test Prep’s director of graduate programs.

Many adults in their 30s and beyond have to juggle their careers and family obligations while trying to find time to study. They are also studying subjects that they may not have used in their careers. The GMAT tests junior high and high school math without a calculator, as well as academic reading comprehension and grammar. After being out of school for 10 years or more, most people need to brush up on those skills before taking the test.

“Length of time out of an academic environment is positively correlated with the amount of time it will take to get that mindset back, but it’s certainly doable,” Brian Galvin, director of academic programs at Veritas Prep, says.

Luckily, motivation to study is one thing older students often have going for them. With many years in the working world to spend contemplating their next move, most of them are very dedicated to getting into school.

“They’re often more committed to effective study, as business school is typically more of a conscious decision and sacrifice for them than it is for a lot of mid-twenties students for whom it can often be ‘the next thing to do,’” Morgan says.

Best practices for acing the GMAT

So how can older students make the most of their motivation and study effectively?

Practice:

The first step is practice, practice, practice. Since older students have been out of high school for more than 10 years (sometimes much more), repetition is the key to getting those math and academic reading skills back.

“The good thing about the GMAT is that it’s a test you can practice and get better at if you put the time into it,” says Weiss, who has seen clients’ scores jump from a sub-par 400 to an above-average 660 by practicing during their Kaplan preparation.

Understand the test format:

The GMAT has changed over the last two decades, so it’s important to know what you’re up against today. About 15 years ago, the GMAT changed from a paper-and-pencil test to a computer-adaptive test. Computer-adaptive tests adapt to the knowledge level of the test-taker rather than offering the same questions in the same order to every student. As you take the test, it shows you questions based on what it has determined to be your ability level at that point, calculated by an algorithm. Galvin warns that this type of test can make many typical test-taking strategies useless. Tactics that students may have used before on the SAT, ACT, or LSAT just won’t work.

“You cannot skip questions and return to them later (or go back to check your work), as each question determines which question you see next,” Galvin explains. “Consequently, pacing is a major factor as is mental stamina and familiarity with the interface.”

Focus on skills that will be tested:

It can be a daunting task to try to relearn dozens of math skills,, so zero in on just the ones that will show up on the test.

“I one time had a student arrive to class with about 180 pages of a high school geometry textbook bookmarked as ‘I don’t know them,’” Galvin told us. “And by the time we went through and removed the bookmarks on items that the GMAT doesn’t test we got it down to a manageable 25 or 30 pages that he really needed to emphasize.”

Find the hardest sections for you:

Many of the sections and question types on the GMAT aren’t straight-forward content questions, as the test has evolved over time into a reasoning-heavy exam. Make sure you’re familiar with the newest section, Integrated Reasoning, and that you practice question types that many people struggle with, such as Data Sufficiency questions.

Embrace learning:

Older students should let themselves get excited about the idea of going back to school, and accept this test as part of the learning experience.

“You’re studying for and taking the GMAT because you want to go back to school, so see the test not just as a necessary evil but as an opportunity to start thinking academically again,” Galvin suggests.”Enjoy that feeling of going to a library or coffee shop with a backpack. Smile when you learn something from your mistakes.”

Shining through every part of your application

The GMAT is of course only one part of the admissions process. Essays, interviews, and multimedia requirements must be taken just as seriously as the test because business schools are looking for well-rounded candidates. People who have been in the working world can make very valuable candidates, Weiss says, because “they’ve been leaders, managed many people, had success nationally and internationally, and bring such a great perspective to classes,” but those qualities have to shine through every aspect of the application process.

The majority of applicants to top-tier programs in the country are academically qualified, so it’s essential that candidates make themselves stand out. While having a decade or more of work experience can be a positive quality, it’s not enough on its own. Older candidates have to explain how they’ve progressed and set themselves apart during their time working.

“Admissions officers are looking for progressing responsibilities, strong achievements, and a high degree of introspection regarding one’s professional experience,” Morgan says. “The key for candidates with significant work experience will be to highlight those aspects of their experience that showcase their leadership and teamwork skills and show their strong achievements every step of the way. Simply listing job duties for every position in the past 10 years will not demonstrate that the candidate has excelled among his or her peers.”

Veritas Prep coaches its clients on meeting what they call the Four Dimensions of a Perfect Applicant: leadership, innovation, teamwork, and maturity. Older candidates should think back on their work experience and come up with clear ways they’ve demonstrated each of these qualities. Emphasize them in essays, interviews, and any other application materials.

To get your best qualities down to a concise message, Weiss tells his clients to work on their “elevator pitch” for business school. Work on crafting a pitch that’s no longer than 60 seconds. It should include your background, why you’d like to be in a particular program, why you’d be a good fit for the program, and what you’d like to do with your degree afterward. If you can come up with a brief, polished description of what you have to offer, you’ll have a greater chance of folding it in to all parts of your application.

Newer requirements

Candidates should also be prepared to use newer technology to meet multimedia requirements. Requesting multimedia responses or asking for creativity in submitting materials has become more common in recent years, sometimes included as part of the “essay” questions. Morgan points to just a few examples: “Chicago Booth asks applicants to create a four-page PowerPoint presentation about themselves. MIT Sloan has offered an option to submit a multimedia component to the application.ΓΏ For years, NYU Stern has allowed applicants to submit anything at all, including items or objects that represent themselves. (Be careful, the items are not returned!)”

With many young students undoubtedly submitting expertly edited videos, high-quality PowerPoints, and other products using the best technology available today, older candidates must make an effort to stand out. If you have the option to provide a multimedia component, but opt to write a traditional essay only, keep in mind that your essay must stand up against videos, podcasts, and presentations.

The interviewing process is taking a bit of a different shape, as well. Rather than one straightforward interview, many schools are trying new methods to find the best fits for their programs. Wharton is having applicants participate in group discussions about pre-assigned topics, Harvard Business School candidates have to write a post-interview reflection within 24 hours of the interview, and INSEAD institutes multiple interviews so candidates have to impress two or more representatives. Applicants must prepare for a variety of interview experiences with individuals and groups for the best chances of acceptance into the top programs.

Community and extracurricular involvement have more emphasis in admissions than they have in the past. Being a well-rounded candidate can make you stand out from the academically qualified pack and potentially show that your degree will be an investment in your community. Whether it’s through a volunteer organization, social club, your church, or something else, make sure to emphasize your involvement throughout the admissions process.

“MBA programs are looking for candidates who seek to impact the communities around them — both inside and out of the workplace,” Morgan says. “While extracurricular activities were ‘nice to have’ on an application 10 or 20 years ago, they are crucial to a top-tier MBA application today.”

While people who have been out of college for 10 years or more face some different challenges than their younger peers when it comes to getting into business school, their life experiences can make them valuable candidates. The motivation, mastery of important skills, and overall maturity that typically come along with older applicants can be a boon in the admissions process if they know how to leverage these qualities. With the right preparation and knowledge of current admissions practices, older students can find their way into top programs around the country.