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How Old Is Too Old for Business School?

Matt Kefford

Matt Kefford - BusinessBecause

Matt Kefford is a writer for BusinessBecause and mba.com.

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It’s a legitimate question: How old is too old for business school?

The answer is that each person is different.

For some, enrolling in an MBA or Executive MBA (EMBA) could be the best option for personal and professional growth; even at the age of 50. For others, it could be a bad investment, offering few benefits while you fork out a huge sum of money.

Rather than asking whether you’re too old for business school, it’s a good idea to ask yourself why you want to go in the first place.

Assessing your goals

No matter what age you are, before applying to business school you should have a clear idea of what you’re expecting to achieve.

You need to ask yourself what your personal and professional goals are, whether they’re realistic, and if business school can help you achieve them.

If you’re in your 40s or 50s and therefore older than the typical business school applicant, you may find your reasons for applying to business school are more a mix of personal and professional goals, rather than just the latter.

You could be sitting on the board of your company, but lacking knowledge in a specific area. Or you might feel your professional network is too siloed in one industry.

Improving that knowledge and building your network with a business degree might not result in a promotion, or higher salary, but it could improve your personal confidence and contribution to your company.

A 2021 survey of business school alumni by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) found that return on investment goes beyond the professional, as 72 percent reported their personal situation had improved because of their degree.

Of course, that’s not to say it won’t also improve your professional standing. You might secure a promotion, or you may gain the skills and knowledge you need to reinvent yourself in a new industry or function and pivot your career.

Choosing the right program

If you do decide that business school is the right option for you, you’ll need to decide which program type you want to apply for.

While pre-experience master’s degrees are probably off-limits for older, more experience candidates, there are several programs to choose from.

The choice you make should be influenced by the type of experience you want to have. If you want to leave your current role and throw yourself into an intensive and immersive business experience, a full-time MBA or post-experience master’s could be the way to go.

Though full-time MBA cohorts are often dominated by people in their mid-to-late 20s, you’ll usually find a small proportion of older students in each program. Veterans, for example, often don’t leave the military until their early 30s. 

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Full-time MBA programs also come in a range of different delivery modes, with online and part-time programs available if you need flexibility. In a previous cohort of the Online MBA at Jack Welch Management Institute, for example, one of the students was a 55-year old professional who led his own company.

Post-experience master’s also offer a similar experience. Katherine Garlinghouse was head of communications at energy conglomerate Chevron— where she’d worked for 15 years—before she enrolled in the Stanford MSx, a Master’s aimed at experienced professionals. She enjoyed the fast-paced, one-year format.

“You really have the benefit of being able to push out the rest of life and focus,” she explains. “I wanted something like that, but until I was here, I didn’t realize how valuable that environment is.”

Alternatively, you may prefer an EMBA—specifically designed for experienced professionals and often taught at evenings or weekends—which allows you to study with an experienced cohort of professionals typically part-time over two years.

An EMBA could be for you if you don’t want to change company or job and choosing to study is a personal choice or a way of improving your standing in your company. Or you might not want to give up your salary for two years to pursue a full-time MBA, as it’s probably higher than a typical early-career MBA applicant—you may also have a family you need to support.

Getting accepted

Will business schools accept your application if you’re an older candidate?

Schools are often ranked according to salary increases between enrollment and graduation, and an experienced professional is unlikely to see the same post-MBA increase as an early-career applicant, so schools may prefer younger applicants. 

Schools are also aware that recruiters at top firms like McKinsey or Goldman Sachs prefer to hire young associates and analysts into their graduate programs, as they’re easier to mold and are likely to have fewer family commitments.

But business schools also champion diversity, and most want a wide range of people in their cohorts, which may help your application.

MBA Application Guide for Working Professionals

Gain step-by-step, personalized guidance on the MBA admissions process crafted specifically for working professionals like you.

“They want students to have interesting experiences to share in classroom discussions,” explains David White, MBA admissions consultant and founding partner of Menlo Coaching.

So, your experience could be played to your advantage. You’ve probably had the chance to work on a big project or had an impressive achievement during your career, which you can leverage to boost your application.

As with anybody applying to business school, it’s about communicating that you’re a good fit.

While your path as an older candidate may differ from others, you need to show the value your experience can bring to the classroom, and how it can strengthen the learning of others.

So, can you be too old for business school?

The short answer is no, and schools should be open to accepting older candidates if they’re serious about increasing classroom diversity and accessibility.

And if you can show a school that you can be an asset to them and their program, you’ll have a good chance of success.

Matt Kefford

Matt Kefford - BusinessBecause

Matt Kefford is a writer for BusinessBecause and mba.com, writing stories and creating social media content covering business education. He's also a contributor to the GMAC Connect Blog.

Matt is an experienced media professional, he’s previously written for national news organizations including The Sunday Times and i News, as well as a number of regional titles. He’s also worked in social media for Sky News.

Matt has a B.A. in History from the University of Leeds and an M.A. in Journalism from the University of Sheffield. He is also a gold standard accredited journalist with the National Council for the Training of Journalists.