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Thinking of an MBA? A Recent Trend that will Force you to Start Planning Today!

A Master of Business Administration has become one of the most popular and biggest money-making degrees, both from a revenue standpoint for educational institutions and for those who succeed in making a huge-leap in the pay scale post-graduation. It’s a program that’s also extremely popular. But to be admitted to a top program requires careful planning. Whether you’re thinking of applying this Fall or a few years down the road, let me highlight a recent trend that will force you to start planning today.

The Average Age is Getting Younger

In the past, all business schools used to “strongly recommend” that candidates possess a minimum of 2 years work experience prior to applying. While 2 years was the usual guideline, most admitted participants would enter with 5-6 years, putting the average age at around 27-28.

The argument was simple. Most of the learning that occurs in an MBA is through class discussion, and sharing of stories and experiences. Without enough work experience, you would have less to share and potentially have a tougher time really appreciating some of the situations that are studied. With my MBA experiences still fresh in my mind, I totally agree. It was obvious in class to tell those students who had been around with amazing experiences under their belt to share, versus the younger students who when challenged had a hard time defending their views.

With that being said, there is a new movement and philosophy regarding this topic, led by schools such as Harvard and Stanford. These schools are slowly but purposefully trying to lower their average age to 25-26. Harvard recently introduced its 2+2 Program (http://www.hbs.edu/mba/admissions/2+2/), encouraging those still in their undergraduate programs to apply. If accepted, you are basically pre-admitted to the MBA program 2 years from today, while you go off to get your 2 years of work experience after you get your first degree. Harvard will even assign a Career Coach to help you with your job search. Not bad, eh? The only catch: You have to apply the summer before your final year of undergrad; otherwise, you have to go through the regular MBA process.

Why the sudden change?

One of the first reasons has to do with recruiting. Top B-schools such as Harvard pride themselves on attracting superstar candidates. By encouraging young applicants, Harvard is attempting to be the first to latch on to potential top talent before other schools do, or other distractions such as a rising career or family get in the way. Harvard wants to ensure that these top candidates enrol, and when they go on to do amazing things post-graduation, Harvard is able to take the credit for the “sudden” transformation. It doesn’t hurt that these superstars become amazing alumni (i.e. big donors!) too.

A second reason has to do with the statistics. One of the most important numbers, besides rankings, that prospective applicants look at when assessing a school is the percentage increase of salary a.k.a. the ROI – how high does your salary jump pre-MBA to post. Many believe that this metric is the main (and some say only) reason people invest in returning to school. Personally, if this is your only motivation, there’s lots of easier ways to make that happen than B-school. However, by admitting younger applicants, schools are making this number look way better than it really is. Younger applicants with less experience come to B-school with lower salaries, so of course, upon graduation their percentage increase is going to be much higher.

The most important reason though comes from the feedback of professors. With students in their upper 20s, many professors are finding it extremely challenging getting through to them. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Older students are much more set in their ways. With more work experience under their belt, many are more skeptical of some of the generic teachings that professors try to impart on them. How much can you really learn and actually change as a person in a condensed 10-month/1-year program like an INSEAD or Ivey?

However, the main driver of change has been the huge number of corporate scandals that have tarnished the reputation of the MBA: Jeff Skilling (Enron – Harvard), Joseph Berardino (Arthur Andersen – Harvard), Anil Kumar (McKinsey – Wharton). Students that are younger with less experience will come into the MBA program with a more open mind and be more receptive. To put it more bluntly, professors will have an easier time breaking down an impressionable 25yr old and then brainwashing them with the “proper” MBA training that will hopefully prevent any future Enrons from occurring again. At least, that’s the theory.

What does this mean for you?

If you’re thinking of waiting until you have 4-5 years of work experience to apply, think again. As more schools begin to follow the lead of Harvard and Stanford, your best chances will be when you’re 25-26. Of course, there will always be schools that will buck the trend (e.g. IMD avg. age 31 & INSEAD avg. age 29). This means that you may need to start planning right now.

A well-planned and well-executed MBA admissions strategy can take a good 2 years. You must first start by assessing your strengths, but most importantly where the weaknesses in your application may be. Then you need a plan on how to fill these gaps, whether it’s more leadership examples or strong letters of recommendation. If you only start 6 months before you apply, it will be too late. Admissions Directors know all the tricks, so if you all of a sudden start pilling on the community service, or become a Big Brother just 1 year before to pad the application, they will see right through it. Those of you interested in a program like the Harvard 2+2 may need to start planning as of your 1st year of undergrad.

One of the most important reasons for potentially moving up your MBA timetable is where you’ll end up in your career immediately after graduation. Many large multi-national employers such as GE, Johnson & Johnson and LVMH have standard MBA leadership / rotational programs for students to enter where everything is standard, including your pay. In investment banking and management consulting, two of the most popular post-MBA professions, regardless of your background, experience or age, everyone starts at the Associate level.

So, if you graduate at 26, you could really take a big leap forward in your career, while if you’re now 30, you may have only taken a small step forward, and some would argue that if you didn’t take 2 years off for school you’d be at the same place now or maybe even further along. There are some older MBA graduates that even have to take a pay cut or a step back in their career progression, in order for them to make the transition into a new industry.

The flip side is that having more experience will give you an advantage over your younger peers during the job hunt. Your resume will have more depth, and in the interviews you’ll have more stories to tell. Companies will also tell you that although all graduates start the same, because you have more experience, you’ll move up faster. While that might be true, there’s no guarantee.

In short, if you’re thinking of an MBA down the road, now is the time to start planning! If you’re lost on where to start, below is a list of some of the major tasks in the MBA admissions journey.

Too many people come to see me 1-2 months before the deadline for help. By that time, any major challenges or gaps in your application are hard to overcome. Spending the time now to put together a plan will guarantee that you’ll improve both your overall application and your chances of success to get in to the program of your choice.