These days, the average full-time MBA student has between 4 and 5 years of professional work experience.

Is that too much? Too little? Or just right?

Some believe that entering graduate business school right after college, or within a year or two of college graduation, has benefits for MBA students. Young, aspiring MBAs would be able to get their degrees at a more convenient point in their lives, without having to make the financial and family sacrifices needed to return to school in their late 20’s or 30’s.

Others argue that the best age to earn an MBA depends on personal factors. Broad, sweeping positions on the matter may pointless for you. That’s because MBA education is delivered under a big tent. Your best age to enter an MBA program may not apply to that very young fellow who came out of the admissions interview just before you. The best age to earn an MBA, says one senior MBA admissions adviser, depends on what you have accomplished academically and professionally so far, and, once you have your MBA diploma, the kind of profession you hope to enter.

“If you had some trouble in your academic performance as an undergrad, five to seven years out from graduation, admissions committees won’t look as heavily at that, particularly if you performed well professionally and showed potential through a strong GMAT,” says AdmissionsConsultants senior adviser Kent Harrill, MBA.

“However, if you didn’t do well as an undergrad and are applying for an MBA not long afterwards, it matters much, much more,” added Harrill, a Cornell University MBA and former member of the university’s MBA admissions committee, where he reviewed over 1,000 applications and made accept/reject/waitlist decisions. “You won’t find many, or any, students at the top MBA programs that don’t have a combination of very high GPAs and GMATs compared to their classmates.”

An even larger factor is career. In some cases youth and brevity in the workplace will earn points. “For example, certain areas within investment banking actually prefer younger applicants — they’re just looking for very smart people that they can ‘mold’ into their corporate environment. Same with many management rotational programs, in which they give you two years in a variety of areas to determine what field is best for you,” says Harrill. Fields where age and career experience are an advantage are management consulting and consumer marketing. Admissions officers reviewing MBA applicants to these fields will be looking for solid experience. “Days are long gone when a 23-year-old MBA can step into an executive’s office and tell her how to manage her business. It just doesn’t cut it these days,” he says.

There’s nothing cast in stone about the matter of age, work experience, and MBA admissions. Thirty years ago, it wasn’t that unusual for someone to go directly from college to business school. At one time, as many as one-third of the students in a Harvard MBA class had been accepted to HBS as college seniors. Yet, while Harvard continues to accept a small number of applicants right out of college, the average amount of work experience held by class of 2019 first-year students was five years.

College seniors and those just a year or two out will want to weigh several factors when they ask themselves whether now, rather than later, is the best time to invest two years in an MBA education.

SOME QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF

There are, clearly, some valid points to consider when deciding whether to pursue an MBA immediately after college. If you go early, you won’t have to readjust to an academic environment. You’ll probably have fewer obligations — outside of academic performance — than you might have in even a few years’ time. Upon graduation you will be far more competitive in the hiring arena than you would be without an MBA.

Yet, your lack of work experience may limit your business school choices and you might have to accept settling for a less prestigious program. The values and insights you can gain from a few years of full-time employment really can enhance your competitiveness for admission to the very top b-schools, where admissions officers like to admit a diverse array of applicants. Schools know that much of your MBA education won’t come from passive learning, but from group discussions and collaborative projects. They know that students with impressive career trajectories have much to share with their peers.

Scant work experience could mean that you may won’t get everything you should out of your classes. MBA coursework is designed for people who have some first-hand experience of how businesses and organizations work. That experience provides a crucial context for the theories and tools you’ll learn in class. You’ll be at a disadvantage without it.

Another bonus of earning substantial work experience before entering an MBA program is that it will help you narrow down your range of career interests. By knowing the day-to-day realities of one or more jobs or industries, you have a good idea of what you do and don’t want to do with the rest of your life. Without that knowledge, you will have to double your research to assure that you choose a concentration and internship that put you on the right track.

And, though we consider this matter a bit of a stretch — we’ll include it for the kernel of truth it may contain — which is that by enrolling in graduate business school now, you may end up shortening the ‘shelf life’ of your MBA. That means that, say, six years from now, you would be better off with four years of work experience capped off with an MBA, versus getting your MBA now and then entering the workforce. Yet, an obvious weakness in this argument is that in the eyes of employers, a person with an “aged” MBA probably has valuable career experience and professional training. In the mind of employers, a job applicant fresh from a major acquisition will not be easily eclipsed by someone who recently executed a mock acquisition for a class project.

One other argument (with holes) against enrolling in an MBA while your are still, professionally speaking, “wet behind the ears”, is that you will undercut the ROI on your b-school investment. From what we have seen, that’s true in the short run. Yes, an MBA graduate with three or four years of vital work experience will earn more than one without that time in the workplace so typically, older MBA students will see a lower ROI. Yet these things tend to balance themselves out. The differences in starting pay are not so dramatic from the beginning that those who enter an MBA program without work experience will never offset the loss. Bigger differences in starting salaries can be found in the types of industries and jobs people enter after they complete their MBAs.

THE BOTTOM LINE

To our younger MBA aspirants, we say that if you have the grades, GMAT scores, and extracurricular accomplishments required for admission to a top MBA program, and you are determined to launch your graduate business education now, instead of later, there are ample reasons to do so, especially if you plan to enter a profession where your absence of work experience will be viewed more as a clean slate than a deficit. Yet, older applicants will find no substitute for the synergy created by combining professional experience with graduate business education.

The bottom line on business school timing is that you should go for your degree when the timing is right for you. Your MBA education is one of the largest investments you’ll make in your life. We want you to maximize the return you will get on your time, efforts, and money. A realistic appraisal of your undergraduate record, GMAT scores, job experience, career goals, and your school choices will be the best guideposts for deciding whether to go for the brass ring now, or wait until you’re sitting on a better horse.

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