There’s been much talk recently about people who apply to MBA programs right out of college, before they’ve had a chance to gain significant work experience.
Media reports have noted – rightly – that the number of such applicants who get into top b-schools is small, but they also report that admissions committees are increasingly open to early-career applicants. (The HBS 2+2 program is probably the perfect example of a top business school attempting to “poach” top talent at the earliest possible point.)
It’s easy to see why this trend can appeal to b-schools. Opening up admissions to younger applicants is one way to revitalize the applicant pool. Moreover, extending a welcome to less experienced applicants might help b-schools diversify their applicant pool, especially in terms of attracting more women candidates.
But is this trend a good thing for MBA applicants? Even if you’re sharp enough to get into HBS at the age of 23, would it be in your best interests to do so?
That’s a harder question to answer than it might seem. The obvious answer would be, ‘Heck, yes.’ A Harvard MBA, and membership in the HBS alumni network, should put any aspiring businessperson on the fast track.
But getting an MBA at such a young age poses some risks, too. These are some questions that prospective early career applicants should ask themselves:
- Will you get all that you should out of your education? An underlying assumption of many b-school courses is that the students bring real-world experience to the classroom and will use it to put lessons and case studies into a realistic perspective. That insight is crucial to being able to put theories and models to work. It’s one thing to understand how to do a strategic cost analysis. It’s another thing to understand how to apply your findings in a situation where various departments and individuals – including customers – will resist any change you try to introduce.
- How well will you fit in with classmates and fellow alumni who are five to ten years older than you? Membership in an alumni network is one of the major benefits of a top b-school program. Do you have enough maturity and experience to be accepted as a peer by that network? People will like you, but will they respect you, or turn to you with problems, or think of you when opportunities arise?
- Will you get the most out of your school’s career placement services? Corporate recruiters look for MBAs with work experience. Having the degree but not the track record will be a handicap. You won’t get either the job offers or the salary and bonus offers that your classmates do. Putting off your MBA for a couple of years so that you would graduate with both the degree and the work experience (and the references) could make a world of difference in your career outcomes.
I don’t doubt that there’s the occasional wunderkind out there who’s ready for HBS by the time they can drink legally. But most people are better off postponing their MBA until after they’ve gained some solid work experience. The rationale for doing so isn’t just that having work experience makes you a stronger applicant. It’s that having work experience will make you a stronger MBA student, a stronger recruiting prospect, and a stronger manager.