Many people start thinking about applying to MBA programs when they have only one to two years of post-undergrad work experience, which is under or at the low end of the three- to eight-year experience range that 80% of applicants have when they matriculate. MBA programs are seeking people who can be productive contributors in class and who already have some career and life experience to share with their peers. Because so much learning comes from your fellow classmates, it’s vital that classes are full of people with some significant experience in their industry, function, and geography. If you’ve only worked for a year or two, you are likely to bring less to the program—and therefore have less chance of being admitted.
For applicants who are still in college (and still in test mode!), deferred enrollment programs—which have become increasingly popular in the last few years—are a great way to apply so they can potentially have a plan locked up by graduation. For these programs, candidates apply in their senior year of college or during a post-college graduate program. For some applicants, a pre-experience master’s degree might make sense to gain management or finance skills, for example, before pursuing an MBA.
However, if you’ve left college and are out in the workforce, you might be wondering if you’re too young for a traditional two-year MBA program. Perhaps you know you need an MBA, and waiting another year or two would equate to spinning your wheels in your current position without gaining the skills you need to achieve your long-term goals.
Here are some things to consider as you decide whether you’re too young for an MBA:
Your Work Experience
The key point to remember is that every business school applicant needs to answer “Why an MBA?,” “Why now?,” and “Why at X school?” For applicants who have less or more than the three- to eight-year average of work experience, the “Why now?” aspect is even more critical. If you are an applicant with less work experience, there are a few reasons that your work history might be enough to help you gain admission to an MBA program despite your younger age. If you’re at a consulting firm, for example, and you’ve been promoted faster than your peers and don’t have anywhere else to go without an MBA, it could make sense to apply earlier.
Some applicants might not have much full-time work experience on their resume, but they have considerable leadership roles outside of work, perhaps in an extracurricular activity. Or maybe someone has started a business and can’t move forward without the formal training an MBA offers. An entrepreneur who already has started a business, especially a successful one, would have valuable insight to share in the classroom. Regardless of your reasoning, it’s very important to clearly answer that “Why now?” question in your application essay(s) so the admissions committee understands your motivation and the logic behind your timing.
Your Future Goals
What you want to do after earning an MBA also contributes to your attractiveness to admissions committees as a younger applicant. If a candidate wants to enter a family business, for example, and has gained all the experience they can in their current role, perhaps an MBA now makes the most sense so they can get back to the family business and start making an impact without waiting three or four more years. MBA programs have the specialized resources that some people need to keep growing their own business or to move into a family business.
Candidates who are older or younger than average would be well served to have a high GPA and a high GMAT or GRE score to mitigate their smaller amount of work experience. Because applicants are evaluated holistically, if you’re viewed as weaker on the work experience side, your stats could be an area to show strength. Scoring above a school’s reported 80% range on the GMAT would help your chances much more than placing at or under the school’s average.
Your School Selection
Some schools are more open than others to younger or older candidates. Therefore, be sure to research which schools may skew younger. For example, most European programs (such as London Business School and INSEAD) skew older, with an average age of 29, while most US programs have an average age of 27 or 28. But averages are just that, so there are outliers at every school who are younger and older. About 4%–5% of people entering Harvard Business School each year have two years of work experience when they matriculate—and because the school has such a big class, that can be 40–50 people.
There’s no perfect answer regarding whether you’re too young for an MBA, but if you are under that 80% range of work experience, you should have some clear and specific reasons why you’re applying now to give yourself the best chance at admission.