MBA Programs Accept Younger Applicants, But Is It a Good Idea?

We’ve written many times about the trend at some top business schools toward accepting younger applicants. In some cases, these schools have even created specific programs to attract these candidates. But, a big question still looms: Does it make sense for someone to enter an MBA program with little or not full-time professional experience?”

A new Wall Street Journal article, explores this issue in some depth. The article doesn’t really choose a side, but raises some interesting questions about how attractive a younger candidate is when he graduates at 24 with a fancy degree and very little work experience.

The schools’ reason for trying to attract the candidates — as we have always said — is that even Harvard Business School and Stanford GSB feel the need to hustle to get their hands on high-potential young professionals before other graduate schools (not just MBA programs) do. Stanford GSB’s Derrick Bolton said as much in the article: “When you see really talented people, you want to lock them in.”

But does it do a service to the student to lock them in so early? For us, it really comes down to whether those candidates enter business school with any significant professional experience under their belt. The HBS 2+2 Program gives new admits a chance to gain two years of experience before matriculating (hence the “2+2” name)… This still feels a bit green to us, thinking back to our time in business school and who seemed “with it” and who still seemed a little young to be taken seriously. But, at least those first-year students will have some professional experience, usually from blue-chip firms.

Other programs mentioned in the article, such as Stanford, will (on rare occasions) let someone matriculate straight out of college. While the rare student who does this is undoubtedly a remarkable young person who has already achieved a lot and demonstrated unheard of potential, they often still bring a level of naïveté that will induce the occasional groan from other classmates. I know, because I have see it firsthand.

(I have even been on both sides of the argument. As an undergrad at MIT who took management classes at Sloan alongside full-time MBA students, I always resented those students for resenting my presence. Once I got to Kellogg as an MBA student with five years of work experience under my belt, I finally understood their point of view. As an undergrad with no full-time work experience, I wasn’t able to contribute to class discussions or team projects like they were, no matter how much potential I might have had.)

And, as the WSJ article points out, the other audience to consider are professional recruiters. Here schools imply need to be pragmatic about what works and what doesn’t. If a school Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business (a fine MBA program) can’t easily place 24-year-old grads in great jobs from Harvard and Stanford still can, then it may simply mean that the “younger MBA” formula will only work for schools with strong enough brands.

At the end of the day, despite Harvard’s seeming push to get younger, we almost always advise an young applicant to wait an extra year or two before applying. That person’s application story will be stronger, his academic experience in business school will be richer, and his job candidacy will almost always be more appealing to future employers. Patience is a virtue, even in MBA admissions.

Thinking about applying to a top-ranked MBA program this year? Call us at (800) 925-7737 to speak with an MBA admissions consultant today. And, as always, be sure to find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

Photo courtesy of Foxtongue, under a Creative Commons license.