Tips for Applying to B-School After Years in the Workforce

The average age of business school applicants has been trending downward for the past decade, and with that, work experience expectations have shifted as well.

But not everyone is ready or in a position to take the business school plunge at 26 years old. If you want to pursue an MBA in your early-30s and beyond, consider these specific tips as you put together your application package.

1. Show career progression:​ When applying to a top-tier business school, you'll need to show the admissions committee a clear path of professional growth. Avoid looking stagnant, as the admissions team wants to admit students who continually seek to learn and advance their skills and leadership abilities.

Even if you have held the same job for several years, you should demonstrate career progression either in the formal sense, with increasingly higher-level job titles, or by pointing out how you have gradually taken on greater responsibilities. Coach your recommenders to specifically address this upward trajectory in their letters of support, as this will help convey your dedication to your professional development.

Make sure to ask a current or recent manager for that recommendation, as a letter from a supervisor who worked with you eight years ago might raise a red flag. If you do select a recommender from the more distant past, make sure that you have really kept in touch and they can speak to your professional progression and work habits now.

Also, if you have had several jobs, don't worry about squeezing all of them on to the MBA resume. Highlight only the most important positions and responsibilities.

2. Show strong leadership: It's understandable that younger applicants won't have many examples of leadership one year out of school, but as time goes on, expectations increase and the ability to manage and inspire others will become more important.

The best MBA programs value great leadership. If you are applying to Harvard Business School in your mid-30s, you better have already developed terrific leadership skills and have a lot to show for them.

For your essays, find professional or personal anecdotes that show how you have galvanized or improved the work of others. Try to paint a vivid picture of your biggest leadership challenge, or of a time when you led ​with integrity or motivated a team to achieve a shared goal. You want to show how you always attempt to do more than a good job, and strive to leave your mark on whatever situation you're in.

As prepared as you are, you need to convince the schools that you still have room for improvement that can only come from the education and experiences of an MBA program. Let them know exactly what they offer that will help you further hone your leadership or technical skills.

3. Choose the right type of program: If you're really advanced in your career, research what type of program is the better fit for your professional goals and personal life. You may find that a part-time MBA program or an executive MBA program will allow you to meet your goals with greater flexibility and less disruption.

When we worked with Claudine, she was in her late-30s and held an executive-level position in finance at a large consumer products company. She had reached a career plateau in her firm and wanted to obtain an MBA to take her to the next level, but any of the three format options could help her achieve her goals.

While excited by the range of social and extracurricular activities available in a full-time MBA program, Claudine had an extremely demanding family life with two small children and didn't think she could take advantage of the many social activities most full-time MBA students participate in.

Ultimately, her desire for a flexible way to expand her skills and tap into the network available from a strong program led Claudine to look most closely at an executive MBA, and she ended up having great success at the joint EMBA program between the University of California¬óBerkeley Haas School of Business and Columbia Business School.

Business school admissions committees always seek applicants with diverse interests and backgrounds, and older candidates have numerous attractive qualities going for them. The key is to make sure all of those great qualities stand front and center in your MBA application.

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