Stanford’s View on Age of Applicant

In the past, I have addressed the issue of applicant age. I am constantly asked by applicants if they are too old or too young. Recently, more individuals are concerned about being too old, as the rumor is that younger applicants are more desirable. Just RusGirl addresses one aspect of the age issue, as it pertains to women, in Women in business schools. In my prior post, “Am I too Old“, I provide some general insights on this topic.

Since Harvard and Stanford, in particular, are often cited for seeking out younger applicants, I thought I would provide some insights, straight from the mouth of Stanford’s Dean Joss:

Why We Want Some Early Career Students

Back in the 1960s when I went to the Business School, most of us were straight out of college or had less than two years of post-college work experience. Among them, Phil Knight, MBA ’62, went on to found Nike. My classmate Hank McKinnell, MBA ’67, is now CEO of Pfizer. John Scully, MBA ’68, manages private equity investments. Jeffrey Bewkes, MBA ’77, went on to become chairman of the entertainment and networks group at Time Warner. Even in the 1980s, people still came directly from college as exemplified by Robert Kagle, MBA ’80, now general partner with Benchmark Capital, and Ann Livermore, MBA ’82, an executive vice president at Hewlett-Packard.

Over time, however, the post-undergraduate work experience of applicants to business school has grown. The range is great but the average is now four or five years. A myth has developed that you must have four years or more of experience or top business schools won’t even look at you. That’s not true at Stanford. Yet the myth has deterred outstanding early-career applicants from applying. While those who have worked longer bring valuable experience to class discussion, we want to see a few strong early-career students in the mix too.

What do I mean by early-career?

Generally, applicants with fewer than three years of full-time work experience. This group includes individuals who want to pursue an MBA directly following undergraduate study with no prior full-time work experience.

Why reach out to these prospects? First, remember that the Business School’s philosophy is to have maximum impact on the management effectiveness of leaders at different career stages. The Sloan Master’s Program is aimed primarily at mid-career managers. Executive Education supports practicing mid- and senior-level managers. The MBA is a transformative experience for those who know, no matter their career stage, that leadership of organizations is their lifelong calling. That’s where we have a tremendous opportunity to accelerate the development of rising leaders.

Second, we think we’re missing out on some talent. I know at least two current chief executives of major corporations who years ago were denied admission to the Business School partly because they applied too early, but they were admitted elsewhere. We don’t want to lose outstanding candidates to other programs because we are perceived as unnecessarily rigid.

Third, the opportunity cost of being out of the workplace for two years is the largest cost component of an MBA, and that cost is lowest in the early-career stage. In addition, for candidates thinking about when to begin a family, early entrance to business school is often an attractive option. Women now earn the majority of undergraduate degrees in the United States and will be increasing in the MBA applicant pool as a result. Evidence suggests that women and men are at parity in law and medical schools partially because many women are able to establish their post-professional school careers before taking time out for children.

What are we doing to recruit early-career candidates?

Over the last several years, we have increased our efforts to reach undergraduate students by visiting 50 colleges to discuss the merits of an MBA education in general and at Stanford specifically. For the first time this year, the Business School offered the GSB Summer Institute for liberal arts and science undergraduates and early-career individuals to provide an early exposure to management education.

What do students with less work experience contribute?

Professors observe that early-career students are able to contribute along with those who have more work history. Early-career applicants may have fewer work experiences, but it is the quality of their experiences and not the quantity that matters, and we select all our students for the quality of what they bring. Different early-career applicants make different contributions, just as is the case with other demographic groups that make up the class””and that’s the point: We admit people as individuals, and by having outstanding early-career applicants in the pool, we have a stronger pool from which to select. Each person makes his or her own unique and valuable contribution to the whole, and each receives individual benefits from the program.

Recruiters strongly support the presence of some early-career students in the program. These students are sometimes more flexible about the location and types of positions they consider, and they can be more patient in the career years immediately after the MBA””factors that lead to considerable placement success for them. Our emphasis has always been quality of experience rather than quantity, focusing on what applicants have achieved relative to their opportunities.

Does this mean that Stanford is only interested in early career applicants? No. It also does not mean that you have a better chance if you apply at a younger age. It just means that these schools are becoming increasingly open to all ages, and realize that you have a lot to contribute in different ways at various life stages. Your job as an applicant is to search internally for what you have to offer – whether it is ten years of accumulated work experience or a high quality, unique summer internship.

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