SBC Scoop: An Older Applicant

A lot has been said in recent years about schools like Harvard and Stanford taking a greater interest in younger applicants and denying older applicants, with many top schools following suit.  In fact, I have seen posts in forums that basically tell people there is “no chance” past a certain age.  Whereas ten years ago there was buzz about getting as much work experience as possible, more recently, applicants have feared having too much experience, being too old.  This case study is meant to demonstrate that older applicants do get in, and can and should apply.  But I also want to provide a context and explain why older candidates do often have a tough time.  Since our client ended up at HBS, I will speak to HBS, but this really applies to all top schools.

Harvard values great leadership.  If you are applying to Harvard when you are 34 or like our client, 37, you better have already developed terrific leadership skills and have a lot to show for them.  The problem is that many people with great leadership skills have achieved so much by the time they are almost 40, that they are not interested in going back to school.    However, if one of these people is interested, and can demonstrate great achievement balanced with a legitimate need/desire to return to school, than they have a good chance.  You see, proving that you are a strong and accomplished 40 year old leader, and balancing that with the fact that you want to improve in order to get to the next step, is tough to pull off.  But it is pulled off and “old” people are admitted every year!

Our client, Max, was 37 and applied to a full range of schools.  Harvard was actually a re-application for him ”“ the others were all first time apps.  In a nutshell, his numbers were just average (3.5 GPA from mid tier school and 670 GMAT), and he had a nice, though not outrageous record of extra-curriculars.

Max’s work experience was stellar.  He had advanced quickly and impressively, and had significant P&L responsibility at Nestle.   He had rock solid evidence of strong leadership and communication skills, and he clearly had a lot to offer peers in classroom discussion.  Recommendations were also very good.  In drafting his application, he struggled with the balance between past experience and articulating ambitious, reasonable goals that supported his desire for an MBA.  Ultimately, he had a very big, high impact vision for his career.  But it was not a “pie in the sky” type of pipe dream.  His prior experience informed and inspired his future goals, and made them appear to be realistic: ambitious and realistic.  He was also able to tie unique personal experiences to his goals, showing how his career plan had personal meaning for him and was about more than just “making money”.

Even though he emerged from the process with admits from HBS and Tuck, it was not a smooth road.  His initial results were not so happy as he was waitlisted and then denied first from Wharton and later also denied from Columbia and Stanford.  At that point he seized upon the only aspect of the application that was still within his control and prepped like crazy for his Round 2 interviews.  Guess it helped tip him over the edge!  A very happy ending.

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