- The average age for sitting a GMAT test to get into business school is trending downwards. So when exactly is the right time to get your MBA degree?
- Business Insider interviewed five successful MBA graduates who went to business school at different stages of their lives to understand why they decided to go to school when they did and how their degree led to their next moves.
- The graduates, at ages anywhere from 25 to 45 to 60, all argued that going to business school at the right time is more important than going at a certain age. Their stories prove that’s the case.
- Click here for more BI Prime stories.
The average age of people sitting to take their GMAT test for business school is trending slightly downwards, from 26.5 in 2014 to 26.0 in 2018.
Whether education should come before experience — or the other way around — is an age-old question (pun intended).
Business Insider spoke to five successful individuals in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s who went to leading business schools in the US to find out what led them to embark on an MBA when they did, whether they would have done it differently if they had their time again, and what they learned from their experience.
Lexy McGranahan had only been out of college for three years, but at age 25, she decided to leave her job to go to Michigan Ross for her MBA.
“I was progressing quickly in my career, having been promoted after less than a year in the role. However, I found there wasn’t enough time in the day to advance my management and leadership skills at the same rate as my technical skills, which would be required as I moved to the next step in my career,” she said.
In an unconventional move, McGranahan decided to go to business school after having been offered another promotion at global cosmetics giant Sephora. “It was about the escalation of commitment. It becomes harder and harder the further you are in your career. I knew that I wanted to go back and get an MBA, it wasn’t a question, and I felt like this was the last time that I could walk away from an opportunity to do it,” she said.
She wanted to focus on her management and leadership development by revisiting the academic subjects she had studied during her business degree within the MBA environment.
“The focus wasn’t just on the topics themselves, but how to manage and lead teams through them, with an emphasis on how they manifest in the ‘real world,'” she explained.
McGranahan, who graduated in 2017 and now works as a global retail manager for Nike, believed that anyone who’s interested in going to business school shouldn’t be guided by age, but by what they’re prepared to contribute.
“Going back to school with the right mentality was the driver of my ultimate success,” she explained. “I was personally and professionally prepared to contribute all of my energy to the program, as I believe this translates to the most enriching experience — not just for the individual, but for the entire class.”
She added: “A full-time, on campus MBA program is all-consuming in the best way possible, so an individual has to be ready for that commitment. And at the time I went back to school, I was ready.”
When Anjelica Jones started her full-time MBA at Michigan Ross, she was already a successful electrical engineer — but she wanted to do more.
“I really wanted to change the landscape of engineering and tech and increase the diversity within it, because I rarely saw anyone who looked like me,” she explained. “I knew an MBA would give me the leadership skills I needed to effect such change with or without authority, and to do so within a corporate structure that was — and still continues to be, quite frankly — stacked against underrepresented populations.”
At 33, it felt like the right time to go back to the classroom. “It [had been] 10 years since I’d been at college, and in that time I’d done a lot of living,” the now 38-year-old recalled. “I was at a crossroads in my career. It was a pivotal time for me to take that leap. I went at a time when I was old enough to impart some life knowledge onto younger classmates, but still young and humble enough to be taught a few things.”
To her surprise, she found that many of her classmates had either just entered their 30s or were already in their early 30s like her, so she didn’t feel completely out of place.
The most important thing that she learned at business school was her worth. On top of that, she has learned technical skills that have enabled her to move to work in finance for Netflix as a finance operations business partner.
“My MBA gave me the courage to properly and confidently navigate a corporate world that was not built to be to my advantage. As an African-American female with an MBA from a top school, I still have to fight for a rightfully-earned place at the corporate table. But since I graduated, I do not shy away from the fight — I instead go in ready, prepared, and expecting to win it,” she said.
Andy Pechacek began his career as a business manager for schools in Texas. At age 45, he decided to enroll in business school to help with his job at the time, but he had no idea that it would lead to a whole new trajectory for his career.
“I decided to go back to school because the work I was doing had become more about helping lead entrepreneurial efforts within our organization, and I believed that the concepts learned in the program would help me be better at my job,” he said.
Pechacek was part of the first executive MBA class that graduated from MIT Sloan in 2012. The program requires students to be on campus for all of the classes, which is roughly every second or third week for two years.
“While I was in class, I had the idea of starting my own business. So I quit my job in mid-spring, right before I graduated, and started an education company that we then went on to sell, and now I’m working on a new startup. So I guess I’m saying that it made me into an entrepreneur,” he said.
Pechacek, who is currently chairman of two startups, Cooperative Resource Management Group LLC and Nahsai LLC, described his decision to go back to school as “a perfect storm” that gave him the insight to realize his own capabilities.
“Where I was in my career really started to make sense. I began to put things I was learning into practice, rather than understanding it conceptually as you might at an undergraduate level,” he explained. “If I could do it all over, I wouldn’t change a thing. I don’t think I would have gone back to school any earlier, because I wouldn’t have been ready to implement as well all of the things that I have learned. I found the business strategies and processes they taught particularly valuable, and have been able to apply entrepreneurial skills, such as looking for creative ways to fulfill customers’ needs, to the government sector.”
Anita Carleton had wanted to go to business school all of her professional life, as she saw it as the most significant step she could take toward developing the skills and perspectives she needed to be a more effective executive and to take on the next leadership challenges of her career.
But she decided to wait until her sons started college to pursue her degree, as balancing her time between her career, family, and helping to support her husband through law school was challenging enough. While she raised her family, she served as the deputy director at the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. “Our mission is software engineering, cybersecurity, and artificial intelligence for national defense,” she said.
At age 55, she embarked on her full-time MBA at MIT Sloan, which was a combination of on-campus and remote learning. Even after spending 30 years in the workforce, Carleton still found value in learning how to build an innovation ecosystem strategy, pitch ideas in a Hackathon, and create innovation loops.
“Since I graduated, I pivoted from technical leadership to strategic and executive leadership,” she said. “I now lead that division and am a part of the executive leadership team responsible for assembling a national strategy for software for the DoD.”
One pleasant surprise since graduating has been that her combination of work experience and MBA qualifications have led to her being invited to serve on several boards.
“I wish I could have pursued my MBA earlier, it would have been better, but I don’t regret the decisions I made because they were right for me and right in terms of our family priorities. Having more time for the return on investment in business school would have been nice, but I’m just happy that I made the decision to do it,” she said.
Michael Kim started his business 180° Snacks in his home kitchen in 1998, and today his healthy bites are stocked at Costco. Now, the 60-year-old wants to prepare to hand the business down to his sons. His first step was enrolling in an executive MBA at Berkeley-Haas to learn everything he could about business and finance to make sure his company was in proper shape. Having built it from the ground up to a $30 million business, Kim wanted to ensure that he had done everything right, and that it will be able to survive without him.
“I like to study, so I thought it would be interesting to see what an MBA teaches. The theories are interesting. I have applied some of the things that I’ve learned to my company directly, but they have to be customized,” he said.
As someone who read Confucius and Taoist teachings growing up, Kim found it especially useful to embed the leadership principles taught at Berkley-Haas into how he ran his company, such as continually questioning the status quo and maintaining ethics and responsibility by taking a long view.
Kim argued that 60 is as good an age as any to go back to school.
“A lot of people will say, why would you go back to school when you’re over fifty? But I think it’s a fine age to go to school. What else are you going to do with your time — go and waste it playing golf? I’d rather spend my time and money challenging myself,” he said. “I wish my mind was a bit younger to compete with the 30- and 35-year-olds, but the right time for you is the right age to go. You will just apply yourself differently.”
Kim added that he found a lot of value in collaborating with classmates of different ages, which is why he believed that having a diversity of age is important in the classroom environment.
“You can mentor many of the 30-year-olds who are up-and-coming, and share your knowledge with them. I like that there are ways to give back. When I was coming up, there was no one there to share that information,” he explained.