On Age Discrimination in MBA Admissions and Rookie Hype

by on October 12th, 2012

I’ve been hard pressed to achieve an insomnia-free night as of late; and to be fair to my fellow pre-MBA applicants, I must concede that I am probably not unique in that respect.

At first glance, I’m just another one of thousands of applicants who has recently turned in a set of Round 1 applications at some very selective schools. If you scratch just beneath the surface, however, you will find not just another guy concerned about how the ad-coms will receive his application, but a 30-something with an underlined fear surrounding a certain data point on his profile, wondering what effect it might have on the final outcomes of his first round candidacy bids come January/December (or even his ability to garner invites to interview–yikes!).

On My Greatest Fear

You see, my name is mbaover30, and I have a phobia. Enclosed spaces? No. Arachnids? Child’s play. Serpents? Well, yes, but that’s another issue for a different blog. My biggest fear right now is MBA admissions age discrimination.

Now, I know that in MBA land–especially within the walls of the ultra-PC Top 25 kingdom, even the mention of “discrimination” of any kind could be enough to make even the most stoic of ad-com members clutch pearls and faint on site; therefore, let me explain so that my statements do not come across as inflammatory.

First I’ll say that I am neither accusing anyone of age discrimination nor am I even fully acknowledging it as an undeniable reality in the top MBA admissions game. In fact, I’ve caught wind of bits and pieces of empirical data (that I will present momentarily) suggesting that this whole notion might be nothing more than an urban legend–but I’ll get to that later.

I’m also not the kind of guy to have a hot finger for the “discrimination” button. When most people cry “discrimination” within earshot of me, my most likely (*not “only”) response over the years has been “Well, have you considered that it might just be YOU? Maybe they just don’t like/aren’t impressed with YOU?”

At the same time, I feel the need to address this–both to get it off my chest and to throw an additional layer of perspective into all the chatter that exists within MBA blogs, chats and discussions all over cyber space on this topic.

On Rookie Hype

Several months ago–just a few days after I arose from the battle ashes of the GMAT with a quasi-victorious final outcome, I came across this article on the Clear Admit Blog, one of several admissions blogs that I keep up with on a regular or semi-regular basis.

It covers the findings of research completed by professors Zachery Tormala and phD candidate Jayson Jia from the Stanford Graduate School of Business (The GSB) in conjunction with professor Michael Norton of Harvard Business School (HBS) on the subject of what is commonly referred to as “The Rookie Hype Phenomenon”.

In their research, they conducted several studies comparing people with experience vs. those with potential. Here’s what the Clear Admit blog wrote about the data they collected:

[from http://blog.clearadmit.com , unedited]

In one, they ran Facebook ads touting a real comedian, one version emphasizing the comic’s potential and the other emphasizing his achievement. The ad containing the tagline “Critics say he could become the next big thing” did more than twice as well (as measured by click rates and fan likes) than the one containing the tagline “Critics say he has become the next big thing.”

Another study called on participants in a lab experiment to play the role of an NBA team manager, evaluating players based either on their actual scoring statistics or their projected stats. In this experiment, participants not only showed a preference for the rookie over the veteran player, they indicated they would pay the rookie an average of $1 million more than the proven veteran.

In a third study, participants were asked to choose between two applicants for a management job, one with demonstrated achievement and another with high potential. “We had a question about how objectively impressive the person’s resume was at present, and participants did say that the achievement guy was more objectively impressive,” Tormala says. “Yet they were more excited about the person with potential and more interested in hiring that person. So people see the objective difference on paper, yet still get more excited about the person with potential.

[end Clear Admit blog quote]

Before I go any further, let me clarify my bent and intentions by making two quick points related to my personal position on this issue in lieu of Clear Admit’s text above:

  1. To whatever degree the “rookie hype” phenomenon actually exists, the data cited in this study suggests it to be one that is tied to the basic human nature that resides within all of us. Therefore, I do not support any notion that this is a uniquely conscious choice of elite MBA admissions committees–if it is conscious at all.
  2. I am also well aware that a direct comparison between

That being said, let’s get back to my post…

On Adcoms, Consultants and “Telling it Straight”

Let the admissions committees tell it, and everyone with a clear reason for needing the MBA, realistic goals, and grades/resume/achievement/leadership abilities that pass muster has a chance. That may be true.

Let the admissions consultants tell it, however, and dark, stormy clouds begin to form, shake and tremble overhead. They’ll quickly cite declines in average age and years of experience, the proliferation of rookie-friendly programs such as Yale’s Silver Scholars or HBS’ 2+2 and pressure from investment banks and consulting outfits (who directly affect %hired stats and rankings) to provide legions of pre-30 new hires (who they can work to death before these smart folks begin to demand actual work/life balance) as proof positive that these institutions would by far prefer that their classes were made up almost entirely of twenty-somethings save a few post 30 ex-military officers.

Ironically, HBS and Stanford–the home institutions of the scholars who performed these studies–get the worst raps from admissions consultants for allegedly having this view. I’m not so certain that these schools have received a fair shake from consultants, but who am I to make that determination one way or the other?

Like most other applicants, my knowledge and experience in this process is dwarfed by even the newest admissions officers AND consultants alike. It is this exact lack of perspective that makes this so nerve racking–not just for over 30 candidates, but white males in finance, Indian males in IT and every other group that an admissions consultant has told that their chances are less than average based on their demographic profile alone.

My personal leaning on these sorts of things is generally to take what actual admissions committee members say to heart about 10x more than what consultants say; however, many consultants tout former admissions committee experience (or have hired people who do), and that has to count for something, if not bringing my philosophical bias to a net zero all together.

They emphatically assert that their advice on this issue comes having been directly involved with what goes on “behind the scenes” that no self-respecting adcom member would every truly admit to. This also may be true, but I’m not so quick to buy that story hook, line and sinker; because there is a rarely cited body of data that balances the scales by pulling just as hard in the opposite direction.

Accounts from the Horse’s Mouth

The first time I broached this subject was during a casual info session run by a 1st year Stanford GSB student at Father’s Office, a popular pub in Culver City, a suburb of Los Angeles. It was January (or early February, I can’t remember) and I had just begun my b-school research.

Due to their proximity to where I lived, I researched all of the California schools (Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford, USC) first. I figured that by starting somewhat locally, I could quickly either confirm my interest or cross a school or two off my list before venturing into my East Coast and Midwest research.

When I asked him point blank about the presence of people over the age of 32 in his class, he quickly responded that he had several classmates both in their thirties AND forties in his class at Stanford. Well, there’s no arguing with that data point.

On Self-Selecting Out After 30

I also recall a quote from HBS’ Dee Leopold on the subject. I don’t remember her exact words, but I remember that the jist of what she had to say (in an interview with John Byrne, I believe) was that she sees very few applications from the over 30 demographic in the first place. According to Leopold, my group has wholesale self-selected out of the full-time MBA admissions process.

This made a lot of sense to me. By 35 especially, most professional people who I know fit into one or two categories. They are either A) married or unmarried and rearing children or B) childless, but quite settled into the jobs they have and/or the cities they live in.

From a professional standpoint, few of these folks are willing to quit working for two years to go back to school. And the ones who are willing to go back to school at all will generally opt for a part time program that will allow them to keep working so that they can pay the mortgage/not uproot the husband, wife and/or kids/not have to restart building political clout at work, etc.

What makes me a bit different is that while I have always kept a 9 to 5 job, I have also always had long term goals tied to full-time entrepreneurship. While I have definitely learned the value of training for business ownership while working on someone else’s dime first (actually, I strongly recommend it), I’ve forgone a lot of financial obligations (like mortgages and children) that other people in my age group have signed up for in order to ensure that I would have expendable income to take entrepreneurial risks.

I am by far an anomaly within my age group; well–not so much in Los Angeles. People like me are somewhat of a plurality here; although, many of them have *Hollywood* dreams (not my cup of tea, but I respect the hustle. Its takes tons of heart!). Regardless, I am definitely a blue and orange pin-striped, flying T-Rex compared to 35 year olds that live practically anywhere outside of LA and New York.

So again, Ms. Leopold’s statement about the dearth of 30+ yo applicants makes complete sense to me. Uprooting for 2 years would be an unthinkable notion for most people may age; but I am not most people.

On Average Ages as Proof of Discrimination

I also question the statistical significance of average ages at certain business schools as proof that these schools simply don’t want 30 something folks in their classes. For one, there is very little difference in the average ages of top business schools. Nearly all of them have consistently stayed within the 27-28 (even schools like Wharton and MIT, who are reportedly more welcoming to “older” applicants) range, with Stanford occasionally slipping down to 26. And with Stanford being a smaller program, it is easier for a few 23/24 year olds to dip their average down to 26. Now, if a larger program like CBS, Wharton or HBS had an average age of 25, THAT would be an eyebrow raiser.

Below is some data from a post I read earlier this year on Poets and Quants from admissions consultant Deborah Knox. Next to each school, she lists either the age range OR the range in years of work experience she was able to dig up about each school.

[from Deborah's Post, unedited]

UCLA (Anderson) 22-42
USC (Marshall) NA
Northwestern (Kellogg) 25-30
Columbia 23-37
Berkeley (Haas) NA
Michigan (Ross) 1-15 yrs WE
Indiana (Kelley) 23-39
Dartmouth (Tuck) 24-36*
Duke (Fuqua) NA
Virginia (Darden) “usually 23 to mid-30s”**
Yale 22-38
MIT (Sloan) 22-37*
Chicago (Booth) NA
Harvard See histogram
NYU (Stern) NA
Carnegie Mellon (Tepper) NA
Penn (Wharton) NA
Cornell (Johnson) NA
Stanford 0-18 yrs WE

Sources:School websites and interviews with deans of admission
*Class of 2012 data
**As per Darden’s head of admissions

[End of Deborah's Data]

My personal belief is that H/S/W in particular become targets for a lot of extreme A-types who’ve been planning their MBA path since they were toddlers. This demographic also seems to be the most concerned with the prestige of the name of the school they attend.

The Young, The Privileged and The Rest of Us

At several events that I’ve attended (Riordan/DMAC, Harvard info session and Stanford info session) I’ve run into a certain young lady over and over. When I met her it didn’t take more than a split second for me to ascertain that I was dealing with an exceptionally ambitious “over-achiever” (again, I resent that word. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t believe in “over” achieving, just “under” achieving)–all black pants suits, bone straight mane with not a hair out of place, exceptionally good looking–the works. She’s the corporate version of many of the young people who move to Los Angeles to be actors and actresses.

During our first light conversation, she made it very clear to me that she was ONLY considering Harvard and Stanford. And she was so convicted in her tone that I dared not utter the names of some other fantastic schools that I thought she might consider based on her goals.

Thing is, she isn’t even applying this year. She is a 1st or 2nd year consultant (currently on international assignment) who is gearing up to apply in 2013. She’s already taken the GMAT and scored a 50 on the math, and is being very hard on herself to break 42 on the verbal to even begin to be satisfied with her overall score (the poor thing would probably drink HEMLOCK if she got the measly 47/40 that I did; God bless her). And for all of her hard-driving ambition, she is one of the nicest and most gracious folks I’ve ever met at these events. People like her make it clear to me why these two schools will often have an average age a year younger than their peers.

And many of the career trajectories of these kind of folk is based on the environment in which they were raised. One of my recommenders is a Stanford GSB graduate. Their spouse is an HBS graduate. Now, if their kid chooses business as a profession, do you really think he’s going to wait until he’s 28 to get his MBA? And do you think he’ll be casting a “wide net” and be considering several well-respected programs like me, Mr. Public School guy from the ghetto?

Methinks not. At least not with two wealthy, C-level executive parents with degrees from Harvard and Stanford (both schools also ask you if you have a parent, relative or spouse who is a student or alumnus). It’ll be as natural as it was for Ivanka Trump to march off to Wharton. And I don’t blame any of them. That’s life.

The Myth of Exhausted Potential

In all actuality, most of the commentary on why there are so few 30+ folks in prestige, full-time MBA programs makes sense to me. The only time that I really become peeved is when someone (usually NOT an ad-com member or consultant, to their credit) speaks of people over 30 as if our potential has been exhausted simply by being 5-10 years older than the rest of our would-be cohort.

The truth is that most people who ever achieve tremendous success do so in their 40s and 50s–not their twenties OR their 30s for that matter. Even when I look at the landscape in a place like Silicon Valley where there are tons of brilliant and amazingly successful young people, I still see more Guy Kawasaki’s than Mark Zuckerbergs playing that game.

And even when we do see people become outrageously successful at very young ages (people like Zuck, Michael Dell, etc.), these people are typically not MBA types. They are technicians who have usually logged 10+ years of experience in their craft before “hitting it big”. They are just as experienced as a senior manager with 10-15 years of experience in the same industry.

By contrast, the kind of skills that one gleans from an MBA are rarely honed at age 6 like when Ray Lewis was playing Pop Warner football in my hometown or when Beyonce was entering talent shows while in elementary school. They are also rarely honed at 12 or 15, like Zuck programming at Phillips Exeter academy or when Mike Dell first began tinkering with computers–years before either ever gave a thought to forming their iconic companies.

I do believe, however, that the proliferation of exceptionally successful people at young ages has encouraged a notion that if someone hasn’t become wildly successful at a young age then their potential has been exhausted. That level of success A) is most likely to happen later in life and B) is more tied to personality than education, which is why most people who achieve it don’t have prestigious degrees.

What top MBA programs purport to produce, however–people who make a difference in the organizations they are apart of–is possible at any age. Those who apply to these schools have typically done it our entire lives and we will continue to do so whether we get in or not. I’ve never been one to chase success for the sake of success.

I have been my most successful while doing things that I’ve enjoyed and believed mattered. And when you consider how much of success involves failing first, there is a lot of humility to be gained during the journey of most entrepreneurs that someone who wants success for the sake of success and/or how it looks/adoration would never subject themselves to, because most of it isn’t glamorous–at all.

It’s work, work and more work coupled with sacrifice, sacrifice and more sacrifice, all while people who are not making the same sacrifices are enjoying much more carefree existences right in your face. You have to love what you do to submit yourself to that kind of reality, which brings me to…

On Taking Risks

My last bit of fear on this subject is that someone like me might be penalized for having taken risks, despite the fact that many schools say that is the kind of person they look for. The funny thing about risk is that the same people who might frown after hearing about a big loss that you took as the result of risk would call you brilliant had everything worked out famously.

While I have consistently taken interdepartmental rotations and/or promotions of some sort in my career, I have also sacrificed promotions in order to put more time into what I loved to do. When I was an engineering supervisor some years ago, my district manager told me point blank that I was #1 on his list to be promoted and that the position was mine within 18 months if I only continued to perform and would check on my career development plan that I was willing to relocate.

At the time, I was running my first small internet company and was in the middle of revamping its revenue model. I knew that if I went after that promotion, I would have to shut my business down. Just vying for that promotion would have meant 12 hour work days for a year and a half. Then when I got the promotion, that would be my permanent work schedule.

That was a no-can-do situation for a person who was already working 2-4 hours each work night and 20 hours each weekend on a side business. I had to make a trade off. It wasn’t worth it. I declined that offer to be fast tracked to the next level of management and instead rotated into the corporate sales department to beef up my negotiation skills and get a more flexible work schedule to so I could continue working on my business at night and on weekends.

That business made a consistent profit until I ultimately burned out due to a very specific management skills gap that I am pursuing my MBA to fill. If it had been Instagram I would never have to explain why I made the decision that I made. Since it was not, however, that choice might be frowned upon and I don’t think that it should. No one can predict which idea will be the one that will allow them to hang their hat for the next 10-20 years or sell and do something new.

In every job that I have taken, I’ve first considered what entrepreneurial skills I would gain from it. Whether it was people leadership, process management, sales, marketing or what have you, it was always about my business education and never about climbing the corporate ladder. I could care less about the corporate ladder.

I have chosen opportunities based on what I stood to learn from the experience, 100% of the time. These are the kinds of stories that a resume does not easily project; and I just hope that I don’t end up penalized for making such decisions when this application process is all over.

On Hope, Optimism and Acceptance

Ultimately, I am quite optimistic about my chances this application season. I may be delusional; I may be stretching a bit; or I may be spot on, or even underestimating myself. I really don’t care which. It only takes one yes, and I am not applying to any “safety schools” or places that I would not be more than happy to attend.

I’ve done my research, put in the time and effort and followed the guidelines of trusted new-found friends and advisers like Cheetarah1980, Kofi-Kankam, Deborah Knox and Linda Abraham. I’ve chosen to trust in what I’ve submitted, put my best foot forward in whatever interviews I am fortunate enough to be granted and be at peace with whatever outcome is the result of what has been one of the most grueling, yet introspective experiences of my 30something life thus far.

P.S.

Sometime in the future, there will be movie called “Trust Me” from TMF Productions that will come out. Doesn’t sound like a blockbuster to me, but what makes it relevant is that the production company secured a permit to take over my block and has shot footage seemingly around the clock for the past few days, annoying the hell out of me.

If you ever see that (likely to be a B-listed) movie and if the scene where some guy says “Sorry Daryl–sorry–it’s a REALLY big deal!” and some other guy replies “No. You’re not leaving Phillip” doesn’t end up on the cutting room floor, that scene was shot outside of my bedroom window and I was subjected to hearing it over and over while trying to write this blog post. I tell you, I cannot WAIT to leave this entertainment-obsessed town!

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