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Are You Too Old to Go to Grad School?

February 2022

If there's been a few years (or more than a few) between your undergrad experience and your decision to return to school, you may be asking yourself, "Am I too old?" or "Is it too late?" Memories of all-night study sessions and research papers may be prompting some anxiety as you consider the next phase of your educational journey. But there are many reasons why grad school at almost any age is a good idea, including career advancement, career change, skill improvement, salary increase or just for self-improvement.

A different grad experience

Perhaps you're worried about sitting in a classroom full of 23-year-olds. Remember that, for one, grad students tend to take this advanced step in degree-seeking a little more seriously than the undergrad population. Secondly, there are many graduate school learning formats, so you can determine the best environment for you. Full time, part time, on campus or online — the options are numerous, and many institutions are offering more flexible opportunities to entice students from all walks of life (and yes, all ages).

Age is just a number

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), full-time programs, whether at public or private nonprofit institutions, contain a split of about two-thirds of students under the age of 30 to one-third of students over the age of 30. However, in the private for-profit segment, 67% of full-time grad students are over 30 with almost an even split between students over 30 and over 40.

The over 30 crowd is more represented in the part-time program attendance arena across all types of institutions, with much higher percentages most likely due to students concurrently holding jobs and having family responsibilities.

Grad school to fit your needs

While there are clearly some majorities and minorities amongst age groups, types of institutions and attendance methods, the bottom line is that there is a place for every age group.

The type of graduate degree being sought also plays a role in student age. For example, the MBA has many options and avenues for students at varying places in their careers, life and age. A 23-year-old recent undergrad student going on to get an MBA may choose the traditional path of a full-time, on-campus program, while a 38-year-old parent who works full time may opt for an executive MBA or traditional MBA, but online and part time.

Vanderbilt University's MBA program, for example, has an average grad student age of 27–28 with a mean range of five years of work experience, meaning they have a significant number of students with both 2–4 and 6–8 years of field experience. However, this is a full-time, on-campus, two-year program, so it may attract more students without families and the ability to leave the workforce.

Statistics aside, going to grad school at any age depends on your own set of reasons and goals. And in today's flexible, more accommodating education environment, there is a program and learning environment out there for just about everyone.

Will graduate schools care how old I am?

Most graduate schools will care less about how old you are and more about what you've been doing with your time since you were in undergrad — and like businesses, graduate schools cannot discriminate based on age. In fact, certain fields like business may prefer a candidate with some work experience. If you're exploring a degree in the sciences, make sure you have completed any coursework or research that may be required or highly recommended. A program advisor can help you determine if there are any requirements that you may need to complete before applying.

The more years between undergrad and graduate school, the less important your GPA is. If you've already taken a GRE® test, it will be considered over your GPA by an admissions committee. However, your work experience will also carry a significant amount of weight when being considered.

If you're considering law school or medical school, an appropriate entrance exam will be required. If you choose a program where it may be optional, however, it would behoove you to still take the GRE to show admissions committees that despite a gap in educational endeavors, you still have what it takes as a student.

Make your grad school application count

It's imperative that you complete the application requirements based on your current life. While an undergrad student going right into grad school will be soliciting letters of recommendation mainly from professors, you should choose your subjects more carefully. Select those who can vouch for your quality as a grad student based on your whole life, work and educational experiences. Bosses, managers, co-workers and people you've managed, as well as any educational mentors or professors, are all good candidates to write letters on your behalf.

Your personal statement is where you can really shine as a student with experience (sounds better than older student). Use your valuable work and life experience, any adversity or challenges you've had to overcome and how your work experience will add value to your participation as a student within a particular program.

Bottom line: The saying "you're never too old to learn" certainly holds true when it comes to graduate school. Sure, the majority of grad students, regardless of age, are either entering or well established in the workforce, but even if you're enjoying your retirement and think it would be fun to get an MFA in creative writing or French literature, or any other subject you've always found interesting, then why not? As the iconic entertainer, Eartha Kitt once said, "I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma."

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