The Harvard Age Curve - Part III

This is the third installment in our analysis of age of admission at HBS. While HBS does not publish specific age data, it has released undergraduate graduation data, which can be used to approximate the age of the HBS class.

The HBS Class of 2013 undergraduate data is available here. You just need to scroll down to its publication date of June 21, 2011. I've re-posted it here:

As I have done in the past, I'm going to use this data to try to capture the trends in the age of admission at HBS. Please note the following assumptions are made:

  • The average student graduates from undergrad at age 22. Some graduate older, but some graduate younger, and this largely cancels out. For the vast majority of HBS students, 22 is the normal age for undergraduate graduation.
  • Students are 1 year older at matriculation than they are at time of application. Since R1 application is 11 months prior to matriculation, and R2 application is 8 months prior to matriculation, this is a reasonable assumption. Between  the time that most students hit the submit button and begin class in Aldrich Hall, the vast majority will have had another birthday.
If one does not want to use either of these assumptions, they should refer directly to the graduation chart above. However, applying these assumptions, and comparing to previously published data, we come up with the following data for the Class of 2013, which I've superimposed on the Class of 2010 and 2012 data:

The data shows us the following (based on the previously listed assumptions):

  • The average age slightly increased. For matriculating students between the Class of 2012 and 2013, the (approximate) average age at time of application went up from 25.06 to 25.38 years, or a difference of 3.8 months. This is 1.4 months older yet than the class of 2010.  So is this a new and intentional trend by HBS admissions? I think unlikely. I doubt they track this kind of data or pay attention to such granular detail. However, it is a helpful anchor point, and we can continue to see how this changes.
  • HBS "sweet spot" is more diversified. In Class of 2012, approximately 78% of matriculating applicants were 24-26 years old at time of application. This number has dropped to 67%, which is definitely significant. The number of students 28 or older at time of application exactly doubled from 5.2% to 10.4%. At the same time, the number of younger, 23 year olds, increased from 9.8% to 12.7%. This is telling me that HBS is not necessarily "getting older" - but perhaps just diversifying their student class a little bit better. The result is that more younger and more older applicants are being considered based on the merits of their application.
  • If you want to maximize your chances of admission, it's still to your significant advantage to apply by the age of 26, as only 1 in 5 students were admitted older.
What's driving this change? One can identify a few key change from the Class of 2012 to Class of 2013 (all data taken from the school's class profile page):
  • PE/VC students dropped from 18% to 13%
  • Financial services (including IB) dropped from 14% to 12%
  • High tech/comm increased from 6% to 9%
  • Manufacturing increased from 9% to 14%
So that's a drop of around 7% in finance, and an increase of around 8% in industry... applicants who come from places that actually "make stuff." It's likely many of these applicants have more work experience than the typical 2-3 years of an investment banker or 3-4 years of a PE applicant. I believe this slight shift in demographic is what is driving the change in age distribution, vice an actual deliberate decision based on age. In general, I don't think HBS looks at age so much as they do at the type of experience an applicant has.

It's taken me several years to absorb these trends, including spending the last two years at HBS itself,  to have a better opinion of why these patterns emerge. There are many other contributing factors, but I think a key one is that older applicants get primarily dinged because by the time they get to their late 20s (or early 30s), more is expected of them... and the types of people who have produced the kinds of results that would impress HBS at that age, no longer seek to apply to business school in the first place. That said, there are definitely exceptions... those are the 10% who are 28+ that make it, and bring a certain special track record to justify their admission. The onus is on the applicant to prove they fall in this category. There are also those who had an extended commitment out of college (PhDs, doctors, pilots, etc), and I think they are given a bit of a break since they are still technically "early" in their new career. HBS is forced to accept them older, if they want them at all.

Whether the new tilt towards industry and away from finance is influenced by the new Dean, Nitin Nohria, or not, is up to speculation. I know that HBS is continuously self-evaluating what kind of MBAs they want to produce, and as much as they tinker with the curriculum itself, nothing will have a greater influence over the graduating class than the selection of those who are invited to be a part of it.