Can Younger MBAs Measure Up?

Holding their own in the job market, more college grads are heading straight to HBS

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Rachel L. Weiss

Even with minimal work experience, 94 percent of the students who enter HBS within three years after graduating college leave with job offers.

In the pack of young business professionals, Daniel E. Kafie ’05 belongs to an unusual breed.

Kafie matriculated to Harvard Business School (HBS) directly after college, and, unlike more than 97 percent of his HBS peers, he’s never held a full-time, year-round job.

But when they try to land a position after business school, young MBA students like Kafie have little trouble competing with their veteran peers—who average four-and-a-half years of work experience.

Ninety-six percent of the HBS Class of 2006 had job offers at graduation, according to the Director of MBA Career Services, Jana Kierstead. The figure was 94 percent for the handful of graduates who entered business school within three years of finishing college—who make up about a fifth of the HBS student body, school officials say.

And those younger students are collecting paychecks just as hefty as their classmates’.

“[They] are compensated equally across all industries,” she adds.

The median base salary for the entire Class of 2006 was $105,000, according to the HBS Web site.

Kafie, who has several job offers and two media projects lined up after graduation, says that his youth has not been an obstacle in the recruiting process.

“Being an early career person at business school is not a deterrent to getting a job in any industry or position,” he says.

At McKinsey & Company, a leading management consulting firm, applicants with limited work experience are not at an immediate disadvantage, says McKinsey Senior Partner Andreas Beroutsos ’88.

“We find they come in all stripes,” he says.

GETTING AHEAD

HBS took a major step toward attracting younger students in 2001, when the school launched the Early Career Initiative—a program that targets students like Kafie within three years of graduating college.

The average student entering HBS is 27 years old. Kafie, who, unlike most Early Career students, went straight from college to business school, started when he was 22.

HBS renewed its push for younger applicants in 2001 amid faculty concerns that the rising age and experience levels of MBA students was creating a student body with a narrower range of perspectives. The school’s managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid, Deirdre C. Leopold, says that the lack of diversity was not conducive to HBS’s classroom model, in which students analyze and debate individual case studies.

Prospective students understood that work experience was valuable for the classroom, Leopold writes in an e-mail, but they began to believe it was an absolute requirement for admission.

“As a result, candidates who were in college or who had recently graduated from college believed—incorrectly—that they had to accumulate several more years of work experience in order to strengthen their application,” Leopold writes.

Through the initiative HBS administrators have worked to communicate to candidates that they should apply to business school “when they believe the experience will be most valuable for them,” regardless of a target number of years in the workforce, she adds.

FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH?

But some recruiters are growing dissatisfied with the decline in MBA students’ work experience, as The Wall Street Journal reported in September.

Beroutsos, who leads McKinsey’s recruitment efforts at HBS, says that job applicants with less experience might be hampered when they face competitors with otherwise similar profiles.

“If everything else is equal for somebody who worked for zero years or two years, I will take the person with two years,” he says.

But Beroutsos is quick to add that those situations—where “everything else is exactly equal”—are rare.

Kafie, on the other hand, says his youth is an advantage. Companies see him as “malleable,” in contrast to older MBAs who may have already been ingrained with the culture of their previous job, he says.

Kafie presents himself to companies as “a long-term investment,” rather than “someone who will just be there and try to get to partner as quickly as possible,” he says.

David M. Darst ’05—who will graduate from the Business School this spring with an offer at a New York venture capital and private equity firm—says he believes that high performance does not require years of experience.

“Being younger makes it more difficult at first, because people do have stereotypes about people being young not being smart enough or experienced enough,” Darst says. “If you do a great job at your work, your age doesn’t matter.”

Beroutsos says that McKinsey does not cut candidates from consideration based simply on their job history. Instead, recruiters see prior work experience as a “training ground” for a position at McKinsey, he adds.

But Sanford Kreisberg, an independent admissions consultant who runs a blog about business school admissions on BusinessWeek’s web site, says that “experience, for better or for worse, is pretty overrated.”

“People are buying youth and the [HBS] brand,” Kreisberg says.

Whatever appeal youth may hold, Early Career students will have a harder time cracking into areas that are thought to require more experience, like venture capital or private equity, says MBA Class of 1961 Professor of Management and Practice Richard G. Hamermesh,

If the economy stays strong, he adds, companies such as Bain & Company, Boston Consulting Group, or Goldman Sachs will likely not have any qualms about hiring Early Career MBAs.

When Hamermesh himself came to the Business School in 1969, as a 21-year-old college graduate, about a fifth of his section—a group of approximately ninety students who take all their first-year classes together—had come to HBS right out of college.

When he received his MBA 35 years ago, Hamermesh and his younger peers did not encounter sharp resistance from employers, he says.

“We all got jobs, [and] we seemed to do fine,” Hamermesh says.

‘A RISK-FREE EXPERIMENT’

Today, fewer than 20 college seniors a year are admitted directly to HBS, Leopold says. Last spring, she says, another 20 were offered admission to the school, but were asked to defer for two years before starting in the fall of 2008.

HBS requires that they spend those two years working in jobs approved by the school.

“The two-year period of employment offers an opportunity to build a skill set and experience the daily life of working in an organization,” Leopold writes.

While the school lets a few business-savvy students come straight from college, the admissions office encourages these deferred students to take time to gain “substantive exposure to business,” she adds.

HBS does not have targets for either the number of directly admitted or the number of deferred Early Career students for each MBA class, but admissions officers are trying to increase the number of younger applicants, she says.

Stacey R. Borden ’06, who was accepted to the Business School under deferred admission, says her two years of work experience will allow her to build on her leadership roles at the College, where she was president of Harvard Undergraduate Women in Business.

“In terms of what I could contribute to the classroom, I think that was probably the weakest part of my application,” Borden says.

Aaron D. Chadbourne ’06, who, like Borden, was asked to defer for two years after applying in his senior year of college, says his two years before HBS will allow him to build on his college leadership experience.

“It is a great opportunity to go into the real world,” Chadbourne says. “It is a risk-free experiment right now because, at the end of the day, Harvard Business School is ready to embrace me with open arms in 2008.”

—Staff writer Madeline W. Lissner can be reached at mlissner@fas.harvard.edu