Grad Student Age: When Is The Right Time? — The Admit Lab

Philippe Barr, PhD
9 min readApr 24, 2023

It seems like no matter how old you are, somebody somewhere is telling you that it’s too late. You’re too young to know what life has in store for you and then when your age catches up to “too old,” the same people are suddenly whispering about how much time has passed you by. Let’s be clear: the average grad student age doesn’t define your opportunities — or at least shouldn’t.

So forget those naysayers who decide that 26 means your glory days of taking on the world and getting out there to make a difference are over. It isn’t true — if anything, grad school could really help you reach new levels of success!

The Myth of The 18-Year Old Freshman

Graduate school is often seen as the next step in a student’s educational journey, but what is the right age to become a grad student? Is there an ideal timeline for when students should apply for graduate programs and begin their studies? Or does each individual have varying needs and goals that may influence the timing of their decision to apply to school? Some may argue that a student should wait until they have the necessary experience in the field and enough maturity to handle the demands of graduate studies, while others suggest applying right out of college.

The myth of the “18-year-old freshman” has a strong influence on how grad student age is perceived. This myth creates an image that students must start college at a young age to be successful, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy among older applicants. It also implies that younger students are more capable or better suited for graduate study than those who are considered “older.” However, this is simply not true.

While it is certainly possible for an eighteen-year-old to do well in college, success does not come with age alone; many factors influence how successful a student can be. Hard work, dedication, academic prowess, and the ability to manage time effectively all play important roles in academic success. Being young may give some students a slight edge but it should not be taken as a guarantee of success. Ultimately, it takes hard work and commitment to achieve success, regardless of age.

In today’s world, people of all ages are pursuing higher education. College is no longer solely for 18–22-year-olds-adults of any age can pursue a degree or certificate program and benefit from the learning experience. Whether you are a high school student looking to get ahead by taking college classes, a young adult needing to take some time away from the classroom, or an older adult who wants to gain new skills, there’s an opportunity available for everyone.

Stereotypes about what grad student age is appropriate are outdated and untrue-no matter your age, if you’re motivated and determined to work hard with dedication and discipline, you have every right to pursue higher education. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re too old or too young to be in grad school-just focus on what you have to gain and make the most of the experience!

What Is the Average Grad Student Age?

According to the Council of Graduate Schools, today’s average grad student age is 33 years old, with doctoral students being slightly older. Surprisingly, this age is the same as it was in the late 1990s, indicating that the age of graduate students has not changed in recent decades.

Graduate programs also vary in terms of age requirements, with different types of graduate programs attracting students of varying ages. For instance, master’s degree programs often draw a large number of students who are fresh out of college and looking to hone their specialized knowledge or skills before entering the workforce. On the other hand, doctoral programs frequently attract those who have already gained work experience and are ready for an advanced level of study. Even within these two broad categories, there can be considerable variations in age between students studying different fields; for example, medical school may tend to attract younger participants than law school does.

MBA graduate students tend to range in age, with the average being between 27 and Executive MBA programs generally attract a slightly older population, usually with an average age of 35 to 45. Online graduate students also can range widely in age but tend to be more representative of the general adult population. Older learners who have been out of school for some time are often attracted to online learning options due to their flexibility and accessibility.

It is worth considering that each individual’s circumstances and goals make up their own timeline when it comes to pursuing a graduate degree. There is no single ‘correct’ age to become a grad student and the decision should be carefully weighed on an individual basis.

Whatever timeline you choose for your graduate studies, it is important to remember that eagerness and enthusiasm can help drive success. With proper planning, dedication, and motivation, earning a graduate degree at any age can be achievable.

What Are The Pros and Cons of Being an Older Graduate Student?

Being an older graduate student (whatever that means…!) has both advantages and challenges. On the plus side, older students bring to the classroom more life experience and greater maturity, enabling them to apply their knowledge and experiences in a practical way that may be beneficial for their studies. Older graduate students also often already have established careers, which can help them financially during school and make connections with those who are already successfully employed in their field. This can open doors for internships or job opportunities after graduation.

On the other hand, being an older student may mean competing against younger peers with fresher memories of newly-learned concepts. Time management is also especially important as “older” students may have to balance school and work obligations, as well as familial responsibilities.

Does Age Play A Role In Graduate School Admissions Decisions?

The debate over whether or not age should be a factor in admissions decisions for graduate programs is complex and multifaceted. On one hand, some argue that older students bring more professional experience and life skills to the table, which can be an invaluable asset to their academic success and the overall learning environment of the institution. Others feel that certain age restrictions are necessary to ensure fairness among all applicants so that those who are younger don’t face an inherent disadvantage when competing with more experienced counterparts.

In reality, older applicants to graduate programs are generally viewed in a positive light by admissions committees, as they often bring with them unique and valuable experiences that younger applicants may not possess. They have had more time to gain knowledge, develop skills, and refine their ability to communicate effectively. Additionally, the maturity and work experience that older applicants bring make them especially attractive candidates for graduate studies. Admissions committees appreciate the fact that older applicants have already established themselves professionally, often bringing with them business acumen or leadership capabilities which can be beneficial assets in academic environments.

At the end of the day, it is up to each institution to decide how it approaches its admissions process. Ultimately, institutions strive to make decisions based on each applicant’s merits and qualifications, regardless of their age. This ensures that all applicants are given a fair chance of admission and allows the institution to create a diverse student body with varying degrees of knowledge and experience. Schools also generally take a balanced approach when weighing the importance of age in admissions decisions. It may not be fair to exclude students based on their age, but neither should there be an inherent bias against older applicants.

The best outcome is a system that considers all factors equally, to provide every individual with an equal chance at admission. Only then can universities ensure that their student body is composed of individuals who are qualified and prepared for success in their graduate program.

Mature Graduate Students Bring Value to Graduate Programs

Older graduate students bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table that can be hugely beneficial in academic and professional environments. They often have strong work ethics, commitment to excellence, and an ability to think critically about complex topics — all traits which are invaluable when studying or working in challenging fields. With life experience comes the ability to make well-informed decisions, solve problems with creativity, and communicate effectively both verbally and through writing.

Additionally, older graduate students tend to be more focused on their studies due to their career goals having been set before beginning their degree program. As such, they can guide younger students who may still be exploring potential paths for themselves. Ultimately, older graduate students offer a unique perspective that helps enrich learning and working environments.

There is also the potential for older graduate students to bring together people from different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences to create a more diverse learning environment. They can help bridge gaps between generations, cultures, and even disciplines to foster collaboration and creativity. With this type of exchange, everyone involved can benefit from fresh ideas and shared knowledge. In short, the contributions of older graduate students are invaluable in creating an educational atmosphere that encourages growth and innovation.

With the right guidance and support, older students can make the most of their educational experiences. It is important for institutions to not only recognize this growing population but also provide them with the resources needed to excel in graduate school. Academic advisors, counselors, and other professionals should strive to meet the needs of adult learners by offering specialized services and approaches that cater to older students. In addition, universities should create a supportive environment where older individuals can feel accepted and respected regardless of their age. By doing so, they will help ensure that no one is left behind in their pursuit of education!

How to Combat Negative Stereotypes About Age in Graduate School

One way to combat the negative stereotypes about older students in graduate school is by engaging in conversations that present a more balanced perspective of their experience. Conversations with peers, professors, and other members of the university community can help to highlight the potential advantages of having an older student in a graduate program-such as maturity, life experience, and self-direction-and dispel myths that may be preventing them from succeeding.

Additionally, actively working to create an inclusive environment for older students can help ensure they have access to resources that are available to all learners.

Finally, making sure there are role models available who demonstrate success as an older learner can provide valuable examples that show it is possible for those later in life to still succeed academically. Ultimately, these conversations and actions can help to create a supportive environment that can foster the success of any age student.

In Conclusion

All in all, the right age to go to graduate school doesn’t have a universal answer. Some people are ready and eager in their twenties while others wait until their thirties or even beyond to pursue further studies. Age really is just a number, so don’t let anyone tell you that committing to grad school at 17 or 35 is wrong. It’s ultimately up to you to decide when you are ready to invest time and money into advanced education — it’s your life, after all.

If you’re still weighing up whether graduate school is worth your while then why not check out our graduate school application services? We provide experienced advice tailored for any age group, so you can make informed decisions about the next steps of your academic journey. Don’t let age hold you back — the only question that matters is: are YOU ready for grad school?

With a Master’s from McGill University and a Ph.D. from New York University, Philippe Barr is the founder of The Admit Lab. As a tenure-track professor, Philippe spent a decade teaching and serving on several graduate admission committees at UNC-Chapel Hill before turning to full-time consulting. With more than seven years of experience as a graduate school admissions consultant, Philippe has stewarded the candidate journey across multiple master’s and Ph.D. programs and helped hundreds of students get admitted to top-tier graduate programs all over the world.

Originally published at https://admit-lab.com on April 24, 2023.

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Philippe Barr, PhD

I am Philippe Barr, founder of The Admit Lab, a graduate school admissions consultancy that helps students get admitted into grad school: https://admit-lab.com/