It's Never Too Late: How to Apply to Grad School when You're Over 65

Senior Man Sitting in the Library and Using Laptop
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Many adults express the desire to go back to school to begin or finish a bachelor's degree or to attend graduate school. Changes in the economy, an increasing lifespan, and evolving attitudes about aging have made so-called nontraditional students very common at some institutions. The definition of a nontraditional student has stretched to include older adults and it is not uncommon for adults to return to college after retirement.

It is often said that college is wasted on the young. A lifetime of experience provides a context for learning and interpreting class material. Graduate study is increasingly common among older adults. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 200,000 students age 50-64 and about 8,200 students age 65 and over were enrolled in graduate study in 2009. That number is increasing every year.

At the same time as the undergraduate student population is "greying" with the increase of nontraditional students, many post-retirement applicants wonder whether they are too old for graduate study. I have addressed this question in the past, with a resounding "No, you're never too old for grad school." But do graduate programs see it that way? How do you apply to graduate school, as an older adult? Should you address your age? Below are some basic considerations.

Age Discrimination

Like employers, graduate programs cannot reject students on the basis of age.

That said, there are so many aspects to a graduate application that there is no easy way to determine why an applicant is rejected.

Applicant Fit

Some fields of graduate study, such as the hard sciences, are very competitive. These graduate programs accept very few students. In considering applications, admissions committees in these programs tend to emphasize applicants' post-graduate plans.

Competitive graduate programs often seek to mold students into leaders within their fields. Moreover, graduate advisors often seek to duplicate themselves by training students who can follow in their footsteps and continue their work for years to come. Post-retirement, most adult students' goals and plans for the future often do not match those of the graduate faculty and admissions committee. Post-retirement adults usually do not plan to enter the workforce and seek graduate education as an ends unto itself.

That is not to say that seeking a graduate degree to satisfy a love of learning is not enough to earn a spot in a graduate program. Graduate programs welcome interested, prepared, and motivated students. However, the most competitive programs with a handful of slots may prefer students with long-range career goals that match their profile of the ideal student. So it is a matter of choosing a graduate program that fits your interests and aspirations. This is true of all grad programs.

What to Say to Admissions Committees

Recently I was contacted by a nontraditional student in his 70s who had finished a bachelor's degree and hoped to continue his education through graduate study. Although we have come to a consensus here that one is never too old for graduate education, what do you say to a graduate admissions committee?

What do you include in your admissions essay? In most cases, it is not all that different than the typical nontraditional student.

Be honest but don't focus on age. Most admissions essays ask applicants to discuss the reasons they seek graduate study as well as how their experiences have prepared them and support their aspirations. Give a clear reason for applying to graduate school. It may include your love of learning and researching or perhaps your desire to share knowledge by writing or helping others. As you discuss relevant experiences you might subtly introduce age into the essay as your relevant experiences may span decades. Remember to only discuss experiences that are directly relevant to your chosen field of study.

Graduate programs want applicants who have the capacity and motivation to finish.

Speak to your ability to complete the program, your motivation. Provide examples to illustrate your ability to stick the course, whether it is a career spanning decades or the experience of attending and graduating from college after retirement.

Remember Your Recommendation Letters

Regardless of age, recommendation letters from professors are important components of your graduate school application. Especially as an older student, letters from recent professors can attest to your ability for academics and the value you add in the classroom. Such letters hold weight with admissions committees. If you are returning to school and do not have recent recommendations from professors, consider enrolling in a class or two, part-time and non-matriculated, so that you can forge a relationship with faculty. Ideally, take a graduate class in the program you hope to attend and become known by the faculty and no longer a faceless application.

There is no age limit on graduate study. You're never too old.