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MBA Apps Faltering?

A two-year boom in MBA applications appears to be over, with 12 top U.S. MBA programs now reporting that the number of applicants in 2010 is flat or down compared with year-earlier totals. BusinessWeek is reporting that applications fell at Wharton by 9 percent to 6,819, at Berkeley’s Haas School by 11 percent to 3,626, and at Cornell by a whopping 12 percent to 2,002.

For this year’s new crop of applicants, however, those declines won’t necessarily mean there will be less competition for spots at the top schools. For one thing, application volumes at many schools had been at near record levels already. Stanford, the most selective business school in the world, only accepted 6.5 percent of its applicants for the Class of 2011. Michigan’s Ross School of Business saw a slight increase this past year, but applications there hit a record in 2008.

Moreover, even BusinessWeek discovered that more schools are reporting increases rather than downturns. Of the top 30 full-time MBA programs in the U.S. surveyed by BusinessWeek, more schools reported increases than those that had decreases. Some 10 schools reported declines in application volume averaging 6.1 percent, while 11 reported increases averaging 10.2 percent, according to BW’s survey. Nine schools declined to supply information.

For sure, some highly competitive schools experienced significant growth in applications. Harvard Business School, for example, had its second best year ever, with 9,524 people applying for one of the 910 seats in the class showing up this fall, a five percent increase over the year-earlier number. The quality of the applicant pool also was extraordinarily high, despite the number of applications. Dee Leopold, director of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, says the average GMAT for the entire applicant pool was over 700. At Harvard, the peak year was for the entering class in 2002 when more than  10,000 applications flowed into its admission offices.

At MIT’s Sloan School, applications rose 16 percent to 5,782, and are up 55 percent in the past three years. Admissions director Rod Garcia says there are now 12 applicants for every one seat available in the full-time MBA program. Garcia believes Sloan had an advantage due to a late application deadline, the latest of any top school. BusinessWeek also found that applications soared 26 percent at Washington University’s Olin School to 1,531, and rose 21 percent at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business to 3,506.

While some admission officials attributed their declines to the economic recovery, more important trends are at work. Today, there are more business schools in the world than ever before. The U.S. schools, therefore, are under increasing competition from institutions in Europe and Asia. Much of the increase in applications has in fact occurred not because of a flight to graduate school during a severe recession but rather due to soaring applications from candidates in China and India. (See our story on How the MBA Applicant Pool Is Changing).

Those who do apply are also applying to fewer schools. “Most applicants apply to 3.2 schools on average,” says Soojin Kwon Koh, director of admissions at Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “It used to be as high as five or six. I hope it’s because applicants have a better sense for how they fit into a specific school, but  I also know that the whole application process takes a long time. It’s expensive and the stakes are higher. So narrowing down the number of apps you complete assures you can do a better job on them.”