B-Schools With the Most Applicants

Which business schools get the most attention from applicants?

Yesterday’s report by the Graduate Management Admission Council on declining applications for full-time MBA programs in the U.S. certainly makes the question topical. As applicants begin drafting application essays, admission officials are preparing for the onslaught in the early fall. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Harvard will be getting ready for the largest single chunk. It gets more applications from would-be MBAs than any other school in the world and that’s been the case for a very long time. Part of that is a function of the large number of seats open in every class–910–and also because of the school’s quality and reputation.

With 9,524 applicants for a seat in the entering Class of 2012, Harvard remains at the very top of our list of the 20 schools that get the most applications. Even though Stanford trails Harvard in applications by nearly 2,000, however, it remains the most selective business school in the world, saying yes to just 6.5% of those who apply. The dropoff occurs fast and furious in this list, with No. 20  Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business attracting 1,729 applicants.

How many people actually apply in a typical MBA season? GMAC reported that as of June 30, the cutoff date of its study, 476 MBA programs had received a total of 196,032 completed applications, though many schools had not yet reached their application deadlines. The number of applications per program varied greatly, ranging from fewer than 10 to nearly 10,000. GMAC also said that first-tier programs, those in the top 50, receive a median of 1,554 applications. Schools in the second-tier, the next 50, got less than a third of that, 405 applications per program, while all the remaining schools had a median of just 147 applicants.

In picking over the applicant pool for the incoming students of the Class of 2012, the schools that saw the largest increases in applications were Washington University’s Olin School, up 26%; Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, up 21%; MIT’s Sloan School, up 16%; Chicago’s Booth School, up 10%, and Harvard, up 5%. On the other side of the ledger, schools that saw their application volumes fall for the incoming class include Cornell’s Johnson School, down 12%; Berkeley’s Haas School, down 11%, and Wharton, down 9%. Many other schools have yet to officially announce these numbers.

Many schools that experienced declines, however, were coming off near-record years so that competition is still severe. Consider the Haas School of Business. In the past five years, even including the 11% fall for the latest year, applications rose an average of 11% per year, from 2,170 in 2005 to 3,626 this year for just 240 seats. During the five-year period, Haas went from accepting 23.1% of applicants in 2005 to accepting just 11.6% this year. In 2009, when 4,064 applications flowed into Haas, was the second best year on record, beating the earlier peak seven years ago.

So why did applications fall at all? Dean Rich Lyons suggests two reasons: a page-one story in The New York Times last November–a crucial time for application flow–that explored the severe and worsening fiscal woes of California’s public university system and the difficulty of international applicants to get loans to finance their MBAs during the financial crisis. Though furloughs have been imposed on faculty and staff at Haas, the crisis has had virtually no impact at all on MBAs because the school is essentially self-funded. The latter issue involving MBA loans led to a decline in incoming international students last year–just 32%–but it’s now resolved with 39% of this year’s incoming MBAs  from outside the U.S.

Or consider Dartmouth’s Tuck School. Applications at Tuck were down 8% this year, to 2,573 from 2,804 in 2009. Yet, the average GMAT scores for the incoming class are the highest in the school’s history, 716, up from 712 a year earlier, while the school also hit new records in the percentage of women (35%) and minorities (20%), and increased the representation of  international students to 33%, from 30% the year earlier. Tuck’s yield–the percentage of accepted applicants who agree to come to the school–increased by six percentage points.

At Kellogg, applications were up ever so slightly, by 42 applicants, from 5,545 to 5,587, a sum that includes 5,025 applicants for the school’s two-year MBA program, 325 for its accelerated one-year MBA program, and 241 applicants for its MMM program in which students get both the MBA from Kellogg and a Master of Engineering Management from Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering.

After reaching a cyclical peak in 2008, GMAC said yesterday that full-time MBA programs continued on a downward cycle this year, the first signs of which were seen in the recession-plagued 2009. So far this year, more programs reported a downward (49%) compared to an upward (41%) trend in application volume, and the average number of applications per full-time two-year MBA program marginally declined by two percent.

Business SchoolApplicationsSeats Available
1. Harvard Business School9,524*910
2. Stanford7,536385
3. Columbia6,885740
4. Pennsylvania (Wharton)6,819*860
5, Northwestern (Kellogg)5,587*635
6. MIT (Sloan)4,782*400
7. New York (Stern)4,625370
8. Chicago (Booth)3,843590
9. Berkeley (Haas)3,626*240
10. Duke (Fuqua)3,506*450
11. UCLA (Anderson)3,041360
12. Dartmouth (Tuck)2,573*260
13. Yale2,790225
14. Michigan (Ross)2,697500
15. Virginia (Darden)2,689310
16. Texas-Austin (McCombs)2,284260
17. USC (Marshall)2,224220
18. Cornell (Johnson)2,002*275
19. UNC (Kenan-Flagler)1,873300
20. Georgetown (McDonough)1,729250

An asterisk indicates that the number applies for the full-time Class of 2012 entering this fall. All other numbers are for the previous year.

  • Sthepvan

    If you think that the average wannabe MBA applies to 4 MBA programmes, the total number of DISTINCT MBA applicants is about 20000 for above top 20 MBA programmes listed. Considering that there are 8540 seats available and that there is a 95% attendance rate, that means if you applied to all 20 schools -not that I suppose you would- you have about 45% chance of getting into one of them. This is not obviously true if your GPA is 0 out of 4 and your GMAT is also 200 but, lets assume average stats and best branded and best articulated leadership potential and I don’t see anything wrong with my calculations because no one applying to anyone of the above 20 schools are having a 200 for GMAT or 0 out of 4 GPA. What do you think?

  • I would be really curious to know the answer as well John. I just looked at Cornell’s website where they state:

    “As you’ll see on our Key Facts page, the number of applicants to Johnson has been growing, and this year we accepted about 12% of those who applied.”


    This is in reference to the class of 2012 I believe – if correct, that’s a huge jump! If incorrect… why are they putting this on the site? That’s the kind of acceptance rate that would convince me that my chances probably aren’t good enough to apply.

    Can’t wait to hear what you’ve found out.

  • Hmm. Let me look into this. I’ll call up Cornell and see what gives.

  • Thanks John, the analysis you quoted does make sense, but am still a little confused (looking just at the numbers). As per Cornell’s page, they report Class of 2012 : Number of Applicants – 2667, Number enrolled – 278.

    Thats the number represented here (as 2,002*) correct?

  • Thanks Abhijit. We agree: the numbers don’t match but there’s a good reason for that. Cornell is reporting the number for the Class of 2010 which graduated this year. The numbers we’re reporting is for the Class of 2012 which entered this year. Cornell had a 12% decline in year-over-year applications which accounts for the much lower number. In a recent BusinessWeek story, for example, it was noted that Cornell’s selectivity is on a two-year slide due to declining application volume. The Johnson School accepted 19% of its applicants in 2008, but the following year that percentage increased to 22% and last year went to 23%. The article quoted Randall Sawyer, assistant dean of admissions, saying that one reason for the fall is that candidates are getting smarter about where they apply, giving admissions committees fewer but better choices—candidates who are all a good fit for their programs.
    “We always try to be as selective as possible,” he told BusinessWeek. “There are so many great schools for great candidates. In some ways, this is a competition.”

  • I was just looking at the Cornell facts and found that the number denoted here doesn’t match the number provided on their website. Just wanted to bring this to your attention.


  • Deepak

    So does this mean that even a low GMAT scorer with a good profile stands a chance to get into the world’s best B-schools?

  • The closest number you can get to the total applicant pool was just released in the GMAC report which is referred to in this article: The 476 MBA programs responding to the GMAC study had received a total of 196,032 completed applications, though many schools had not yet reached their application deadlines. The number of applications per program varied greatly, ranging from fewer than 10 to nearly 10,000. GMAC also said that first-tier programs, those in the top 50, receive a median of 1,554 applications. Schools in the second-tier, the next 50, got less than a third of that, 405 applications per program, while all the remaining schools had a median of just 147 applicants. As for the average number of schools an applicant applies? My conversations with admission directors at the top schools say the average is just over three. It used to be five to six.

  • Fran

    The total applicant pool is unknown. What is the total applicant pool and what is the average number of schools to which an applicant applies?

  • Matt, that is an excellent analysis that displays a lot of information about the students that apply to Northwestern and their GMAT scores.

    I also agree with John’s admiration about the schools that disclose their full range of scores. Speaking for myself, transparency gives a lot of confidence about the school’s data.

  • All schools publish a range of GMAT scores, but unfortunately they tend to exclude the top and bottom 10 percent. What those ranges do is discourage the outliers who could be exceptional candidates for an MBA. That’s why I greatly admire the schools that are willing to give the full range because it is not merely a transparent gesture; it encourages a wider applicant pool. Harvard Business School, for example, publishes the full range of GMAT scores. Among the incoming class that will enter on Sept. 13th., the lowest GMAT score was a 590 while the higher was a 790. I find that disclosure an invitation to extraordinary potentials who haven’t achieved super high GMAT scores.

  • Most schools only publish their average GMAT scores, so it’s hard to find data on the distribution of scores. However, Kellogg publishes a detailed breakdown of the applicants at several different score levels. You may be able to use their data to see if it’s normally distributed. I did an analysis of it here: http://www.thegmattutor.com/blogs/gmat-insights/1939002-does-a-gmat-score-of-750-increase-your-chances-of-admission-more-than-a-score-of-700

  • Tony Factor

    great analysis; now you got me thinking!

  • That is an interesting fact. I wonder if the data regarding the GMAT of the whole applicant pool is normally distributed for all schools. Let’s say you have the following for this case:

    2000 (21%) people with 600
    5000 (52%) people with 710
    2524 (27%) people with 780
    Average: 705

    Nothing against HBS. I truly believe it is, if not the best, one of the best business schools in the world. I was just wondering about the data, you know what Benjamin Disraeli once said: “There are three kind of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

  • Miguel, you’re right. In some ways, it may be far more interesting to get a sense of the applicants who are rejected than accepted. Truth is, there is a lot of self-screening that goes on so the applicants who get turned down by Harvard and/or Stanford often are exceptional. Harvard, for example, says that the average GMAT for its entire applicant pool now exceeds 700! I’ll do a little digging here because I think it would make a fascinating story to write about a thoughtful profile of the rejected.

  • These are some interesting numbers, John. It would be great to understand the quality of the applicants that are rejected, because I am sure that quite a lot of people that want to go to business school in the U.S. take a shot at Harvard and Stanford even though they may not have the required profile. This creates some bias in the selectivity percentage, which is not shown in the numbers.

    Great post!