Should Women Apply Differently?

In this exclusive column for Poets&Quants, Fortuna admission consultants  look at some of the myths that surround the MBA admissions process – and how schools evaluate candidates.  So if you have ever asked yourself "Is it true that ...", you'll find all the myth busting answers right here.

In this exclusive column for Poets&Quants, Fortuna admission consultants look at some of the myths that surround the MBA admissions process – and how schools evaluate candidates. So if you have ever asked yourself “Is it true that …”, you’ll find all the myth busting answers right here.

Should women approach the application to business school any differently than men? 

As a subject fraught with stereotyping, admissions officers will typically avoid any suggestion that they view male and female applicants differently. But with decades of experience in MBA admissions evaluating thousands of files, we have seen some common characteristics that are worth a bit of exploration. We are not stating how things should be, but how things are, and look forward to the discussion that this post may generate.

One of the myths often discussed on the Poets&Quants website is that women have a much stronger chance of admissions than men because they are under represented in the top MBA programs, and apply in smaller numbers. This argument assumes that an admissions office compares an individual to the six, seven or even nine thousand other applicants also applying to the school.

In reality we do not. In the same way that an Indian software engineer is not directly competing with a banker on Wall Street for a place in an MBA program, so a talented young professional woman is not assessed as a minority in a majority male pool, but will be assessed as part of a subset of candidates with similar profiles. As such, she is competing with a substantial pool of other talented applicants whose personal stories of accomplishment, academic excellence, quant skills and potential for leadership may be equally compelling.

Business schools in the U.S. and the rest of the world are increasingly allocating resources to market their MBA programs to women. When the Forté Foundation, a non-profit consortium of leading companies and top business schools, was founded in 2001, it was in response to a landmark research study, “Women and the MBA: Gateway to Opportunity,” which explored several key myths and misperceptions about business careers, and why fewer women choose to attend schools of business than schools of medicine or law and ultimately pursue careers in those fields.

Almost 15 years ago, Chicago Booth had only 26% women in their full-time MBA, while MIT Sloan had 27% and Wharton 28%. While women are still under-represented at business school and in business – Forté estimates that 34% of MBA graduates are women, and make up less than 17% of corporate board members in America’s 500 largest companies – there are clear signs that a greater number of women are choosing to pursue fulfilling, significant careers through access to business education.

The Wharton School last year enrolled a record 42% women into the MBA classroom, while the 41.4% female admits to Harvard this year is the school’s highest percentage to date, and the third consecutive year the school has surpassed 40%. There is still much to be done, as Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Noria acknowledges, not only for women MBA students but also the percentage of women professors and case study material that focuses on women professionals.

So how does all of this recent discussion and research impact applications to business school? Ten years ago, women made up 38% of GMAT test takers. In 2013 that number rose to 43%. In countries like China and Russia women taking the GMAT outnumber men (64% and 54% respectively), while in the U.S. the percentage is 38%. In India, the figure is only 27%. Some of these global test-takers will be targeting Master’s in Management and specialized Master’s programs, but GMAC’s 2013 Application Trends Survey shows that 39% of applications to full-time two-year MBA programs were from women, and 37% to full-time one-year MBA programs, numbers that are broadly in line with the percentages at the top schools.

Of the GRE test takers who indicated the MBA as their degree objective, ETS reported a breakdown of 52% men and 45% women (and a further 3% who did not respond). It is no coincidence that up to 10% of any entering business school class has taken the GRE as opposed to the GMAT, and that in making the switch to accept the GRE as a viable testing source, business school programs are hoping to attract candidates who may have previously thought the GMAT and the prospect of business school was disconnected from what they ultimately hoped to achieve. The GRE, typically used for all graduate entrance exams in the humanities, helps business schools to capture a greater share of that (often more diverse) market.

So what did we see when we were running the admissions offices at Wharton and INSEAD, and what advice do we have for women who are excited about securing their place at business school?

Advice for women candidates

The MBA application process assesses candidates on a variety of factors. As Admissions Directors we wanted to make sure that all members of the entering class, regardless of demographics, had the quant skills to handle courses in finance, accounting and statistics, while identifying characteristics such as leadership, collaborative teamwork, resourcefulness and engagement. We also wanted to understand their post-MBA career goals and how the MBA would fit in to their career development. These questions are relevant irrespective of gender.

But without falling into clumsy stereotypes, we would sometimes see a difference in the way that men and women went about telling their personal stories.


Judith Silverman Hodara and Caroline Diarte Edwards, Co-Directors at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Directors of MBA Admissions at Wharton and INSEAD respectively. Fortuna is composed of former Directors and Associate Directors of Admissions at many of the world’s best business schools, including Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Chicago Booth, NYU Stern, IE Business School, Northwestern Kellogg, and UC Berkeley Haas. This is the sixth in a series of myth buster articles on admissions.