How MBA Applicants Choose Schools


Ever feel inundated by advertising? According to urban legend, you’re exposed to 5,000 or more messages per day. The truth? No one really knows. Just because you’re “exposed” to something doesn’t mean you “process” it. And what makes people “act” (and when) continues to confound marketing mavens. Make no mistake: From billboards to girl scouts, someone is always vying for your attention.

Take MBA programs, for example. Google a school and you’re bound to have two others pop up when you visit your favorite sports site. Flip through Fortune or the Wall Street Journal and you’ll find quotes from a Stanford or Kellogg professor soon enough. Sign up for information or join a group? Expect a stream of invitations, emails, tweets, posts, calls, and links for years to come.

Thanks to social media and data mining, marketing has become more prevalent and personal than ever. But it still hasn’t replaced face-to-face communication in effectiveness. That was one major finding from the 2015 Prospective Students Survey produced by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC). Here, prospective students chose informal channels like alumni, professors, and current students among the most influential sources for choosing an MBA program.


These findings are based on the responses of nearly 12,000 potential graduate business students. These students, who registered on GMAC’s website in 2014, were part of a random sample collected monthly. Americans comprised 30% of the sample, followed by Asia Pacific (23.5%), Central and South Asia (18%), Europe (12.5%), and the Middle East and Africa (8.5%). 52.6% of the sample featured men, with the majority of the study including prospective students under 24 (47.8%) and 24-30 (36.9%).

Over the years, students have consulted websites to research business programs more than any other source. And this year was no different. Websites maintained an 83% reach (i.e. “the percentage of prospective students who consult the source”). This was nearly 30 points higher than the runner-up, friends and family. In addition, 53% of respondents agreed that school websites influence their decisions (with “influence” defined as “the percentage of students who ranked the source as extremely or very influential to their decision-making process”). Overall, school websites notched a perfect 100 impact score from the sample – 36 points higher than friends and family.

Barbara Coward of Converge Consulting

Barbara Coward of Converge Consulting

The biggest draw of websites is convenience, says Barbara Coward, the vice president of innovation and development at Converge Consulting, a marketing company serving the higher education market. “[Prospective students] are certainly busy,” she tells Poets&Quants. “The rest of their life doesn’t stop when they decide to embark on an MBA. They want to get the information as quickly as possible.” For students, says Coward, a website is an all-in-one resource where they can learn about the curriculum, faculty and the personality of the school. Just as important, a site includes data that quickly lets them know if they fit in terms of admissions qualifications.

However, the best websites reflect the “personality, culture and experience of the school,” Coward points out. “[They] showcase that personality and give you a sense of student stories. To do that, according to Coward, a site must appeal to various constituencies without becoming generic. “Somebody who comes from a military background is going to be very different from someone with a corporate background or an entrepreneur,” Coward notes. “Really, a great website is one that speaks to all the different student personas, where somebody coming from their own background can see themselves and envision themselves at the school. They can see a video [for example] and say, ‘That sounds like me. I can relate to this. I can see myself there.”

Where Prospective Students Get Their Information

Source: 2015 GMAC Prospective Students Survey. Data collected January to December 2014

Source: 2015 GMAC Prospective Students Survey. Data collected January to December 2014