When you look at a person’s chances of getting into a highly ranked MBA program these days, it’s pretty much a tale of two tiers. At the top 25 ranked U.S. business schools, it has become a greater challenge to get an admit. At the next 25 schools that fill out the top 5o list, it’s a bit easier.
Some 15 of the top 25 schools last year had lower acceptance rates than a year-earlier, with significantly tougher admission standards at MIT Sloan, Cornell Johnson, UC-Berkeley Haas, the University of Texas’ McCombs, and Duke Fuqua. Even among top 25 schools that saw fewer applicants, the declines were generally modest, with not a single school reporting a double-digit drop.
In that second group ranked 26th through 50th, however, only eight schools reported lower admits rates, with standards much higher at Arizona State’s W. P. Carey School, Boston College’s Carroll, and Rochester University’s Simon School of Business. Half a dozen schools in this group reported double-digit plunges in their application volume.
INCREASING APPLICANTS TO TOP TEN SCHOOLS REFLECT A FLIGHT TO QUALITY
But if you have your heart set on a U.S. program ranked in the top ten, you faced tougher odds for sure: With more applicants vying for a seat last year, acceptance rates dropped to their lowest level in at least five years. At an admit rate of just 14.5%, in fact, it was the first time the overall admit rate for the top ten schools fell below 15%. Five years ago in 2012, the acceptance rate for a top ten program was 17.0%. The first-tier schools received 54,694 applications in the 2015-2016 year, up 4.4% over a year earlier when applications totaled 52,384 (see table below).
Some believe the increase can be attributed to efforts by many of the top schools to make applying less of an essay contest in recent years. “One element in rising application volume over the last several year is the time cost of applying,” says Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com. “As schools have simplified their applications and reduced the number of essays, they reduce the time investment required to apply. More people apply to more schools to increase their chances of acceptances, but basically it’s like a dog chasing its tail. Acceptance rates drop, applicants feel they have to apply more widely to hedge their bets, and acceptance rates drop further. At the end of they day only one student can occupy one chair in one school.
The numbers, too, reflect something of a flight to quality at the top end of the MBA market. “This is a tournament and the prize at the top is more highly desired than the price below it,” says David White of Menlo Coaching, an MBA admissions consulting firm. “But there is a fair amount of monkey business in the numbers.”
White cites the increase at MIT Sloan which occurred after the school decided to go with only one essay question, with a second required short-answer question if candidates moved forward to the interview stage. Sloan also used to close off its admissions cycle as early as Jan. 8, but extended it until April 11 in line with other peer schools. White believes those changes caused a number of applicants to add Sloan to their target lists because it was so easy to do so. “Most admissions directors would tell you that the core group of well-quallified applicants is mostly stable over time,” he adds.
APPS FELL AT COLUMBIA BUT SO DID THE SCHOOL’S ACCEPTANCE RATE
Only two full-time MBA programs among the top ten experienced application declines: Columbia Business School, where applicants fell 5.1% to 5,534, and Chicago Booth, where applications dropped by 3.9% to 4,117. Yet, oddly enough, it actually became more difficult to get a seat in both those schools as well. At Booth, admit rates fell slightly to 23.6% last year from 24.4% a year earlier. At Columbia, the drop was even greater: Nearly four percentage points. The acceptance rate fell to 14.1% from 18.0% a year earlier, a consequence of higher yield rates, most likely a greater number of early decision applicants who are technically bound to go to CBS if accepted.
Some admission consultants believe that Columbia was able to achieve a higher yield because it began allocating more cash to scholarship support. One consultant told Poets&Quants he was quite shocks that a candidate who received a full ride at NYU Stern with no scholarship offer from Columbia was able to go back to CBS this year and get a full ride from Columbia. “Another element improving Columbia’s yield is its January program,” adds Abraham. The option permits MBA students an accelerated version of the program. “That is a very attractive and distinctive option that CBS has been plugging more in the last couple of years.”
At some fairly prominent full-time MBA programs there were deep declines in application volume that are likely to reinforce the feeling that growth in two-year, residential MBA programs is pretty much over. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reported that applications fell 35.4% last year, while Purdue University’s Krannert School saw a 29.5% plunge and UC-Irvine’s Merage School of Business had a 20.3% drop off (see schools with biggest declines).
The Top Ten Business Schools: By The Numbers
It’s harder than ever to get into the full-time MBA program of a Top Ten U.S. business school. The acceptance rate last year fell to 14.5%, more than a full percentage point from the 15.6% rate a year earlier. It became more difficult because applications to the top ten programs rose by 4.4% to 54,694, vying for just 5,100 seats.