B-Schools With The Most Competitive Students

Despite the enduring stereotype of MBAs as sharp-elbowed, one-dimensional, destructively competitive Masters of the Universe, the vast majority of MBA students are exactly the opposite: self-motivated, collaborative and concerned about the world around them. As an applicant, in fact, the quickest way to get a rejection notice from a business school is to present yourself as if you fulfill the false stereotype.

Yet, business schools undoubtedly attract highly ambitious, keenly clever and fairly competitive souls. Many school cultures repress the worst tendencies, but some are more successful at this than others.

So which schools have the most competitive students?


Every year, Princeton Review surveys about 19,000 MBA students at some 300 business schools and publishes a top ten list of the schools with the “most competitive students.” Their ranking of the top ten is based on answers to three questions on its surveys: How competitive are your classmates? How heavy is your workload? And how much academic pressure do you feel?

Those questions are among the 78 multiple-choice questions and seven “free-response” questions asked of current full-time students. Princeton Review says that at least 10% of full-time studnets responded “at almost all institutions we surveyed; at many schools, we scored responses from as many as one-third or one-half of the student body–and nearly all in a few cases.”

As we have pointed out in our rankings critiques, however, more often than not the differences among schools on student surveys is so slight as to be statistically meaningless. So in any given year, the results may not be worth the paper or bits they are printed on. (In our table on the most competitive institutions, we list the schools that made this list once in the last five years to satisfy our readers’ curiosity.)

That’s why we’ve taken the results of the Princeton Review surveys over the past five years and combined them. The cumulative result is far more more credible than any one year which can be something of an anomaly. What did we find?


Hands down, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School has the most competitive students. Not only has Wharton made Princeton Review’s top ten list in every one of the last five years, the school was ranked first in three of those five years–in the 2012 guidebook, 2010 and 2009.

Only two other schools made the list five out of five times: Vanderbilt University’s Owen School of Business and Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management.

At the Owen School, the surveys results have clearly been noticed. “We think that is one of the biggest mysteries,” says Yvonne Martin-Kidd, who as executive director of marketing oversees the Owen School’s involvement in rankings and internal student satisfaction surveys. “We look at that and scratch our heads. I do believe there is something there, but the texture of it is getting lost.

“If you talk to our students,” continues Martin-Kidd, “you will hear the word competition over and over again. But Vanderbilt students are extremely competitive externally. They love to win. They love to perform on the job. Yet when it comes to being students within the community, it’s a healthy competitiveness and not at all cutthroat.”

Adds Owen Dean Jim Bradford: “If this means our students are sharp-elbowed and super individualistic, that’s not us. You don’t get ahead by pushing someone else down here. Our students play well together.”

Dean Bradford says students commonly share job contacts with each other and create enduring bonds while in the program.  Employers also don’t view Owen’s MBA candidates as overtly competitive. “What I hear from employers is that they are smart and ambitious, but they don’t have a sense of entitlement,” he adds. “They are scrappy. “

All told, there are 12 schools that made this list at least twice in the past five years–out of the nearly 300 at which students were surveyed. You’d never guess that some of these institutions would make a ranking for having the most competitive students. Who, for example, would ever have imagined that the Sam Walton School at the University of Arkansas would have made the list in four of the past five years? Yet, the Walton School is smack in the middle of Wal-Mart world, where the world’s largest retailer has made its home. You don’t become the largest retailer in the world by playing the game of business with kid gloves.

Texas can lay claim as the state with the largest number of Darwinian schools on this list over the five years: five out of the 21 schools that made the list are in the Lone Star State. In fact, three of the top ten most competitive schools are in Texas: Action, Texas A&M’s Mays Business School, and Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business.


The biggest surprise, perhaps, is who hasn’t made this list. Not a single mention of Harvard Business School, in spite of the common stereotype of the students there. It was Ned Dewey of Harvard’s most famous Class of 1949s who once said of HBS students in the late 1980s: “I’d as soon take a python to bed as hire one. He’d suck my  brains, memorize my Rolodex, and use my telephone to find some other guy who’d pay him twice the money.”

(See the following page for our table on the 20 business schools with the most competitive MBA students)

  • This statement is absurd. No CBS student would ever do that.

  • “It’s also somewhat surprising that Columbia Business School wasn’t on the list.” Not at all surprising to anyone who actually goes to CBS. The myth that was have anything less than an amazingly supportive and collaborative culture needs to die. We’re also not a commuter school, nor are we “distracted” by New York City.

  • John Gurskey


  • Dylans153

    disagree.  Association for Corporate
    Growth NY (ACG), the leading organization for private equity professionals,
    recently invited Columbia Business School to participate in ACG’s 2012 case
    competition. The school has declined to participate in the case competition for
    the last four years. Schools competing in ACG NY’s 2012 competition were:
    Fordham, Baruch, NYU, Hofstra, Pace, and St. Johns.  Fordham and Baruch came out 1st
    and 2nd respectively.  Private
    equity is considered one of the most competitive areas of business yet a top
    tier school with a substantial presence in PE does not want to compete?  It does not make sense.  

  • JayHova

    This ranking is laughable at best… rather nonsensical if you ask me. It takes an extremely competitive individual to make a top 10 school, but somehow only Wharton is ranked in the top 10 here… 

  • Hotjeezzy21

    Well, you clearly heard wrong… I visited the school several times and the class discussion was extremely competitive, as every participant was required to backup their points with empirical evidence… 

  • Spencer H.

    @Buckaroo Bill “Would you rather hire a creampuff from some MBA program or a python from HBS? I prefer pythons.”

    As one hires from HBS, I’d take a “cream puff” every time. pythons are of the past and no one likes working with them. High performance and collaboration/team work do not have to be mutually exclusive. Competion against the “other team” we like, of course, but internally rather workinh together and helping each other be. You are at b school to learn and develop not to beat out your classmates.

  • VandyGrad

    Go Vandy! both of my schools made the list!

  • Alum

    Texas Southern! go Tigers!

  • How many of you feel it is possible to measure, not to mention rank, competitiveness? Do you believe these questions are adequate indications of sharp elbows?

  • RocketMan

    How much did it cost Harvard not to appear on that list?

    I visited HBS last fall. In just 4 hours there 3 situations that at least should make it to the podium.

    1) TMO Class. In the middle of the discussion (case method) one student raised his hand just to say that in the beer game they played 2 weeks ago the student in charge of shipping had failed to do so when required.

    2) While checking my email I overheard a discussion of 3, then 4, people talking about a guy in their class. The problem with this guy was that he was Mexican and, not only that, he had a humble background.

    3) The group of 4 turned int 5 for a while, discussing plans for thanksgiving. They were planning to go skiing all together but the last to join refused because the other four went to lousy places, so he preferred joining his parents at Cape Cod.

    In an event held where I live I asked the alumni present if they felt the tag competitive tag HBS holds was accurate, 4 said no, the last one said:” I’ll tell you the truth, yes. You’ll probably find less than 5% that are really competitive, you’ll find some people competitive and the rest are low profile. Can’t tell you how much but let’s say half and half. But hey, HBS has a class size of 900, almost twice as much as most other top 10 schools so you can find as many non-competitive buddies (in number) as you would find in other schools.”

    As for Chicago, that someone mentioned, for what I’ve heard, and experienced, Boothies are more individualistic than competitive.

  • Vandy Grad

    Would have to agree in that Vandy students are competitive externally and very collaborative internally.

    Dean Bradford is one of the great assets of the school.

  • DW

    I’m surprised that Wharton ranks at the top with its grade non-disclosure policy.

  • anon

    “some overzealous Columbia students were said to hide books in the library so their classmates wouldn’t be able to study for an upcoming exam.”

    I could not stop laughing at this one. I had a friend in high school who was caught hiding books in the library so that other students wouldnt be able to get this one book that was a treasure trove of information. People reported the book missing.The person was caught later as he was the only person to have information from that book.

    Guess where did he go for college? 😛

  • jay

    “And which schools were on the low end? Columbia, Chicago, NYU, and Wharton, the Princeton Review’s number one school with the most competitive students.”

    So basically, finance/wall street types are competitive.

  • Buckaroo Bill

    Would you rather hire a creampuff from some MBA program or a python from HBS? I prefer pythons.

  • srini

    Wharton’s ranking is not at all surprising. It’s a great school but I have been told by several alum that it wasn’t the best experience. Of course many others have said it was a great experience. Almost universally, people who went to schools such as Tuck, Kellogg and Darden seem to have had a really wonderful 2 year experience. I’m surprised Booth is not on the list.

  • FSU

    First, love my Noles. I have undergraduate and graduate degrees from FSU. Not sure, however, how they made this list. The MBA program is very small and is largely lecture based (not much experiential learning or head to head project). More of an MBA to avoid hitting a ceiling at a job you can already get, not a game changer or door opener. Wonder how it got ranked so competitive. Most of the students don’t have work experience though, so they may not truly know what competition is. Fine program, but not a top 25 experience.

  • Edward,

    I have to agree with you, even though I cranked this one out. On the other hand, wouldn’t you love to see a ranking of the schools with the greatest number of faculty snobs? Just kidding!

  • Edward

    Too many MBA rankings. Pretty soon we are going to see an MBA ranking with the snobbiest facility, most students with stuttering problems, smokers, prettiest rose gardens…

  • BT

    Wharton’s atmosphere is really competitive because of the way the school operates. For example, there is an auctioning system for courses and clubs and conferences require that students submit applications to join. If everyone is scrambling for the same slice of cake, sharp elbows are gonna come out.