The Business Schools Winning The MBA Student Talent Wars

Group Of Diverse International Students Celebrating Graduation

Group Of Diverse International Students Celebrating Graduation

Every year, the world’s top business schools are engaged in an all-out talent war for the best MBA applicants on the market. To coax the most desirable prospective students to their campuses, they’ve been employing alumni as ambassadors, touting their programs and faculty, and using millions of dollars in scholarship money.

So who’s winning the MBA student talent wars? A new survey of MBA admission consultants by Poets&Quants finds some very familiar business schools at the top, with some real surprises sprinkled throughout the list. Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business ekes out a slight win over Harvard Business School, while the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School is solidly third.

Perhaps more surprising is that admission consultants believe that two non-U.S. business schools, INSEAD and London Business School, are among the top ten in the world for landing the best candidates in the MBA applicant pool. In fact, INSEAD comes in fourth, just ahead of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. London Business School is tied for eighth with Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. Rounding out the top ten are Columbia Business School, which placed seventh, and MIT Sloan, which came in tenth.


The findings are a unique, never-before-seen look at the student talent wars. Other than admission officials at the business school, MBA admission consultants are in the best position to assess the total candidate, and today they typically see a quarter to a third of the applicant pool at the Top 10 business schools. Some rankings take the measure of student quality with average GMAT scores or undergraduate GPAs. But those numbers provide a highly limited view of quality. They fail to take into account where candidates earned their degrees, where they worked, what they did, what progress was achieved in the job, what leadership challenges were overcome, and how articulate and thoughtful a candidate might be.

In effect, we asked admission consultants to take a truly holistic view of their clients in answering this simple question: “To which schools have you seen your highest quality clients enroll over the years?” We then asked the consultants to rate the top 25 U.S. business schools and the top 10 non-U.S. schools on a scale of one-to-five, with five representing the highest quality. Consultants see a broad variety of prospective students from all over the world so together they could provide more of a true global picture on which schools are getting the best students.

The survey was sent in May to 50 leading MBA admission consultants at the world’s top firms and boutiques. Some 35 of the 50 consulting firms completed our surveys, for a response rate of 70% (see the participating firms). All together, the survey respondents–many of them former business school admissions officials themselves–have accumulated well over 400 years of admissions consulting experience and helped more than 65,000 applicants get into the world’s best MBA programs.


The survey’s limitations are obvious. We only asked for their views of 35 schools, already a highly selective group of MBA programs that are generally recognized as the best in the world. These schools, no matter where they rank on this list, are solidly in the top 1% of all providers of graduate business education. Secondly, the ranking is not reflective of the quality of the MBA experience, the faculty, the alumni network, or even such basic career outcomes as starting salaries and employment–all important aspects of a world class MBA program. Instead, the ranking merely measures which schools are successfully and consistently getting the best and brightest student talent–from the perspective of admission consultants.

Stanford’s No. 1 showing is largely attributed to the increased interest in entrepreneurship and technology as well as the school’s more highly selective acceptance rate of only 7.1% vs. 11.0% at Harvard. Because Stanford only has to fill 410 seats, less than half the 935 at HBS, consultants say it is more likely to win the MBA talent war overall. That’s despite the fact that Harvard boasts considerably greater resources than Stanford, more faculty, including far more star professors, a wider portfolio of courses, and a much larger and global alumni network, including significantly more corporate CEOs.

The fact that it topped HBS, even ever so slightly, was not an unexpected outcome. “I’m not surprised to see GSB top HBS on this list, just because Stanford seems to be edging Harvard on most lists,” says Adam Hoff, a principal with Amerasia Consulting Group. “GSB is a more selective school by the numbers, it has a smaller class size and thus feels more exclusive, and it seems to be a ‘hotter’ school given certain macro cultural trends. We’re in a world that seems to turn on the wheel of Silicon Valley, a focus on social impact, a brogues and chinos vibe over suits and wing tips. I know that among my clients who got into both, most choose Stanford. That said, I still have far more people who go into this process with HBS as their top choice and who don’t even apply to Stanford than I do the opposite.”


And at least one consultant attributed Stanford’s success in part to an admissions practice. “When Stanford makes an offer, not only does (MBA Admissions Director) Derrick (Bolton) make the calls personally and starts selling the school but they almost immediately engage alumni in the candidate’s industry and/or location to start selling the candidate on the benefits of choosing GSB over HBS,” says Chris Aitken, co-founder of MBA Prep School. “I don’t think HBS gives the impression of working as hard to win top tier candidates over.”

The real surprise may well be INSEAD’s showing above many so-called M7 schools, generally thought to have the best MBA programs in the world. The school, with campuses in Fontainebleau, France, and Singapore, has an acceptance rate (estimated at just above 30%) that is well above rivals and an average GMAT score for its incoming class that at 701 is below 14 U.S. MBA programs. But INSEAD’s more global makeup and its shorter one-year program has real appeal to many of the best candidates in the applicant pool.

“INSEAD offers the top one-year program in the world, which is tailor made for certain globally minded high achievers for whom the opportunity cost of two years is not an attractive option,” believes Caroline Diarte Edwards, a partner with Fortuna Admissions and a former INSEAD director of admissions. “So the school consistently attracts great profiles, with meaningful international experience and at least three languages to their name.”

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