The Business Schools Winning The MBA Student Talent Wars

Class of 2015 Stanford GSB graduates at their commencement on June 13, 2015

Class of 2015 Stanford GSB graduates at their commencement on June 13, 2015


The same is true of London Business School. “INSEAD and LBS applicants are more self selecting than the applicant pools for the U.S. schools, and they offer an international experience that no U.S. school can match,” says Edwards. “This proves decisive for an increasing portion of the global applicant pool who want to pursue their careers in Europe, the Middle East, Africa or Asia. And with an average six years professional experience these two schools arguably have more material to work with to identify a level of thoughtfulness and maturity that is the trademark of a high quality applicant.”

Hoff of Amerasia also believes INSEAD gets better candidates by having a robust set of essay questions and requiring candidates to go through two interviews. “The school gets better candidates by asking them to complete a tough application process,” he insists. “You get what you pay for. U.S. schools would be wise to stop pandering to this supposed Twitter generation and go back to tougher apps. They will not only get a better sense of what they have, but they will be signaling that getting into their school is no joke. I know for a fact that some of my clients come through this process thinking of INSEAD as more legitimate than counterpart schools simply because it was such a robust application process.”

The survey results also reflect, to some degree, the general reputations of the schools and how they rank on various lists. Typically, says Dan Bauer, founder and CEO of The MBA Exchange, the best applicants are deciding on which schools to attend based on “a school’s relative ranking, fit between curriculum and post-MBA career goals, appeal of campus culture, offers of merit-based aid, and geographic location.”


Regardless, there are often huge gaps between this ranking of schools that win the talent wars and what some other rankings show. The Financial Times, arguably the most often cited global ranking, has Kellogg at 14th best in the world vs. the judgment of admission consultants who put Kellogg sixth. The FT puts Dartmouth Tuck 23rd in the world, though consultants say it attracts the eighth best students in terms of quality (see differences on following page).

The very best MBA applicants also may factor in other beliefs that determine which schools ultimately win them over as enrolled students. “Schools that are more popular with applicants as a whole and top applicants in particular are going to be the ones that admissions consultants’ top quality candidates enroll in,” contends Adam Markus, a veteran MBA consultant. “For U.S. schools, H/S/W are clearly at the top and the others are listed reasonably well in first choice ranking. Stanford is slightly ahead of HBS because Stanford takes a much narrower band of high quality applicants than HBS does. While the average undergraduate GPA at HBS is high, the range is forgiving. This just is not the same the Stanford.”

Markus also believes that many of the best candidates heavily factor into their decisions the opportunity cost of attending an MBA program. “In general,” he says, “higher quality candidates have much greater opportunity costs for stopping work for one to two years to go get an MBA and will consider a relatively narrow range of programs. I have some high quality clients who only apply to HBS and Stanford and would consider even Wharton an unacceptable compromise. I have some candidates who will add Wharton to the list, but that is about it.”


Throughout the list of schools consistently enrolling the best applicants, there were a number of surprises. Bauer, for example, believes that Columbia’s seventh-place ranking is “surprisingly modest given that earning an Ivy League MBA degree in the world’s financial center is such a powerful and unique value proposition.” He also found that Tuck’s No. 8 ranking vs. MIT’s No. 10 finish was an unexpected outcome given the fact that the two institutions are “very different schools by all measures. Tuck’s cohesive, warm and welcoming culture has apparently overshadowed MIT’s global brand, big-city location and reputation for analytical rigor.” And finally, Bauer was surprised to see a larger than expected gap between University of Michigan’s Ross School, ranked 16th, and the University of Virginia’s Darden School, ranked 21st, in part because of Darden’s much lower acceptance rate.

Matt Symonds, a partner at Fortuna Admissions, also makes the point that the applicant pools at the top three schools–Stanford, Harvard and Wharton–are so deep and rich that it’s often hard to discern a significant difference in candidate quality at many other highly selective MBA programs. “For every applicant that secured a place at the GSB, Harvard or Wharton there were no doubt two or three other applicants of equal quality that did not make the cut because the admissions office was trying to put together a diverse class,” adds Symonds. “There are only so many McKinsey, Google, World Bank, Gates Foundation or boutique private equity profiles each school will admit, and those applicants may land a place at Haas, Kellogg or Tuck. So the margins are very thin.”

(See following page for how the schools rank on the student talent wars)

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