Top Business Schools Have Grown More Selective Than Ever In Past Decade

Darden and Fuqua may be the biggest surprises based on historical data. In 2005, the schools averaged 49.1% and 45.6% acceptance rates respectively. To put that in context, those are roughly the acceptance rates for Southern Methodist University and George Washington University today. But that’s where the comparisons end. In Duke’s case, the school’s average GMAT has actually slipped from 701 to 690 in the past decade, just as its acceptance rate has plummeted to 24%. However, Fuqua, which topped Bloomberg Businessweek’s most recent rankings, follows its own beat. It eschews traditional ranking metrics to foster classes that are heavy on intangibles like teamwork and diversity. Conversely, Darden’s average GMAT has climbed from 668 to 706 – nearly four points per year – as its acceptance rate has constricted to 26%. In doing so, Darden has entered the vaunted Top 10 in the U.S. News rankings.

Bottom line: The top-tiered programs are quite healthy. Unlike law schools, they aren’t tamping down their standardized test scores to squeeze students in. However, business schools are dangling more scholarships to lure students. Among schools ranked in Poets&Quants Top 25, there are 11 programs where 50% or more of their students receive scholarships, with the average assistance ranging from $21,853 (Carnegie Mellon) to $35,830 (Stanford).


So what’s behind more stringent acceptance rates at business schools over the past decade? You can’t peg it to declining enrollments. According to a 2014 study by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), 61% of global full-time two-year MBA programs experienced an increase in applications, up from its 28% low in 2011. At the same time, just 35% of business schools surveyed reported a decline in enrollments. Already in 2015, the Yale School of Management and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business are reporting increases in applications by 36% and 30% margins respectively (with Columbia, Dartmouth and Duke appearing pleased with their volume of applications).

A surge in international applications, however, has been a game-changer for full-time MBA programs. In its 2014 Application Trends Survey, GMAC found that foreign students accounted for 56% of the applicant pool of surveyed two-year MBA programs (with American two-year programs comprising 101 of the 129 schools that GMAC surveyed). Skewed heavily to China and India, these international students have deepened the talent pool from which business schools draw… particularly with students from 53 countries scoring higher on the GMAT than American students.

And let’s not forget the maxim that geography is destiny. Where are the most selective full-time MBA programs? That’s right: You’ll find them concentrated in key metropolitan areas, with seven of the eight schools with the lowest acceptance rates found in the Bay Area (Stanford, California-Berkeley, and California-Davis), Boston (Harvard and MIT), and New York City (Columbia and NYU). As a result, these schools – already surrounded by dense populations and leading employers – carry a built-in advantage. And that means they will continue to be selective over the long haul.


To see the full 10-year range of acceptance rates at the top schools, go to the next page. 

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