Even though the 2015–2016 MBA application season is still in full swing, we can already anticipate the next one beginning in just a few weeks. Typically, top MBA programs start to release their essay questions on or around May 1, and that is when the proverbial starting gun is fired for a marathon with thousands of hopeful “runners” all striving to get into their dream schools. What are some of the key factors that will shape the 2016–2017 admissions race? We have identified six for this article:
1) A Larger Applicant Pool?: To an extent, MBA application volumes are linked to unemployment rates. When unemployment skyrocketed to 10% in the wake of the financial collapse, business school applications surged. Right now, unemployment is near historic lows, but confidence in the economy is also low, and the stock market has proved to be erratic. Several bulge-bracket banks—including Barclays, Citi, Bank of America, and Goldman Sachs—have announced significant layoffs, mostly in sales and trading. Meanwhile, there is talk of billion-dollar start-ups at risk of failing. The prominent venture capitalist Bill Gurley has been speculating that there will be “dead unicorns” (unicorns are venture-backed companies with private valuations of $1 billion or more) as soon as this year. If some of the approximately 175 larger unicorns start to collapse (because they cannot achieve profitability or secure venture funds to extend their lives), this could result in a lot of young, well-educated people being out of work for the first time in their careers—and some will inevitably seek to reinvent themselves through an MBA. If the unicorns start falling soon, we may see the impact in the second application round, and this could quickly alter the competitiveness of the candidate pool.
2) Closer Scrutiny of Career Goals: Regardless of the volatility outlined in factor one, do you want to become an entrepreneur? Is it really in your bones? Admissions officers at the top MBA programs are becoming less convinced that the ever-growing number of applicants making this claim truly mean it or could successfully break into the field. Academics at the leading schools are sounding the alarm as well, whispering “bubble.” Professor Thomas Eisenmann, faculty co-chair of Harvard Business School’s (HBS’s) Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, told the Wall Street Journal that the surge in interest in entrepreneurship among MBA students seems like “herd behavior.” And Leah Edwards, director of the Stanford Graduate School of Business’s (GSB’s) Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, expressed concern about the purpose of MBA entrepreneurs, telling the WSJ, “We don’t need another app to order food.” In short, we expect that admissions officers will start to more carefully scrutinize applicants who declare their Silicon Valley dreams, in hopes of distinguishing the true contenders from the mere pretenders. If you have neither evidence of entrepreneurial experience nor the grittiness that is frequently associated with entrepreneurial success, then you should think carefully about writing your application essay about the start-up you intend to launch post-MBA. Doing so will likely reflect negatively on you. MBA admissions committees often consult with their school’s career offices and want to be sure you have a legitimate shot at achieving your dreams. You must prove that you are indeed capable of what you claim, and that starts with goals that are not only ambitious, but also realistic.
must complete HBS’s Credential of Readiness (CORe) program—known as HBX—before applying to HBS. However, according to an annual report that HBS’s dean sent to the business school’s alumni, last year, 300 of HBS’s more than 900 admits took the CORe program before matriculating. In a competitive applicant pool, some people will view this as a sign that CORe is practically a requirement. In actuality, it is not, but perceptions and reality do not always align, of course. For some, HBX is indeed an opportunity to reveal their competence and fluency in the language of business. If you were a speechwriter with a liberal arts background (like the author of this piece), then the CORe could be a great way for you to establish a baseline of knowledge—much like passing Level I of the CFA exam might be. If, on the other hand, you have a business degree and have been working in consulting for a while, the CORe will not likely do much to help you establish competency, because you have actually already done so. Still, competency be damned! We expect that more and more people will enroll in HBX, merely out of fear of not having this small, figurative box “checked” in their HBS application file.