The Ultimate B-School Test: How Many MBA Applicants Want That Class Seat

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To use a rock concert analogy, what’s the hottest ticket today? But for a business school?

One sure way to answer the question is to look at a rarely disclosed metric tracked by a number of leading business schools: The ratio between the number of applicants an MBA program receives in a given year and the seats it has available in its class. The number reveals the demand for a spot in a school’s incoming cohort.

The more applicants who compete for every seat is a pretty good indicator of a school’s desirability in the MBA marketplace. It’s a measure being tracked by Anjani Jain, senior associate dean for the MBA program at Yale University’s School of Management. He believes that applicants per seat allows a school to see if it is holding its own among the school’s most likely competitors. It’s especially valuable over time or when a school increases or decreases its class size.

A REVEALING STATISTIC THAT TELLS YOU HOW COMPETITIVE A SCHOOL IS WITH RIVALS

“We’re trying to gauge how the applicant pool has grown because we have increased our incoming class size by 40% from 230 to 325,” says Bruce DelMonico, assistant dean and director of SOM admissions. “We’re attempting to manage the growth and make sure we are maintaining quality. Anjani is a very quantitative person and he’s been tracking a statistic called applicants per seat. We have been pleased to see that even with our growth in the incoming class, we have remained constant over the years.”

Of course, the number of applications a school receives tells you little about the quality of a given applicant pool. So it should best be viewed within the context of GMAT or GRE scores, undergraduate grade point averages, acceptance rates and yield (the percentage of admits who actually enroll in a program).

Still, it’s a highly revealing statistic and something of a short hand way to determine which schools are gaining or losing ground to their competitive set. And like all numbers, there are lots of surprises in the data. The school with the most competition for a seat is predictably Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business where 19.5 applicants vie for every single seat in the class. Last year, 7,899 candidates sought 406 seats. It may surprise you, however, that UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business was second, with 14.6 applicants per seat.

THE BEST EUROPEAN SCHOOLS SIGNIFICANTLY TRAIL U.S. SCHOOLS ON THIS METRIC

The third school will probably come as something of a shock: It’s Washington University’s Olin School of Business in St. Louis, which had 11.2 applicants for every class seat last year. Yale’s School of Management is next with a 10.6 ratio, though not for long. After a whopping 25% increase in MBA applications last year, SOM is now reporting an additional 6% rise in applications for the 2015-2016 admissions season to 3,652 applications. That jump will boost last year’s ratio to 11.2 this year, behind only Stanford and UC-Berkeley.

Where are the other big guns in all of this? Harvard Business School is in sixth place with 10.3 applicants per seat; Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management is right behind HBS with a 9.5 ratio; Wharton is 20th, with 7.7 applicants per seat, while the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business is 24th, with 7.3.

Another big surprise is how the leading European business schools fare on the list. After a 23% drop in MBA applications in the past five years, London Business School last year received only 5.7 applications for each class seat, 2,374 applicants for 417 seats. After a 15% drop in MBA applicants at INSEAD from 2010 to 2015, the school had just 2.5 applicants per seat, an estimated 2,545 applications for 1,024 seats.

DECLINES IN MBA APPLICATIONS AT A NUMBER OF SCHOOLS HAVE RESULTED IN LOWER RATIOS

Application declines can quickly diminish the ratio, of course, and many schools have reported receiving fewer applications over the past five years. Even Harvard Business School, which received 9,686 applications last year, is up only 2% in applicants since 2010. Wharton is down by 3% to 6,590 last year from 6,819 in 2010. At Columbia Business School, applications to the full-time MBA program have fallen by 15% to 5,829 from 6,885 in 2010, forcing down the applicants per seat ratio to 7.6 from 9.2 five years ago. Similarly, an 11% decline in applications at MIT’s Sloan School of Management pushed down its ratio to 10.5 last year from 14.3 in 2010.

Thanks largely to the tech boom in Silicon Valley, Stanford is among the schools with the biggest percentage increase in applications over the five-year timeframe. MBA applications for the GSB’s full-time MBA program have climbed 10% to 7,899 from 7,204 in 2010. Only one other leading MBA program has done better: In the past five years, with a new building and a new global mission, Yale SOM is up 16% in applications to its full-time MBA program.

(See following page for our analysis of applicant-per-seat data for 35 of the world’s leading MBA programs)