The Most Exclusive MBA Programs

most competitive mba programs

“Don’t tell me the odds.”

Sound like a movie line? You probably picture the hero barking it out when he blazes through an asteroid belt or faces down a dozen itchy ninjas. Guess what? That same line is muttered by thousands of MBA applicants each year. They’ll shove off from the keyboard, flustered and fatigued, insecure and inconsolable, wondering if they really have a shot at getting into a top school.

The odds aren’t favorable. Take Harvard Business School, for example. In 2015-2016, HBS received 9,759 applications. That’s more than Booth and Kellogg (or Columbia and Yale) combined. Daunting? Consider this: Harvard also reserved 934 spots for the 2018 Class, turning the odds into a 10-to-1 proposition. Think that’s rough? Now, compare Harvard’s odds to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, which received 8,116 submissions during the same cycle. There, your chances of being accepted are over 19-to-1. Why? Stanford’s class size is less than half that of HBS. If you were making a wager, Harvard is actually the far safer bet.


most competitive mba programs

Penn State’s Smeal College of Business

How about Pennsylvania, where Wharton and Penn State are ranked as the top MBA programs? No competition — Wharton all the way, right? Not necessarily. Last year, Wharton attracted a jaw-dropping 6,679 applications. Eventually, the school enrolled 851 students. That’s almost 8-to-1 odds. Still, you have a better shot — mathematically at least — of being a Whartonite than getting an acceptance letter from Smeal, where 612 applicants vied for 57 spots.  Advantage Linebacker U!

There are many ways to measure the popularity of an MBA program. One is simply to look at the sheer volume of applications. Naturally, these numbers favor the brand names with big classes. Think of it as demand that doesn’t account for supply or a popular vote that isn’t tempered by an electoral college.  There is also yield, which divides the number of accepted applicants by the number of who ultimately enroll. It’s a great benchmark, no doubt. Yield identifies, to an extent, which programs are target schools to applicants. By the same token, it indicates which programs landed their most coveted candidates.

There is a big drawback to yield says Jeremy Shinewald, a Darden MBA who founded mbaMission, an elite MBA consulting firm. “At times, the yield numbers can be managed by admissions committees,” he explains. “What I mean by that is that they won’t necessarily accept the best applicants, but will accept the best applicants who will in turn accept their offer of admission. There is an important difference there — yield numbers can be a little deceptive, because the adcoms can play games to improve their yield and thus their place in the rankings.”


Another benchmark used to evaluate the competitiveness of programs is applications per seat, which divides the number of applications by the actual number of seats available. It is a consistent measure, regardless of whether a program boosts or scales back enrollment. It is also a rubric that examines schools on their own terms, leveling off size differences to produce more relevant side-by-side comparisons. ”It is a measure of the community’s interest in the school rather than the school’s interest in the community,” says Shinewald.

most competitive mba programs

Jeremy Shinewald of mbaMission

This past cycle, Stanford continued its reign as the most popular program. The GSB averaged 19.5 applications for every open spot, up from 19.4 during the 2014-2015 cycle. This number, however, masks that Stanford received 216 more applications than the previous year. Along with higher demand, Stanford enjoyed higher quality students, with average GMATs rising from 733 to 737 during that same period. In other words, the Stanford continues to be the top destination for MBAs, as evidenced by a 17.3% rise in applications in the past five years.

You won’t get any closer to Silicon Valley than Palo Alto. This Bay Area location is also a blessing for the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, which boasts a 15.7-to-1 application-to-seat ratio. Home to the revered four principles, Haas draws idealistic entrepreneurs, battle-tested veterans, and hard-headed bankers alike. The high touch Haas is also small by design, with 40% less seats than Stanford. This size, coupled with increasing MBA interest in working in Silicon Valley, has turned Haas into one of the most coveted tickets for full-time students seeking an MBA education. “With the tech market being so hot, there are a lot of people trying to come to the area and they’re really focused on Stanford and Haas as avenues to find their way to Silicon Valley,” Shinewald observes. “Haas has benefited from some broad macroeconomic trends in a way that other schools haven’t.”


Out east, most MBA applicants would consider either Harvard or Wharton to be the holy grail of MBA programs. When you look at applications per seat, the real winner is actually Harvard’s neighbor, MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Sloan’s ratio comes to 14-to-1, up from 10.6-to-1 a year ago. Mind you, school applications spiked in 2015-2016, going from 4,254 to 5,707 in one year alone. At the same time, GMAT scores surged from 716 to 724, reflecting an upswing in the caliber of talent seeking a Sloan MBA. For Shinewald, this was an example of momentum begetting momentum, where a rankings bump drew additional applications. However, he also believes two other factors played into this Sloan’s rise in applications. “One thing MIT did was that they really simplified the application,” Shinewald points out. “It became easier to apply there because they took out some of the friction. I also think they had some of the same benefits with Silicon Valley. MIT has technology; that’s where the future is going. Students are saying, ‘I want a job that is forward-looking. MIT is the kind of institution that is going to help me get a job like that.’”