When MBA Apps Hit Their Peak

When it comes to MBA applications, 2002 was a year to remember.

Stock prices all over the world had already plunged thanks to the bursting of the Internet bubble. Then, on Sept. 11 of 2001, the terrorist attacks triggered a downturn in the world economy and fears of a global recession. By September of 2002, when the Class of 2004 entered business school, there were more dramatic declines in stock markets that led to lows last reached in 1997 and 1998.

In other words, it was a perfect economic storm for a vintage MBA application year. When the economy tanks, applications to MBA programs tend to rise as applicants seek refuge from hunkered-down companies that are freezing hiring plans, shedding jobs, and canceling plans for investment and growth.

Of the 25 top U.S. programs in Poets&Quants’ ranking, 15 experienced peak application volume for the Class of 2004, including Harvard, Wharton, Chicago Booth, and Michigan Ross, according to an analysis of publicly available application data. But despite overall trends that show that applications to full-time, two-year MBA offerings are down slightly in the past three years, some schools are doing very well, thank you.


In fact, for the recently entered Class of 2019, applications at Yale University’s School of Management, MIT Sloan, Stanford GSB, Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business and Rice University’s Jones School were all at record levels–and they didn’t need a global recession or a stock market crash to do it. Two other schools in the Top 25–Harvard Business School and the University of Washington–narrowly missed records this past admissions season. Harvard needed only 32 more apps to beat its record 10,382 applications for the Class of 2014, while Washington’s Foster School was just eight applicants shy of beating its 1,045 peak for the Class of 2017.

A five-year scan of application flows shows that the University of Washington’s Foster School has had the largest single jump in applicants of 98.5%. This past year, 1,038 candidates applied to the school’s MBA program, up from only 523 for the Class of 2014. Foster is the quintessential example of a counter-intuitive trend. Instead of getting a recession-induced jump, Foster got an economy boost increase. The Seattle economy–boosted by the likes of Amazon, Microsoft and Starbucks–has led to a big interest in full-time MBA programs, especially from engineers who want to transition into management jobs.

Yale SOM has had the second biggest increase of all leading schools, a 60.5% jump in candidates to its two-year MBA program. A record 4,098 candidates applied for admissions to SOM’s Class of 2019, up significantly from the 2,554 who completed applications for the Class of 2014. The next best application increase during that timeframe occurred at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business where applicants climbed 43.1% to 3,485 candidates for the Class of 2019, up from 2,436.

But there’s another way to look at the data as well: When application volume reached its peak at each of the top schools. The comparison to peak volume picks up a longer-term shift that a five-year change can miss. For instance, Michigan Ross has had substantial growth in the last five years, but the current high is still 14% below the school’s peak for the Class of 2004. Similarly, Darden’s 11% increase over the last five years still falls 18% below its peak, also for students entering its MBA program in 2002 and graduating in 2004. Wharton looks mostly flat over the last five years, but its volume for the latest entering class is 20% below the school’s Class of 2004 peak.


What’s behind the numbers? Yale was a classic underachiever for many years. The arrival of Dean Edward ‘Ted’ Snyder changed all that. He brought a new global strategy to the school and vastly improved rankings. The upshot: SOM is the hottest elite business school in the U.S., if not the world, with considerable momentum behind it.

MIT Sloan, another big five-year winner that also had a record year in applications, has simplified its application process, making it far easier to apply. It also helps that tech and data analysis–key strengths of the school–are hot.

Meantime, Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management has taken it on the chin. During the five-year span, the school had lost its admissions director and had to recruit a new person. That certainly didn’t help. The school’s decision to start a new one-year Cornell Tech MBA that starts in Ithaca and ends in New York City probably siphoned some candidates out of Johnson’s two-year applicant pool. Cornell Tech only graduated its third class in May.