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.

  • MBA-Watch

    I think Cornell, Dartmouth’s Tuck, UC Berkeley Haas, and NYU Stern, have a common problem; they are very good schools, top tier in fact, but everyone of them is located near an M7 school that attracts the very best candidates. If someone targeting NYC, Columbia is his/her top choice, targeting west coast, stanford is the best choice, Boston HBS and MIT, ..

  • C. Taylor

    “I think the school is in a very good place and undervalued at the moment.”

    Agreed. For anyone looking to break into banking, Cornell is a steal.

    Especially for internationals. Right now, London banking jobs at the MBA level are often going to finance-background candidates and are far fewer in number. Much better opportunities for a pivot to banking in NYC / the US.

  • Nothing is wrong with Cornell. I believe the decline is due to a number of factors that has nothing to do with the quality of the school or the MBA program. The school’s admissions director at one point left to head up the new Cornell Tech MBA program in New York. That left a void in admissions which has since been filled. The expansion in NYC and the big merger of the business schools–graduate, undergraduate and hotel–undoubtedly took a great deal of leadership attention and follow-up implementation that was distracting. But I think the school is in a very good place and undervalued at the moment.

  • Rami

    Hello John,

    Would love to have your thought on the big decline in applications number for Cornell? What is wrong with this school?!

  • JohnAByrne

    It’s too early to assess round one volume. Most of the elite schools tend to be tight lipped about round volume, as you probably know. My guess is that it’s slightly down, largely because fewer international applicants are applying and there is no increase in domestic candidates. This varies from school to school as the above numbers clearly show. As for Stanford, there’s a new sheriff in town on the admissions side so if there are fewer round one invites for interviews it could simply reflect a desire to hold back a bit more in the early going.

  • Marco

    Hi John, do you have any indication yet on application volume of this year‘s R1 (especially hbs, wharton, stanford) vs last year? Do you predict application number have gone up or down?

    Eg for Stanford it seems like many less interview invites are being reported this year vs last year on internet forums. I‘m wondering whether this is any indication to the number of applications.

  • Agree. Many of the Canadian schools tend not to be as transparent as U.S. schools with data. That makes it a bit more difficult to do, but not impossible.

  • OG

    Would be nice to have a piece focused on Canadian schools. Rumor has it that they experienced an unprecedented increase in applications starting in January 2017, and this increase may come at the expense of U.S. schools, excluding maybe the top 10.

  • hmm

    Booth: 4,674 – 4,031 = 643
    Wharton: 6,692 – 6,408 = 284

    Booth volume rose 4x faster than Wharton but raw volume still with the latter.

    Its not surprising, given the fact that, compared to past decades, more people now think that Booth is better than Wharton.

    I think the real story though is Foster. Applications, acceptance rates and yield ALL improved. Its the Amazon effect.

  • Gambi

    Clearly, Cornell is declining and will go down further..

  • twitfer

    “Yale SOM is the hottest elite business school in the U.S., if not the world, with considerable momentum behind it.”

  • Brad

    Kellogg is the only M7 school to have a decline in applications. Story here too.

    A more signifant story is that kellogg had announced around 5 years back to cut its full time mba by 25% so that they could double their 1Y program. However they have doubled their 1Y program while keeping their 2Y program same. Now more than 700 people get some variation of Kellogg MBA, diluting their brand.

  • Gilles

    Over 5 years, Booth apps up 244 in 5 years and Wharton apps up 194. Where’s the story here?