An MBA program’s acceptance rate is one of the first things prospective business school students look at when deciding where to apply. And that makes it a hugely important number, even if its importance is sometimes overstated. The percentage of applicants who successfully gain admission to a school gives others some notion of their chances of getting in, and for the schools, the aura of exclusivity — or lack of it — is an important signal of their culture and the level of talent they attract. The more selective a school, the more highly talented students it draws in, which allows it to be more selective — and the virtuous cycle continues.
For years now, acceptance rates for the most elite programs have been falling, and — surprise surprise — that didn’t change in 2017, according to a Poets&Quants analysis of class profile data at the Top 50 U.S. schools. Stanford Graduate School of Business, Harvard Business School, and MIT Sloan School of Management are still the three hardest schools to get into, in that order — and if anything they are harder nuts to crack than a year (or five years) ago. In fact, acceptance rates fell or remained the same at 14 of the top 20 MBA programs, and where they rose, they rose only by an average of 1.1%. The bottom line: It’s hard to get into a top business school, says Betsy Massar, Harvard MBA and founder of Master Admissions, and that isn’t likely to ever change. “That’s the reality, and the students who are applying are almost all qualified,” Massar tells Poets&Quants. “Stanford GSB admissions officers always say that they can fill an equally qualified and fascinating class of 450 people from the people that they reject.”
As you get lower in the rankings, patterns and trends become much harder to discern, though there are occasional dramatic shifts — and there’s some evidence of a thaw, manifested as a falling number of admits and enrollees or rising acceptance rates at individual schools.
OVERALL A SLIGHT RISE IN THE NUMBERS, BUT INDIVIDUAL SCHOOLS TELL THE STORY
If one thing jumps out from the cumulative data of top 50 schools’ acceptance rates, application and admit numbers, enrollees, and yield percentages, it’s what appears to be a leveling-off in the size of the applicant pool. Poets&Quants compiled data from 49 of the 50 schools — only No. 48 Temple University’s Fox School of Business refused to provide data, no surprise in the wake of the data scandal in their online MBA program and subsequent withdrawal from all U.S. News & World Report rankings — and found that altogether, applications, admits, and enrollment are all up — but only barely. There were 104,704 total applications to the top 49 business schools in 2017, only a .82% rise from the year before (we omitted Temple’s 2016 numbers to make a fair comparison), while admits were also up slightly (22,596, a .98% increase) and enrollment ticked slightly upward as well (11,666, up 1.8%).
The first step in the B-school journey is the application, and some schools saw big increases in apps. At USC Marshall School of Business, the numbers jumped by nearly a quarter, from 1,600 in 2016 to 1,998 in 2017. Why? According to Evan Bouffides, assistant dean and director of graduate and MBA admissions at the Marshall School, some of this progress stems from investments in the school’s admissions and recruitment process — among them, implementation of a CRM system. “As you might imagine,” Bouffides told Poets&Quants last fall, “Marshall has not altered its mission nor its philosophy from one year to the next. The trick is that we now communicate our stories — of Marshall, of USC, and of L.A. — to more candidates than in the past.”
Then there’s the other side of the coin. There were big drops in applications, too, most notably at Arizona State University’s Carey School of Business, which saw a 45.3% drop one year after being the talk of the B-school world by offering full-ride scholarships to all Carey School admits — and reaping the benefit with a 161% jump in apps. The 2017 numbers can therefore be seen as a kind of natural correction. Elsewhere, a handful of Midwestern schools — Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management, Washington University’s Olin Business School, Wisconsin School of Business, and Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business — all saw greater than 20% decline in applications. In related news, Washington Olin saw the biggest jump of any school in its acceptance rate, a 10.3% leap to 40%. (Arizona State Carey was second with a 9.7% rise to 24%.)
Wisconsin, for its part, says the decline in apps is not worrisome because the school is being more discerning. The drop-off, they say, was in numbers only, not quality.
“Wisconsin generated a class with higher-quality work experience and metrics, including a nine-point increase in GMAT scores, despite a drop in completed applications,” says Blair Sanford, assistant dean of the Wisconsin Full-Time MBA. “In addition, we had more students visit campus, leading directly to an increase in yield.” Indeed, Wisconsin’s yield jumped nearly 10 points, from 51.6% in 2016 to 61.5% last year.
TOP 10 REMAIN THE HIGHEST-YIELD SCHOOLS
It’s one thing, from a school’s perspective, to get more applications. It’s another to actually admit more students and bring them into the fold. At a few schools, apps were up but enrollment fell, and yield suffered. This wasn’t so much the case at the top schools, where even if enrollment dipped slightly it didn’t translate into any appreciable decline in yield. The most notable drops were a 1.9% slip at MIT Sloan (to 60.3%) and a 1.8% drop at Columbia, to 73.9%. At the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, enrollment dropped from 586 to 580 and the yield fell from 60.2% — in the upper tier among all schools — to 60%, despite Booth admitting more than 100 more students. Meanwhile Harvard remained the gold standard in yield at 91%, with Stanford — which shaved an inconsequential .02% off its acceptance rate because of a slight increase in apps, thereby effectively remaining static at 6.0% — also in the conversation, registering a remarkable 85.3%, same as last year.