Glossing over the data from the top 10 schools, you might get the idea that it’s getting easier to get past the gatekeepers. The average acceptance rate rose 1.5% in 2017 to 16%, and overall admits increased by 4.7% while enrollment rose 4.9%. But if you think there’s been any general loosening of standards, think again. For one thing, the five-year acceptance rate for the top 10 still shows a (slight) decline, and the increase in admits can probably be mostly attributed to a 4.8% jump in applications at those schools. Meanwhile, since 2013 overall enrollment and admission has actually dropped at these schools, though not by statistically significant numbers.
If you’re applying to No. 1 Wharton (19.2% acceptance rate) or No. 2 Harvard (11%) or No. 3 Stanford (6%) or No. 6 MIT Sloan (11.5%) or any of the most elite schools, Betsy Massar says, just assume that nine out of 10 applicants — basically everyone else — is super qualified and impressive.
“I actually don’t think there are any secrets behind the numbers,” Massar says. “True fact: it is really hard to get into business school, and that is a function of many students being very qualified to take a seat in the room. Stanford’s room is small as is MIT’s, so they both are relatively small. Harvard’s is a lot larger, and its reach has always been broader in terms of its ability to get into the hearts and minds of applicants all over the globe.”
MORE ON THE ELITE OF THE ELITE
What other schools became harder to get into in 2017? The biggest drop in acceptance rate of any school was at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, which cut its rate 14% to 31.2%. Last year, No. 31 Carlson saw a jump in applications to 665 from 606, but admitted far fewer students — 208 compared to 274 in 2016 — and enrolled fewer, too: 88, compared to 104. In so doing, however, the school saw its yield rise more than five points, to 42.3%.
No. 49 Rutgers Business School of Newark and New Brunswick also shaved some points off its acceptance percentage, dropping 8.5% to 36.6%. But Rutgers enrolled only 49 students last year after having 76 in 2016, despite a jump in applications (from 377 to 443), and its yield fell by 14.5% to a paltry 30.2%, lowest of any school in the top 50.
Back at the top, seven of the 10 most elite MBA programs accept fewer than 20% of applicants. Applications are up year-over-year at all but one, No. 7 Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, which saw a slight drop to 2,610 to 2,623. Only at the Wharton School (from 1,306 to 1,285) and Columbia (from 1,025, to 1,019) did the number of admits drop, and only at four is enrollment down, at HBS, No. 4 Chicago Booth, MIT Sloan, and Columbia — and then only by small amounts: six students at Harvard, Chicago, and Columbia, and five at MIT.
BEST ADVICE: DON’T PANIC
So if nine out of 10 applicants to the top schools is super awesome, it’s easy to get discouraged. How does one stand out?
“Applicants are being measured against an incredibly high-performing pool. So that means they have to really show their three-dimensionality,” Massar says. “They can’t be just excellent on one dimension (grades and scores) plus good work experience, they have to show personality traits that make them the kind of people that an admissions committee wants to bet on. That requires a LOT of self-awareness, and in the most competitive schools, talent.
“There is a certain element of randomness in the process. Because of that, I suggest creating a portfolio of target schools, just as you would create a portfolio of securities. I’ve seen people day in and day out get into one school and not another when mathematically it may not make sense in terms of the odds. I’ve seen someone get into Stanford who got rejected from six other schools. I’ve seen people who get into Harvard who did not get into a school that’s a ranked number 11 on the list of top 10 — people who don’t know anyone in particular but just happened to be what the admissions board was looking for at that moment. We cannot control what the rest of the applicants are going to look like or if you happen to be the one thing that they care about when they’re making the decision of how to fill the class.
“The other reason to diversify the portfolio is that in life — and maybe I’m being an old lady here — but in life, the world will not stop if you do not get into Harvard or Stanford. End of story.”
(See the next pages for all the acceptance rate, application, admission, enrollment, and other data for the P&Q Top 50.)