The Closers: Business Schools That Get The Students They Want

A Harvard Business School classroom. Photo by Natalie Keyssar. Courtesy of HBS

It isn’t hard to draw attention to a brand. Just slash prices or offer a freebie. Of course, the bump in sales comes with a cost. Customers will expect the same treatment the next time they buy. Worse, prospects will associate that brand with being second-rate.

In sales, organizations focus on reducing churn and beating quota. In branding, the end involves harvesting a select group of customers – ones who are willing to make a long-term commitment…and even pay a premium. In the full-time MBA space, the market is comprised of high potentials. They possess the mettle to give up two years. And they understand choosing a business school is a marriage – a life-long partnership that reflects who they are as much as what they know.


This market has options, not to mention money and courage. That makes them the perfect benchmark for the appeal of an MBA program’s brand. To many, business schools fully control who is associated with their brand. Among Poets&Quants’ Top 15 American MBA programs, just two accepted more than a quarter of applicants – with Cornell Johnson representing the high water mark at 29.9% each. Among the Top 40 programs, just 12 accepted more than a third of applicants.

Still, there is a place where applicants wield their power in the process: Yield. For schools, think of it as a closing ratio in sales. Yield is the percentage of students who ultimately enroll after receiving an acceptance letter. It is a measure of brand desirability, if not exclusivity. Basically, it reflects which programs make such a strong impression – through students, faculty, administration, and alumni – that they convince applicants to take a leap of faith. Whether it is quitting their job, moving across the country, or saddling themselves with six figure debt, these students are fully embracing their schools’ missions, communities, and possibilities. They are the schools who resonate most deeply with them…and they are the ones that they chose among the alternatives.

Harvard Business School. Photo by John A. Byrne

In short, yield measures salesmanship for schools and faith level in students.


Not surprisingly, Harvard Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business reported the highest yield rates for the Class of 2019. Some 90.9% of the applicants admitted by HBS actually enroll at the school. Stanford is just a shade lower at 89.1%. These are extraordinary yield rates. In comparison, Yale University’s yield for its undergraduate admits is currently 71.4%, while Harvard College is at 85%. Not surprisingly, Harvard Business School and Stanford GSB also generated the most applications. HBS drew 10.351 applications in the 2016-2017 cycle, up 663 applications over the past two years. The GSB also experienced increased interest over the same period, with an uptick of 274 applications. Behind this application surge lies a truth: Both programs are regarded as the best programs for a demanding curriculum, deep resources, diverse classmates, and distinctive career opportunities.

HBS, for one, is regaled for its case-driven structure that fosters a learning community that’s second-to-none. “At any moment, you can go from a classmate who founded a nonprofit to one who fought in Afghanistan to another who worked in the White House or did deals on Wall Street,” explains Jan Rivkin, HBS’ Senior Associate Dean for Research, in a 2018 interview with P&Q. “They might take the conversation in wholly unanticipated directions. That creates engagement. When students come to class, they don’t know what’s going to happen that day. That’s exciting. All they’re sure of is that they’re going to learn something important. That kind of lean forward versus lean back is really very different, along with the predictability versus the element of surprise.”

No less rigorous, Stanford GSB takes a more customized approach, one geared toward the experiential and transformation nature of learning – a great appeal to Millennials still grappling with issues of identity and authenticity. “GSB is the place where you can bring who you are to the experience,” says Yossi Feinberg, the school’s senior associate dean for academic affairs, adds in a 2018 P&Q interview. “It is also the place where you discover what you can be. When students are able to be authentic, bring their passion and be supported by their community – expressing that passion and achieving a goal based on their passion – that’s something that really cuts across classes and experiences.”


Harvard Business School and Stanford GSB aren’t the only programs deemed more destination than fallback. The third-highest yield – 77.8% – actually belongs to 34th-ranked Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Business. While Marriott accepts nearly half of all applicants, it inevitably lands over three-quarters of them – a success rate that MBA Director Grant McQueen attributes to the program’s LDS values and the heavily involvement of current students in the recruiting. At the same time, Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business converted 71.7% of all accepted candidates in 2016-2017. However, this number is artificially boosted by the program providing free tuition to all candidates beginning in 2016.

Then, there is Penn State University’s Smeal College of Business. Smeal boasts a 62.8% yield – a percentage that’s 10 points or better than Northwestern Kellogg, Chicago Booth, Dartmouth Tuck, and Michigan Ross. Smeal’s secret? High standards and consistency. Although the program received 62 fewer applications during the 2016-2017 cycle, it managed to enroll two more students. Even more, it raised average GMAT by two points and lowered its acceptance rate by a point to 17.1% – two points better than Wharton, the pride-of-Pennsylvania. The Wisconsin School of Business performed a nearly identical feat. Despite collecting 174 few applications during the last cycle, it still manage to raise yield by 10 points to 61.6%. At the same time, it raised average GMAT by nine points, while maintaining a respectable 30.4% acceptance rate – just four points higher than the previous year.

Such consistency is also the hallmark of Columbia Business School, whose yield rate traditionally hovers above the 70% mark. With the Class of 2017, it rose to 73.9%, still good for 4th best among Top 50 MBA programs. An Ivy League program based in New York City, Columbia Business isn’t exactly a hard sell for talented and ambitious MBAs. Chris Cashman, the school’s executive director of public relations, notes that the area offers “unlimited opportunities,” which include “internships, networking, or meeting CEO’s across any industry imaginable.” However, he adds, the program also benefits from a top-to-bottom consensus about who they are – and what the ‘right stuff’ is to be a Columbia MBA.

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