The Most Selective MBA Programs

Many people think they’re different, special in some way. “I possess rare talent and divine purpose,” they rationalize. “I am the exception and my intentions are true.” Textbook narcissist? Maybe for some — but many use it to rally themselves in the face of daily retreats and sacrifices. Sometimes, they seek to validate these convictions outside themselves.

Marketers understand this psychology all too well. In a world of infinite choices, people gravitate toward what’s rare. A purchase can confer status or reinforce an image, turning someone into one of the select few and not the person missing out. That impulse drives buying decisions from upgrading an iPhone to driving a Jaguar. It comforts people as they wait in line or pay a premium. The data may justify the decision, but it is the perceived experience – and the aspirations it fulfills – that pushes consumers to sign the check.


Emotion plays a part in choosing a business school, too. Scrolling through GMAT scores? Chances are, the applicant is wondering if the program is truly elite and keeping out the riff-raff. Combing through employment reports? That answers whether a school’s return matches the candidate’s worth. Chatting up alumni? Think shared values…and excellence. There is no better feeling than being invited into to a small circle. Make no mistake: business school is a luxury purchase. Once graduates cross that stage, the school and student brands are one-and-the-same.

The Harvard Business School campus

Alas, Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton could be described as the Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Prada of American business schools. Their names alone conjure images of savvy and style. One reason: They maintain a tight grip on who is selected. Getting bigger dilutes the mystique, in theory at least. Offering a set number of seats, top MBA brands can afford to be selective. Just like the luxury market, demand exceeds supply in graduate business education…and deliberately so. That demand heats up the more selective a business school is. Perception is everything, be it employers, clients, reports, or loved ones. A brand name MBA is as much the pitch as the rebuttal.

People don’t want what they can’t have – they crave what others can’t reach. That’s the intangible that the most exclusive business schools sell.


How do you measure exclusivity? Certainly, the number of applications is a tip-off. Here, Harvard Business School is the clear winner, attracting 9,886 applications during the 2017-2018 recruiting cycle. HBS was followed by Stanford (7,797), Wharton (6,245), and Columbia Business School (6,029). Of course, all but Stanford GSB rank among the four largest full-time MBA programs, meaning applications are a function, to an extent, of capacity. Acceptance rates can also reveal selectivity. In this measure, Stanford GSB and HBS rank atop the field at 6.1% and 11%, respectively. Of course, there is the ever-popular “Yield.” Think of it as the equivalent to a baseball batting average, where you divide the number of enrolled first-years by the number of acceptance letters sent. In other words, it reveals how well business schools were able to convert real candidates into students. Not surprisingly, Harvard Business Schools topped their peers at 90% (i.e. 9 of every 10 accepted candidates ultimately joined the Class of 2020).

Now, add a fourth measure to examine a program’s brand strength: applications-to-seats – or selectivity for short. The calculation is just as it sounds: divide the number of applications (demand) and the number of seats (supply). The higher the number, the more selective an MBA program is.

Why does this matter? For one, when compared to previous application cycles, selectivity indicates momentum (much like yield). At the same time, it reveals a candidate’s odds of landing a coveted spot at a particular school. Unlike the number of applications, it also balances the ranges of larger and smaller schools, to deliver a clear picture of selectivity that isn’t tainted by volume.

Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business


This shift is one reason why Stanford comes out as more selective than Harvard in the most recent recruitment cycle. How exclusive is the program? Just 1 in every 18.6 applicants lands a seat at the school. To put that in perspective, among the 20,000 men and women who express interest in joining the U.S. Navy SEALS, 1,200 candidates meet the physical and mental requirements, just 1 in every 16.7. Among the 1,000 candidates who start training, only 250 ultimately make it though according to the Houston Chronicle. At best, that is a ratio of 1 in every 4 – with candidates filtered out in physical fitness tests, weapons mastery, and demolitions. Bottom line, a fit candidate has a better chance of becoming an elite combat SEAL than an accomplished professional has in becoming a first-year MBA at Stanford GSB.

Disheartening? Maybe, but such odds frame how impressive an individual must be in order to land a spot at Stanford GSB (factoring in market demand). To reinforce just how selective that Stanford GSB is, remember that the school only opened 419 seats for the Class of 2020, making it the 8th-largest full-time MBA program among the Top 50. Contrary to public perception, such seats aren’t always populated by the students with the highest GMATs who worked at name companies.

“At the GSB, we look for individuals who dare to dream, who know themselves, who are curious, and who have changed the lives of those around them in some way, explains Kirsten Moss, the school’s assistant dean of admissions & financial aid, in a 2018 interview with Poets&Quants. “The Stanford MBA Admissions team looks at what impact you have had on the organizations or communities to which you belong. We are agnostic about the type of organization – it could be professional or extracurricular – but we want to know how those communities are different because you were there.”

Go to Page 2 to access in-depth data on MBA admissions and selectivity by school.

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