Could 2020-2021 Be The Biggest MBA Application Season Ever?

After five consecutive years of declining applicants to full-time MBA Programs in the U.S., business schools are looking forward to a break in that downward trend during the 2020-2021 admissions cycle. The question now is not whether applications will go up, as they typically do when the economy turns down. It’s whether 2020-2021 will see the largest year-over-year increase in MBA applications in history.

Admission consultants are already reporting that they are seeing big increases in both interest and bookings by candidates who intend to apply in the round one application deadlines in September at the most elite business schools. The increase comes at a time when only two prominent schools–Harvard Business School and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School–have even announced their new application deadlines and have yet to open their new application forms. Many business schools that extended their current admission rounds due to the pandemic also have seen what they describe as a “surge” in late applicants.

Websites that specialize in business school news and features have experienced a big upswing in traffic, yet another sign of increased interest. After recording record traffic in April over a nearly ten-year period, Poets&Quants users and page views have reached unprecedented levels for May, even before the month is over. The magnitude of the increase is striking: An 80% plus rise year-over-year in users and a more than 75% jump in page views.


The case for the most competitive admissions year ever is due to a confluence of unusual events. Besides the historical trend on how recessions benefit business schools, there’s the fact that after five years of an overall decline in apps and three years for the top schools, there is pent-up demand for graduate business education. In the past two years alone, applications to the MBA programs ranked among the top 10 have fallen a combined 12.3%. The depth of the recession, as measured by the more than 40 million people who are now unemployed in the U.S., is another factor. Many young professionals are being laid off at such companies as Airbnb, Uber, and Google as those firms sharply curtail or suspend operations and reduce their reliance on contractors.

The pandemic will also push into the new admissions season an unusually larger number of admitted students who decided to defer their enrollment due to travel restrictions, difficulty in gaining student visas, and the likelihood that at least some of their coursework will be online when campuses open in the fall. And the prospect of a Trump defeat will likely lead to increased interest in U.S. schools from international applicants who have been turned off by all of the anti-immigration rhetoric and uncertainly of work visas.

“Some applicants I have spoken to see the MBA as a safe harbor and imagine that graduating business school three years from now will mean entering a much stronger job market than the one they will be leaving in the fall of 2021,” says Tyler Cormney, a co-founder of MBA Prep School.


“About two weeks into the coronavirus pandemic, when the paralysis and shock started to fade,  the volumes of inquiries for round one MBA deadlines sharply increased,” says Esther Magna, a principal at Stacy Blackman Consulting, one of the largest MBA Admissions consulting firms. “By every measure since then– including numbers of inquiries, visitors on our website, clients who have signed-on for services–we see that interest in the MBA has increased for us by at least 50% relative to last year at this time. There are weeks when I think demand has doubled.”

The increase, she adds, will lead to one of the most competitive admissions seasons ever. “Our prediction is that MBA demand will increase significantly for the top MBA programs,” says Magna. “More than that, the caliber of the applicant pool with respect to diversity, leadership, industry, and career visions will skyrocket in the application season that is upon us.  Both quality and quantity are about to be re-defined.”

That is an assessment that rings true to Sandy Kreisberg, founder of and a leading reader of the admission tea leaves at Harvard Business School. “There are a lot of smart people who didn’t apply in recent years but now will,” he says. “Many are not fully engaged in what they should be engaged in. Some are just bored and will say, ‘Gee, I guess this is a good time to go to business school.”


At mbaMission, another leading admissions consultant, founder Jeremy Shinewald is actively looking for more consultants to handle the increased demand. He predicts that Harvard and Stanford, among others, will receive more MBA applications this coming year than at any other time in their history. At HBS, applications would have to jump by more than 1,500 or 12.5% to eclipse the school’s record volume of 10,382 applicants in 2002. Over the past two years, Harvard has lost 1,123 applicants, representing a 10.8% slide in applications to 9,228 in 2018-2019. “This will be the biggest and most competitive season ever,” he predicts, saying inquiries at his firm are more than twice as large as they were a year ago at this time.

Caroline Diarte-Edwards, the former director of admissions at INSEAD and a co-founder of Fortuna Admissions, is also in the camp predicting that HBS will hit a new record this coming year. “We can see HBS smashing that number this year,” she says. “It’s good news that they may open up more sections of 90 to absorb deferrals from this year. When I joined INSEAD as head of admissions, I studied the application stats going back decades, and it’s very clear that the start of an economic downturn triggers a glut of MBA candidates. Given the speed with which the current crisis set in, and the precipitous economic downturn, it’s quite possible that this will be a record-breaking year for many business schools.

“We expect the strongest uptick will be in the U.S. domestic market, where the economic uncertainty and volatile job market are encouraging many to head back to business school.” adds Diarte-Edwards who also says Fortuna has seen “soaring demand” in the past four months. “Many of these candidates have been thinking about doing an MBA for some time, but had benefitted from the strong job market and so had postponed their return to education. The top schools will be the primary recipients of increased volume, and we would predict an increase in U.S. applications of over 50% to some of the top 20 schools.


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