Applying To B-School During COVID: Essential Advice From Three Top MBA Gatekeepers

As the final MBA admission decisions get made, from applicants who pulled off the waitlist in the last minutes before fall classes to the final granting or rejection of deferral requests, everyone can agree it’s been a remarkably uncertain and stressful time.

After test centers closed, it took weeks for the online version of the GRE and then the GMAT to be taken at home. Many business schools extended their application deadlines and provided candidates with greater flexibility over tests and recommenders. And scores of admitted international applicants found it difficult, if not impossible, to get student visas in time to come to the U.S. for the start of their MBA programs.

At the third annual MBA Summit, sponsored by the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, the chief MBA gatekeepers of three highly selective schools met to discuss MBA admissions during the pandemic and beyond. How competitive do they think the next admissions round will be at the top schools? How does an applicant know when they are ‘MBA ready?’ What’s the best way for a candidate to determine ‘fit’ with a school? And if there was one thing you could change about MBA admissions, what would it be?


The candid answers to those questions and more are provided by Soojin Kwon, managing director of Full-time MBA Admissions and Program at Ross, Bruce DelMonico, Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions at Yale School of Management, and Michael Robinson, Associate Director of MBA Admissions at Columbia Business School. The conversation, fueled by questions unearthed via social listening, was moderated by Poets& Founder & Editor-in-Chief John A. Byrne.

An edited transcript of the discussion follows:

John A. Byrne: On everyone’s mind right now is the impact COVID-19 is having on higher education. Some MBA programs have announced that they will go online this fall. Most have announced a more blended format where they’re asking people to come to campus but be prepared to take only some in-person classes mixed with virtual class sessions. Given all these changes and with the global recession looming, is it worth it to apply to business school right now? Soojin, what do you think?

University of Michigan’s Soojin Kwon

Soojin Kwon: That’s a big question, and I don’t have a really succinct answer, but I can give you what I think is a thorough answer. It’s definitely true that things, at least this fall, are going to look a little different, and answering the question about whether the MBA is worth it is really a personal decision that each candidate needs to weigh for themselves. I’d go back to my consulting roots and make a decision matrix that maps out the potential scenarios for fall 2021 and two years after that.

Here’s what the matrix would look like. Across the top are two scenarios for the pandemic. It will either be ongoing, or it will be managed. Down the side are the two choices you have to make. You’re either going to continue to work or go to business school. Then, you fill in the boxes underneath. If the pandemic continues and a vaccine isn’t widely available, chances are if your organization weathers the storm, you may still be working remotely. Underneath that, if you were to go to business school, the program could start hybrid as many of us are planning for now, but on the right-hand side, if the pandemic is under control, you’re still going to be working in the same job probably that you’re working in now. Underneath that in the business school scenario, you’re going to be learning and gaining new skills.

Now, let’s think about what happens two years later. Across the top is the economy. By 2023, it could be sputtering or it could recover. If you’d stayed at work in 2021, your career options and earning potential in 2023 would be more limited than if you had gone to business school because you’re going to get three things from a two-year MBA program that you won’t get if you stay at work. One, you’ll meet with and learn from hundreds of smart, ambitious, interesting people you wouldn’t have met if you didn’t go to business school.

Two, you’re going to learn how to network and interview for jobs in an industry or function that you’re interested in going into, and most, if not all MBA recruiters this year are planning to do virtual recruiting. So, you’re going to learn how to recruit and interview in the format in which recruiters are going to be recruiting you.

Then, third, you’re going to gain access to a network of tens of thousands of business school alumni and hundreds of thousands of alumni in the broader university community. You could absolutely find another job through LinkedIn, but it’s no secret that you’re more likely to get a response if you have some kind of connection, and an MBA from a top school with support of alumni provides that invaluable connection for life.

Byrne: Spoken like a true consultant. I love your matrix. Love it. Michael, do you anticipate any changes in this upcoming admission cycle and beyond at Columbia Business School due to the pandemic?

Columbia Business School’s Michael Robinson

Michael Robinson: Well, I don’t have a matrix-like Soo Jin, but I’ll still answer, right? I think that the what of our application process is pretty constant, and by that, what I mean is identifying, recruiting, and yielding a class of emerging leaders. That’s a constant. I think going forward though, the how will change in terms of how to recruit, how to yield, and how to engage with the applicant population in mostly virtual environments. I think that that’s the key thing that we’re dealing with. As long as there’s a lack of clarity from a public health perspective in terms of the lack of therapeutics or the lack of a vaccine, there is going to be real tension on the part of the applicant pool. Will most or part of my instruction and recruiting experience be virtual? Should I get some sort of tuition discount or accommodation for online instruction? So, if you’re in our shoes and you’re talking about the program, it’s important for us to acknowledge that kind of stress against the long-term value of the degree. We may have future pandemics within the next five or 10 years going forward, so I think there’s a skillset to working virtually that I think will benefit everyone going forward.

Byrne: Once this is over, I don’t want to hear about a future pandemic, okay? Now, there are a lot of people who think this next admission cycle is going to be among the most competitive ever. In the past, when people lose their jobs and they see the opportunities in front of them diminish, more of them go back to school. Bruce, are you expecting this to be a very competitive season, and do you expect a big boom in MBA applications?

Yale School of Management admissions chief Bruce DelMonico

Bruce DelMonico: Yeah, that’s another big question. I think we’re hitting all the big topics now. On the fly, I’m trying to create a two by two to keep up with Soojin, but I don’t know if I could do that. You’re right to cite the counter cyclicality of the MBA admissions process relative to the economy more generally. Actually, I’m thinking back to the Great Recession, the last most analogous example we have. Obviously, when you’re in the middle of these situations, it’s tough to pull yourself out and take a bigger perspective. But when we were in the middle of the Great Recession, you couldn’t see the 10 years of economic growth that followed the downturn and the long-term value of the MBA.

I would use that example to say that there’s a lot that we don’t know and can’t predict. MBA applications are countercyclical, but I remember that in the Great Recession actually it wasn’t countercyclical. There wasn’t a spike. There was maybe a little bit of a one-year uptick. And we all have this extended round this year, which I think might have created some of an uptick or a little bit of a surge. But I remember that there wasn’t the increase that we were anticipating because people were so nervous about their jobs. They just wanted to stay in the jobs they had, and so it’s tough to predict.

The other piece of it, too, is what happens with people who are admitted to start this fall who defer to next year? Will those seats be taken? Will the classes already be full? That’s tough. I know that a number of schools, us included, are working through the deferral process and working through people who don’t want to start this fall but want to start next fall. It’s tough to now know what those numbers will look like. So I’m not sure it’s going to be the most competitive season. I’m not sure that we’re going to see the same spike that you would anticipate. I think the Great Recession could be a model. We saw some increases, but we didn’t see the dramatic increase that people were predicting, so I think it’s up in the air right now.

As a piece of advice for candidates, I wouldn’t take yourself out of the game. I wouldn’t use the fear of this potential spike to cause you not to apply. The overall competitiveness number is not your chances of getting admitted. These averages are across the board, but strong candidates always have a good chance, and so if you’re a strong candidate, there’s never a reason not to apply.

Robinson: This is my 18th year in admissions, and I expect to see a double-digit increase next year. But going back to what Bruce said, I’m not sure it’s going to be like a 10% increase in strong competitive applications. We might see a surge in rushed applications where people who didn’t do their research and due diligence hurry to get an application in. So you’ll see more candidates. From a stats perspective, however, it may look more competitive, but it may not be as competitive as you think just based on a rushed application.

Kwon: What we’re going to see this year most likely is that most programs will shrink in size. What we may see next year is that programs rebound, that we have bigger incoming classes than we will this year, so the competition also depends on what the numerator is going to be and not just the denominator. So, don’t take yourself out. All of us are interested in having full classes, and hopefully, the market will rebound next year.

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