Deconstructing Harvard Business School’s Largest MBA Class Ever

Harvard Business School Dean Srikant Datar welcomes the Class of 2023

One of the more eagerly awaited clues to a business school’s health is the annual release of its MBA class profile. The batch of statistics instantly provides a glimpse of both the popularity and demand of a school’s flagship graduate program along with a portrait of the quality of the enrolled students.

Yesterday’s class profile of Harvard Business School’s entering students who will graduate in 2023 fulfills that purpose–and contains a number of surprises. What’s different and new?

  1. It is the first time in the school’s history that HBS has enrolled a class of more than 1,000 students. To be exact, 1,010 first-year MBA candidates began classes this week.
  2. A record 29% of the enrolled students submitted a GRE score to gain admission, a number that should put to rest rumors that Harvard prefers the GMAT. Only four years ago, a mere 12% of the entering class had a GRE exam score in their application.
  3. The Class of 2023 is the most diverse ever at Harvard Business School.
  4. Applications to Harvard’s MBA program were up a mere 5% over the previous year when HBS did not participate in the massive boom in MBA applications because its deadlines had already passed when the pandemic led many young professionals to apply to business school.
  5. While a record 46% of the entering students are women–an improvement of two percentage points over last year–HBS now trails several peer schools, including Wharton, Kellogg, and Duke University in the race to gender parity.
  6. Harvard maintained it’s 730 median GMAT score for the class–a consistent number for quite a few years–but has now fallen behind Wharton which posted a 740 median for its latest entering class.

What gives? We captured screenshots of last year’s HBS profile to contrast the numbers with this latest entering class and asked admission consultants to read the statistical tea leaves for what it all means.

First, a scorecard of sorts for the new MBA classes that have been published to date.

Enrollment & Apps: Class of 2023 vs. Class of 2022 at HBS

 

Class of 2023 at Harvard Business School: Largest enrollment ever--1,010 entering students--on a 5% increase in applications to 9,773.

Class of 2022 at Harvard Business School: A generous deferral policy led to one of the smallest entering classes in decades, just 732 students in. year when applications were relatively flat at 9,304 from 9,228 s year earlier when MBA applications at Wharton were up 21% and at Northwestern Kellogg up by more than 50%.

Harvard's largest class ever is the direct result of the pandemic. Roughly 100 students among the 1,010 had deferred their admission last year. To accommodate them and to insure that this year's applicant pool was not put at a disadvantage, Harvard added a section of 90 additional students. It was a move that is being widely praised."The biggest and most remarkable change is the diversity and size of this year's entering class," says Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com, a leading admissions consulting firm.

"My reaction to both changes is kudos to HBS and Chad Losee, who clearly is someone who means what he says. Last summer he said that he was anticipating (and clearly wanted) HBS to enlarge the class of 2023 to account for deferrals from the class of 2022, which was a very small class, without reducing seats available to those applying in 2020-21. He did not want applicants for the class of 2023 or 2024 to be discouraged by the number of deferrals from the class of 2022 and the possibility that there would be fewer spots available for them. He also has consistently said that he wants to increase the percentage of women and the overall diversity of the HBS class. He is delivering on that commitment both over time during his tenure and specifically with this class."

Yet, many widely predicted that Harvard would get the most applicants in its history this past year. That's because it did not benefit from the swell of MBA candidates who rushed into the market last year when the full force of the pandemic hit. Harvard's two application deadlines, ending in early January, occurred too early in the cycle. Unlike many other business schools, HBS decided not extend its deadlines or waive standardized tests for admission. The upshot: HBS didn't even crack the 10,000 mark, falling far short of the 10,351 achieved in 2017. In all, only 469 additional candidates applied to Harvard over the previous year, 9,773 vs. 9,304 in the 2019-2020 admissions cycle. Wharton was up by only 2.5%, after a 21% boost a year earlier, and Kellogg applications plunged 20%, after a massive 54% rise in 2019-2020.

Harvard's meager increase, coming after a relatively flat year before, stunned many. Jeremy Shinewald, founder and CEO of mbaMission, one of the most prominent MBA admission consulting firms, not only expected a record application year for Harvard; he thought that applications would jump by 2,000, approaching 12,000 applicants. “We were absolutely slammed this past year," says Shinewald. "We assumed that it was because young professionals felt deeply uncertain of the future and were trying to find a refuge in MBA programs, and there certainly was some of that. That said, now knowing that HBS and Wharton were only up in the low single percentages and Kellogg was down considerably, I can’t help but wonder if this surge came largely because applicants had more time on their hands and more disposable income due to reduced leisure expenses.

"I predicted earlier that application volumes were going to surge by 20%," he adds. "I try to avoid punditry for this reason but, when I am wrong, I am wrong and I was really off. The good news for anyone applying this year is that when the financial crisis came, there was a surge that lasted two or three years. Maybe I should be avoiding predictions, but it seems the pandemic application boom is behind us. The economy is strong in so many areas. Firms are doing anything they can to hold onto young professionals. We are seeing salary increases, one-time bonuses and equity grants like never before. I think we have seen the pandemic peak.”

While HBS won't disclose his acceptance rate, it is widely believed to be around 9% for this year's class, just a tick down from the 9.2% admit rate last year. "The 9ish% acceptance rate this year at HBS meant that it was almost as hard to get into Harvard as it was to get into Stanford," says Scott Edinburgh, founder of Personal MBA Coach, who expects Stanford to announce an admit rate similar to Harvard's this year. "We saw increased competition and the increased class size compensated for a lot, but not all, of that competition."

Heading into the 2021-2022 admission season, some consultants believe application volume is stabilizing. "We are seeing numbers stabilize this year, so we do not predict HBS will see another 5% increase in apps," adds Edinburgh. "More likely the number will be smaller."

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