The MBA Bloodbath That Wasn’t: It Was Competitive, But Not Nearly As Bad As Many Expected

There was no shortage of highly talented candidates who competed to get into a top school last year but it wasn’t the total bloodbath many predicted

Predictions that the 2020-2021 MBA admissions cycle would be among the most competitive ever turned out to be true, though it was not the bloodbath many forecast. As round one deadlines for the new season approach, many admission consultants believe that application volume will stabilize or actually fall in single digits.

Many of the leading business schools saw applications rise further from the massive increases in the first year of the pandemic but it was also something of a mixed bag. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, for example, reported a 20% drop in application volume this past year, a roller-coaster consequence of its year-earlier 54% jump. At the Wharton School, MBA applications were up a mere 2.5%. Harvard Business School saw a modest 5% gain in applicants.

Several schools, including Cornell (up 12.4%), Yale (12.3%), Duke Fuqua (12.1%) and Dartmouth Tuck (11.0%), reported double-digit increases in app volume. With Stanford, MIT Sloan and Chicago Booth yet to report their numbers, the biggest outlier was the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business where MBA applications soared by 56% to 4,003 for a class of just under 400 students. A standardized test waiver policy had a role in the increase from just 2,567 applications a year earlier (see table on the latest stats at leading schools on next page).

Average class GMAT scores also rose for this year’s incoming class, with several business schools, including Wharton and Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, posting new records. Wharton has posted the highest average and median class GMAT scores in its history: an average of 733 and a median of 740. Tuck set a new record in its new class GMAT average with 724, up big from 720 last year and a point better than the school’s previous record set in 2019. At Michigan Ross, GMAT scores soared 12 points to 722, from 710 last year.

“This was our most competitive application year on record,” says Soojin Kwon, Michigan Ross’s managing director of full-time MBA admissions. “We received near-historic application volumes. The GMAT average of applicants was at a record high. Selectivity was at a record 20%. We also saw a record number of applications from women, underrepresented minorities, the U.S., Africa, India, and the Middle East. We expect to build on the momentum of this past admissions year.”


Matt Symonds, co-founder of Fortuna Admissions and the CentreCourt MBA Festival

Some of the eye-popping numbers recently caused one anxious future MBA applicant on Reddit to ask, “Is the 2021-2022 cycle going to be a blood bath like the 2020-2021 cycle? My hypothesis is that the number of applications will fall slightly due to a stronger job market than last time. Fewer deferrals, but a surge in re-applicants.”

Competition, of course, comes in two ways: more applicants and higher quality applicants. “Last year, I was surprised that there was a mixed bag in terms of application volume,” says Jeremy Shinewald, founder and CEO of mbaMission, a leading admissions consulting firm for MBA candidates. “Harvard was up and Kellogg was down. On the basis of our volumes, I had assumed that every top MBA program was heading toward a record.”

In the end, though, he came to the realization that because applicants had time on their hands and many had additional disposable income, many more people pursued the services of his consulting firm. “I think the quality of applicant, as represented in quality applications, was higher than ever,” says Shinewald. “Most applicants just put more time into their applications last year, because what did they have… more time!”

Matt Symonds, a co-founder of Fortuna Admissions, offers this assessment. “The 2020/21 admissions cycle has been one of the most competitive on record, but not quite the record breaking application volumes that were initially expected,” he says. “Many top schools extended final round deadlines in the previous admissions cycle to accommodate for the tremendous uncertainty of the pandemic, and challenges to submit GMAT or GRE test scores. So a considerable number of applicants had already brought forward their MBA plans.”

Symonds says Fortuna’s team saw huge demand through the summer, primarily from U.S. applicants who had pushed back B-school plans through many years of a strong job market. “This translated into a 10% to 20% increase in domestic R1 applications at some M7 schools…But domestic demand tailed off slightly in R2 as it became clear that the U.S. economy was picking up again quickly, with traditional MBA feeder industries – consulting, finance, tech – little affected. Many international students were still waiting to see the outcome of the US Presidential election, and its possible impact on H1B visa policy. Once Biden was finally confirmed there was an immediate uptick in R2 applications, notably from the Indian market.”


In a year in which many schools reported increases in women, underrepresented minorities and international students, the competition for a seat in the Class of 2023 was especially severe for white men. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, advancing racial equity has become a priority in most U.S. MBA programs. At Harvard Business School, this year’s incoming “white” students, by federal reporting standards, represent 47% of the class, down from 53% last year. “The reduced numbers of white kids seems significant and intentional (well the increased numbers of non-whites is intentional),” believes Sandy Kreisberg, founder of “I think getting in at HBS as a white male is becoming increasingly challenging.“

In a drive toward gender equity, several schools also enrolled the most women in history. Wharton led all prestige schools in welcoming an incoming class composed of 52% women. Record levels also were achieved at Duke (48%), Harvard (46%), and Michigan Ross (46%). That trend is likely to continue as more schools attempt to get to a 50-50 gender balance.

And for most leading MBA programs, international students who faced visa issues and travel restrictions a year ago found their way back into U.S. business schools. Columbia Business School increased its share of international students to a new record, nearly half the class at 48%, up from a rate that was already the highest of any top-20 business school in the United States. A year ago, international students made up 44%.

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