2021 was never going to look like 2020. No MBA admissions cycle ever will again.
The only real question was whether the positive effects of relaxed or eliminated exam requirements, softened deferral policies, and extended application deadlines would last beyond one singularly chaotic season.
And now we have the answer: Yes — though it would be easy, based on reports from the most elite MBA programs in the United States, to mistakenly think otherwise.
Poets&Quants has examined application data for all of the top-25 ranked B-schools in the U.S., and the bottom line is that apps to join the MBA Class of 2023 were up compared to the stellar previous season — 19 schools saw year-over-year increases despite coming off huge jumps, and seven schools set new application records this year — but they’re really up compared to the pre-pandemic 2018-2019 season, with all but one school improving its total over the three cycles. While seven schools in the top 25 saw double-digit one-year gains, an incredible 18 saw double-digit two-year gains.
Overall for the 25 leading schools in the U.S., apps grew 3.2% this year — but they’re up 17.6% compared to 2019.
'BACK TO WHERE WE WERE A FEW YEARS AGO'
Apps are also climbing at the elite of the elite, the M7, albeit slowly — a fact that might lead a casual observer to conclude that graduate business education on the whole is experiencing sluggish interest. M7 apps overall were up just 3.2% this year, and down significantly at two schools: Northwestern Kellogg and Columbia Business School. But this obscures the fact that both schools set records last year (see table above), and were still up significantly compared to 2019. In fact, three other M7 schools — Chicago Booth, Wharton, and MIT Sloan — set their own application records this year.
However, no top-25 U.S. school had a better 2020-2021 admissions cycle than Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, which saw a 61% increase in applications, to 1,173 from a nadir of 728 last year. Kelley was one of just four schools not to get a bounce in 2020 from extended deadlines and other enticements offered to reluctant candidates amid the coronavirus pandemic; this cycle finally brought the fruit of Indiana's many strategies, most notably its suspension of any GMAT or GRE requirement for admission.
Jim Holmen, director of admissions and financial aid at the Kelley School, says the growth in applications returns Indiana to the same "ballpark" as 2016-2017, when the school received more than 1,200. But there's still work to be done, he adds.
"We had seen a decline in applications for several years," Holmen tells P&Q. "So the increase is putting us back to where we were a few years ago — back in that ballpark. So that's the good news. But there's more to be done. This isn't a 'growth in applications is bringing us to an unprecedented number.'"
BREAKING DOWN THE DATA
Overall in the top 25, schools received 91,117 applications, up from 88,272. That's an increase of 2,845 or 3.2%. Looking back before the pandemic boom, apps in the 2018-2019 cycle totaled 77,487, making for a three-year increase of 13,630 or 17.6%. See pages 2 and 3 for detailed charts.
Indiana Kelley had both the biggest two- and three-year increases, growing their app total by 58.3% from 2019 and 61.1% from last year. Carnegie Mellon Tepper also had a notable increase from 2019 of more than 50%, while Michigan Ross — like Kelley one of the few schools not to get a boost last year — jumped 55.9% this cycle. Meriting a mention, though it sits just outside the top 25, is Rice University Jones Graduate School of Business, which reported an app total of 867 this cycle, down from last year's record of more than 1,000 but up 39% from 2019.
Some schools are still struggling, including Emory Goizueta, which is the only top-25 school down from 2019 to 2021. Emory is also one of 13 schools in the top 26 to remain in a deficit compared to the 2016-2017 cycle — but it has Stanford GSB, Harvard Business School, and a bunch of other elite institutions for company, showing the depth of the slump schools experienced during the Trump years. Stanford is doing the worst in terms of hard numbers in that span, down more than 800 apps; but UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School has been hit hardest by percentage, down more than 650 apps and 30%.
The school doing the best over the last five years? MIT Sloan, which is up nearly 23%. See page 3 for details.
Indiana Kelley may be up big this year but it is still down about 6% from five years ago — but the school may remedy that this coming season. Already, says Jim Holmen, the new application cycle looks very promising.
"Right now, our first deadline is October 15th," Holmen says. "So we still have a few weeks to go, and we haven't received a lot of applications. But at this point we're seeing twice as many applications today as we received at the same point a year ago — and actually, more than double what we've seen over the last four years at this point. So maybe it's a positive sign."
Holmen wouldn't speculate about broader renewal of interest in the MBA, but based on the signs at Indiana Kelley, he's optimistic. He's especially grateful that Kelley can begin to resume doing what it does best: bringing interested candidates to campus to see for themselves the school's state-of-the-art facilities and meet its elite faculty.
"I don't know enough about what's happening elsewhere, but we're certainly seeing a lot of interest," Holmen says. "You know, I think one of the interesting dynamics of the last year, especially given the pandemic and Covid — we, like so many schools, had to rethink all of our recruitment initiatives and everything we did, because obviously we weren't doing any travel. We used to travel a lot all over the country, and quite a bit of international travel as well.
"And I think the other thing that's always been important for us, is to get people to campus because for many, especially from larger cities, the idea of going to school in a college town in southern Indiana wasn't always high on their list. We couldn't bring people to campus. And that was a competitive edge — something that would help us get those last students over the line, when they saw what a beautiful community Bloomington was, when they could really experience the Kelley culture, and people, and community."
See the next pages for tables on the top 25 U.S. business schools' application volume over the last two, three, and five years.