After a rush of pandemic-driven applications to business school last year you might have expected a rebounding economy to put a dent in demand for an MBA or Specialized Masters. But with campuses reopening and travel restrictions lifting, the appeal of taking one or two years to enhance your personal and professional skillset, build a strong and supportive network, and orient your career in a meaningful and rewarding direction continues to gain ground.
The 2021 application trends survey published by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), the global body that administers the GMAT, indicates that the surge in demand for graduate business education is not a passing fad but has staying power into 2022. Combined with the impact of COVID on the economy – and the introduction of more flexible MBA admission policies, it appears that more candidates are looking for alternative career options and see business school as the catalyst for change.
So as MBA admissions offices from Palo Alto to Philadelphia continue to assess top talent from around the world, there have been major shifts in who applies, and what makes them stand out. How do these changes affect you? I recently spoke with my Fortuna Admissions colleague, Judith Silverman Hodara, who formerly led MBA Admissions at Wharton, as well as with GMAC Regional Director for Europe Nalisha Patel, to discuss the key trends.
1. Growth in international candidates.
One significant trend that the GMAC annual survey identified compared to 2020 was that more programs reported growth in applications from international candidates. “As pandemic-promoted restrictions on travel and protectionist measures begin to unwind,” Patel explains, “we are encouraged to see international students rebounding to study abroad again.”
The change in application volumes from international candidates shows an increase of 4.1% compared to a decline of 3.8% from domestic candidates. More programs in the US, UK, and the rest of Europe reported declines in applications from domestic candidates when compared across regions. For business schools, Patel reports that this promotes a much more inclusive campus: “The increase in international students undoubtedly brings a positive influence on students, business schools, and campus life as we see an increase in diversity in the classroom once again.”
The contrast in international and domestic demand is strongly tied to full-time MBA programs amongst leading business schools, where international candidate volume has doubled from 28% in 2019 to 57% in 2021. Twice as many U.S. programs ranked in the top 50 according to the US News & World Report reported an increase in applications from international candidates (73%), while programs ranked 51-100 by The Financial Times also reported a significant growth in applications from international candidates (58%).
2. More women heading to business school.
There’s been a consistent rise in the percentage of women represented in the top MBA classrooms, reflecting an important institutional shift. In a year when Wharton surpassed the historic milestone of 50% women in the MBA Class of 2023, the GMAC survey also captured the increase in demand from women for full-time MBA programs. Over half of full-time two-year (56%) MBA programs reported an increase in applications from women in 2021.
Nalisha Patel stresses how important the shift towards gender parity is for women in business. “It provides them with a competitive advantage and the confidence to take the lead at work and launch successful businesses of their own. Studies show that gender diversity in the classroom and at work improves productivity, innovation, and decision-making, and the better we get at closing the gap, the better the outcome for business and society at large.”
In addition, it seems women are more interested in refocusing and reshaping their career trajectories than men following the pandemic. Three in five (60%) full-time two-year MBA programs reported an increase in applications from female candidates compared to two in five (43%) programs reporting growth from male candidates. Says Patel, “it is really encouraging to see that more women are applying to business school, especially to in-person, full-time MBA programs. We’ve all benefited from being able to balance remote work and home life during the pandemic, together with the time to assess what is important to us, and this may have contributed to women, and indeed other groups, having more confidence to pursue Graduate Management Education.”
3. Skyrocketing GMAT scores & rise of the GRE.
We’ve been witnessing what feels like an arms race of GMAT scores at top schools, particularly for programs that want to more firmly establish themselves among the elite. Last year, the average GMAT score for Stanford GSB’s incoming class climbed to 738, and for HBS it was 730. Meanwhile, Wharton’s GMAT average hit 733 last year, up from 730 five years ago and 718 in 2011, and Chicago Booth’s average GMAT was 732. P&Q reports that the biggest jump across the last five years occurred at NYU Stern, which has seen its GMAT average grow 15 points, to 729.
Predictably, the GMAT score has taken on obsessive importance for many candidates, as it captures a comparable data point that schools use both to predict your likely academic success during the MBA and measure you against other candidates. “Your score matters, particularly because the student body at tier-one programs has truly become globally diverse,” explains Joanna Graham, a former director at GMAC, in my related Forbes article How You Can Learn To Love The GMAT. “How do you compare the Bain consultant from Silicon Valley to the entrepreneur in Eritrea? The GMAT helps level the playing field by providing a consistent data point for evaluating candidates against one other.”
And while the GMAT is lauded to be the only standardized exam created by business schools for MBA admissions, the GRE has gained ground and legitimacy among MBA admissions teams. Now, more than 1,200 business schools – including Wharton, Kellogg, and London Business School (LBS) – accept the exam in applications. INSEAD, one of the top schools that have been the most hesitant about the GRE is welcoming candidates who have taken this test, though likes to see a higher percentile on the GRE quant section than they would accept for the GMAT.
What does this mean for the future of business school, and for MBA applicants?
As it turns out, the pandemic was not all bad news. Before COVID hit, the number of applications for Graduate Management Education programs hit a three-year low. Yet, now more than ever, candidates are looking to widen their skill set, knowledge and understanding of business and are turning to business schools to help them do so. Global and domestic demand for graduate management education is showing no signs of slowing down.
Meanwhile, business schools are actively seeking diversity among MBA candidates, with a particular interest in applicants’ leadership experience and potential. “What can really set you apart from your high-achieving peers is pursuing a path you’re deeply passionate about and growing your professional and personal acumen to imagine, act, and lead,” says Fortuna’s Judith Silverman Hodara. “That and demonstrating that you’ve done the sincere introspection that allows you to coherently articulate how the MBA is the essential next step in your career trajectory.”
Matt Symonds is Co-Founder of MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and Co-Host of the upcoming CentreCourt MBA Festival on Feb. 15 & 16, 2022. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.