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M.B.A. Applicants, Brace for ‘Most Competitive Year Ever’

Updated: Mar 10, 2023

Business schools are expected to be more selective, as applications surge after programs granted record deferrals earlier in the pandemic. Getting into an M.B.A. program might be tough in 2021, following an admissions cycle that U.S. business schools and consultants say is shaping up to be the most competitive in recent memory.

B-school applications for fall 2020 surged at the start of the pandemic as students sought ways to ride out a tenuous job market. Now, full-time residential M.B.A. programs continue to report higher application volumes for next fall and expect to have fewer spots to offer than in years past, since schools have allowed many international students to defer enrollment due to virus-related travel restrictions. Prospective students say they’re already feeling the crunch.

Jimmy Lin applied several months ago to six of the top-ranked full-time M.B.A. programs for fall 2021. Five rejected him. If Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management doesn’t accept him in the coming weeks, he says he’ll most likely apply again in 2022.

A cybersecurity data scientist in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mr. Lin said an M.B.A. will help him break into management. He knew this year’s admissions cycle would be tough, he said, and banked his hopes on his several years of work experience, his masters in business analytics, and a GMAT exam score of 750 out of 800.

“I feel the importance of the whole [application] package has increased,” he said. “The bar is higher for applications.”

Applications to American M.B.A. programs rose for the first time in five years in 2020, partly owing to schools’ loosening testing requirements and would-be students looking to ride out the economic downturn—circumstances expected to continue through the 2021 admissions cycle that began in late summer.

“Everything points to this being the most competitive year ever for M.B.A. applicants,” said Jeremy Shinewald, founder of admissions consulting firm mbaMission. “I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if schools crush their records for application volume.”

Mr. Shinewald said free consultations at his firm, a metric he uses to gauge student interest, were up about 30% from July to September when many first-round applications are submitted. Some employers that avoided layoffs in 2020 might start trimming staff at the start of next year, he said, prompting more prospective students to apply in the second or third rounds this winter.

Space is already limited in many programs after some admitted students put off enrolling earlier in the pandemic. The deferral rate—the percentage of applicants who defer enrollment divided by the number of accepted applicants—for all students climbed from 2% in 2019 to 6% in 2020, according to a recent report from the nonprofit Graduate Management Admission Council.

Some schools and admissions coaches are advising prospective students to get their applications in early.

Shelly Heinrich, the associate dean of M.B.A. admissions at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, said the school usually accepted more applications from its third and fourth rounds in years when applications were down. This year, Georgetown could fill most seats after its second round ends in January, she said, because of the higher early-round volume and its more than 50 deferrals from 2020. McDonough enrolled just under 250 new students this past fall and doesn’t expect to increase its class size. Applications to its full-time M.B.A., which can cost nearly $200,000 with two years of living costs and other fees factored in, are up about 29% for the first round of 2021, she said.

“It can be nerve-racking for applicants,” Ms. Heinrich said. “They are now thinking, ‘Oh goodness, not only do you have deferrals who have secured spots in your class for next year but your applications are now up significantly, and so what does that mean for me?”

The percentage of applicants that programs are inviting for interviews fell about 8% at the top 16 schools, and the rejection rate rose about 7% compared with a year ago,

according to data from early August to mid-November from M.B.A. advisory company Clear Admit. At the top seven schools, the interview request rate has fallen by about 11% in the past year and rejections have jumped 10% from a year ago.

Applications rose at several schools that made the main B-school admissions tests optional this year, concerned that applicants would face challenges taking exams online. Some, like the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, plan to extend that practice for 2021 applicants as the pandemic grinds on. The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business said in November—in the middle of its application cycle—that it would offer test waivers for 2021 and that anyone who applied in its first-round would be either admitted or waitlisted.

M.B.A. programs could get another boost in applications in coming months from international students who had held off applying because of limits the Trump administration put on student visas. Some schools say they expect the incoming Biden administration to ease those rules, lifting demand from abroad.

Some programs are expanding their 2021 class sizes. Harvard Business School, which offered deferrals to any student who wanted one this past year, aims to enroll about 1,000 students for the next two years, said Chad Losee, the school’s managing director of M.B.A. admissions. HBS enrolled a class of about 730 students this past fall after offering deferrals, roughly 200 fewer than its typical 930 or so.

Smaller programs often lack resources to accommodate more M.B.A.s, especially after some reduced class sizes following several years of fewer applications. Penn State’s Smeal College of Business plans to continue capping its M.B.A. class at 60 due to space limits, despite seeing double-digit deferrals—about triple what it usually gets—in 2020, said admissions officer Ryan Hess.

This article has been written by Patrick Thomas for Wall Street Journal:

The rising number of MBA applications has put extra pressure on students to work on their profile and draft a compelling personal story that grabs the eyeballs of the Admission Committees. But worry not, GuideMe's admissions team with MBAs from Harvard, INSEAD, IE Business School, and other top business schools, can help you fulfill your dreams of a Top MBA!

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