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LiveWire Insight: GPA and GMAT Standards Appear Unchanged Despite Lower MBA Application Volume

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Last week, we shared our LiveWire data-based hunch that 2018-2019 was another slow year for applications to full-time, two-year MBA programs. Based on those results, we were curious as to whether we would see this reflected in the GPA and GMAT scores of applicants who report good news from leading business schools. Specifically, we wondered if schools have needed to ease their academic standards given that they seem to have had fewer applicants to choose from over the past few years.

To examine this, we again segmented LiveWire updates by admissions season, looking at results submitted between September 1st and June 17th of the three academic years for which LiveWire data were available. We then calculated the mean and median GPA and GMAT scores associated with LiveWire posts reporting acceptances, as well as those reflecting acceptance from a waitlist.

GPA and GMAT Descriptive Statistics

To offer a quick statistics refresher, the mean reflects the average value of a variable, while the median represents the midpoint of a distribution. When the mean and median differ meaningfully, this suggests that the former is being influenced by outliers, which are scores that are significantly higher or lower than most of the other data points.

Meanwhile, the standard deviation is a measure of the overall variability of the data. A smaller standard deviation means that scores are tightly clustered around the mean, whereas a larger standard deviation suggests more varied and widely ranging values for a given variable.

Accepted Applicants

Looking at the GPA and GMAT scores of LiveWire Users who were accepted to leading MBA programs over the past three admissions seasons, we don’t see any meaningful changes (or statistically significant differences) in either measure of academic preparation. In fact, as exemplified by the median GMAT scores, the data are quite consistent year-to-year.

GPA and GMAT Scores of LiveWire Users Reporting Acceptances

Admitted from Waitlist

We also looked at the mean and median GPA and GMAT score for candidates who were initially waitlisted by, and ultimately accepted to, a given MBA program. As is the case with students who were admitted outright, there is no significant difference in applicants’ GPAs over the three admissions seasons we examined.

GPA and GMAT Scores of LiveWire Users Reporting Acceptance from a Waitlist

We do see a statistically significant1 difference in the GMAT scores of candidates admitted from waitlists across the three years in question – but not in the direction we would expect if schools were admitting more marginal candidates as a result of lower application volume. The average GMAT scores of waitlist admits posting to LiveWire during the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 admissions seasons are higher than that from 2016-2017, and scores reported by waitlist admits that season also varied more widely than those submitted over the past few years.

The Full(er) Picture

Of course, admissions committees consider a candidate’s GPA and GMAT score in combination, not in isolation. A stellar performance on the GMAT can compensate for a lackluster GPA, and vice versa. So, an increase in admitted students who were a relatively weak on both of these measures could reflect a manifestation of adcom compromises due to limited options.

To explore this possibility, we plotted GPAs against GMAT scores for LiveWire users reporting Acceptances during our admissions seasons of interest, with green points representing entries from 2016-2017, blue points representing 2017-2018, and purple points representing 2018-2019. If it were the case that schools are having to admit more marginal candidates due to lower application volume, we would expect to see more blue and purple dots than green dots toward the lower left corner of the plot.

As you can see in the plot above, there’s no indication that applicants with relatively weak academic profiles have had an easier time when it comes to outright admission to full-time MBA programs over the past two years.

The same appears to be true for candidates who are admitted from the waitlist, per the plot below.

The Bottom Line

While we believe that LiveWire data have detected a continuation of 2017-2018’s downward trend in full-time MBA application volume, we don’t see any evidence that business schools have had to relax their admissions standards with respect to undergraduate performance or GMAT scores in order to fill their incoming classes. There may be fewer people willing to exit the workforce to pursue an MBA right now – but those who are entering a leading business school this fall can likely rest assured that the academic credentials of their classmates will be as strong as ever.

But wait, what about GRE-takers?

While the vast majority of applicants to leading MBA programs submit GMAT scores, a growing number of candidates are opting to take the GRE each year.  We’ll be sharing some analysis of year-over-year GRE score data next week – but only with our newsletter readers.

So, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter if you’re curious about trends in the GRE scores of students who are accepted to the leading programs (and those who are admitted from the waitlist).

A Final Note About LiveWire Data

As we mentioned in the first post in this LiveWire data series, there’s an important caveat to keep in mind when it comes to applicant-generated data on the Clear Admit site.

In general, members of the Clear Admit online community are focused on the most selective MBA programs in the U.S. and overseas. Because the majority of our site users are qualified for admission into even the most selective business schools in the world, the academic statistics reported by our users are likely more in line with current students at the leading programs than with the applicant pool at large.

While our data do not capture the full breadth of full-time MBA applicants or programs, year-to-year differences (or lack thereof) can still be indicative of larger trends over time.

Alex Kelly
Alex is Clear Admit’s Director of Content & User Research. She has been working in the MBA admissions space for more than 15 years in research, consulting, and writing roles. She holds an M.S.Ed. from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Utah.