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Competition for Admission to Top MBA Programs Intensifies Amid COVID Pandemic

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As if 2020 hasn’t been difficult enough, there may be some more bad news for applicants to leading business schools: Round 1 outcome data from Clear Admit’s LiveWire tool suggests that MBA applicants may be in for a tough 2020-2021 admissions season.

Amid rumblings of higher application volume, we conducted a quick year-over-year analysis, looking at the percentage of total LiveWire updates represented by Rejection and Interview Invitation statuses. The rate of interview invitations and rejections at the top-16 US MBA programs suggests that schools may be handing out fewer invites – and that rejections may be on the rise.

We looked at applicant outcomes posted to LiveWire from early August through early December 2019, compared with the same time period in 2020.  The percentage of LiveWire updates representing interview invites dropped by 11% (45.6% of updates in 2019 down to 40.4% in 2020), while the proportion of rejections rose by 26% (20.2% in 2019 up to 25.6% of updates in 2020).

A closer focus on the “M7” schools (Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Chicago, Kellogg, MIT, Columbia) shows that the proportion of interview invite updates declined by 17% (41.6% in 2019 down to 34.5% in 2020), while the proportion of LiveWire updates reflecting rejections rose by about 33% (27.8% in 2019 up to 37.1% in 2020).

While LiveWire updates reflect the outcomes of just a sub-set of applicants to the leading programs, the year-over-year differences in the proportion of updates reflecting different statuses may well point to a meaningful difference in competition between this year and last.

A number of factors have likely led to this increased competition:

  1. The pandemic has triggered an economic downturn, which has caused many young professionals to lose their jobs or feel that their employment situations are somewhat precarious. Economic downturns have historically led to increases in MBA application volume, as young professionals look to retool and bolster their resumes while riding out a recession (see 2001 and 2008 for recent examples).
  2. Many business schools offered deferrals to candidates who had been admitted for the fall of 2020, but could not attend (or preferred to defer) due to COVID-related concerns or problems with travel and visas. This means that these candidates have effectively already been admitted for the fall of 2021, resulting in fewer slots being available for this year’s applicants.
  3. The pandemic has led to schools relaxing their standardized testing requirements, with several top programs allowing applicants to waive the GMAT or GRE requirement. Given that standardized testing has long been viewed as one of the key barriers to application, these policies have potentially broadened the pool of applicants.

Clear Admit’s Graham Richmond offered the following thoughts:

“A number of factors have clearly combined to both increase demand for the MBA and reduce the supply of seats.  While it remains to be seen if the level of competition approaches some of the banner years in the early 2000s, it does seem clear that application volume is up and that candidates are finding it harder to make the cut for an interview – the gateway to admission – at the leading schools.”

Richmond also speculated about the implication that competition is even more intense at the top of the rankings:

“One thing I am curious about is why the M7 might be seeing a bigger shift vs. the broader top 16?  It could be due to any number of factors, but one explanation could be that the very top schools were more flexible with respect to deferrals last season (and had the luxury of deep waitlists, or the ability to go with smaller class sizes to support their approach), which has in turn led to fewer spots this year.”

It remains to be seen how the 2020-21 MBA admissions season will shake out, but the early indicators suggest that competition is likely going to be stiff.  Stay tuned to Clear Admit’s LiveWire to continue to track these trends!

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