Why Do You care How Many People Apply to an MBA Program?

Recently Bloomberg Businessweek reported that application numbers were down at some top MBA programs this past year. Notably, the decrease happened at some very highly ranked schools, such as Wharton (down 9% vs. the previous year) and Haas (down 11%). While the slowdown did not impact every top business school, it certainly paints the picture of the trend cresting. It’s not hard to imagine more top MBA programs announcing a decrease in the number of applicants next year.

If you’re applying to these schools, that’s good news, right? Well, it certainly isn’t bad news. But, in reality, there’s only one applicant pool you really care about:

The number of AWESOME applicants who apply to each of these schools.

“But wait a minute,” you might say. “The BusinessWeek article didn’t say anything about the number of awesome applicants. And I don’t see that stat in my U.S. News rankings, either.” The point isn’t to figure out that number, but rather to remind yourself that, assuming you’re competitive at a given school (and that’s not a small assumption!), your real competition comes from the other competitive applicants.

Consider this hypothetical exercise: What if Wharton received about 675 fewer applicants this past year, but that all of them had GMAT scores below 620 and GPAs below 3.2? “Well, they probably weren’t really competing against me for a spot, anyway,” you’d say, and you would be right. In that case, that drop in applicants didn’t really help you. Of course, that’s probably not the case, but it’s a reminder that not all applicants are the same, and thus a rise or fall in the number of applicants can’t be taken at face value.

Now let’s assume that those additional 675 applicants were identical to the rest of the applicant pool, meaning that, all things being equal, Wharton would admit approximately 17% of them. (Why 17%? That number came from this past year’s U.S. New Rankings.) That’s about 115 applicants that Wharton would want to admit. In fact, let’s bump that up a bit since top schools always find more great applicants than they can admit… Let’s bump it up to 180. So, this past year there were 180 fewer GREAT applicants competing for about 817 seats in Wharton’s full-time program.

While having about 180 fewer people to compete with for a seat at Wharton is good news — it’s sure better than having to compete against 180 additional applicants! — it’s not a real game changer in the grand scheme of things. Your chances are still going to be impacted far more by your work experience, GMAT score, letters of recommendation, undergraduate transcript, and admissions essays than by whether 180 strangers from around the world decide whether or not to take a shot at Wharton this year.

Let’s do an even more basic exercise: Assuming Wharton admits the same number of people every year (and this is a fair assumption, although we know it will change slightly based on yield), taking the number of applicants from the BusinessWeek article and acceptance rates from this year’s U.S. News rankings — and forgiving the author for any loose mixing and matching of stats from different admissions season — if Wharton received 675 fewer application this year, its acceptance rate would only rise from 16.9% to 18.6%. While that’s better than seeing it go down, it’s hard to argue that those 1.7 percentage points make your odds that much better this year! Don’t kid yourself — getting into the world’s top business schools will still be tough this year, next year, and the year after that.

For anyone who reads this and says, “You’re peddling GMAT prep courses and MBA admissions consulting… Of course you’re going to say that the decrease in applications doesn’t make it easier to get in.” While you’re right that we obviously have a motive, you may be interested to know that, for the past two years (while application numbers were climbing A LOT), we frequently made the reverse argument to many applicants: Yes, application numbers are soaring, but that doesn’t automatically mean that your chances just got much worse. You only need to worry about the other GREAT applicants (especially those most similar to you). While the odds are that there are more of them, their numbers probably haven’t grown by 25%. Just focus on what you can do to make YOUR application terrific, and let the rest just happen, because that’s all you can do.

For more news and advice on getting into Haas and other top business schools, be sure to subscribe to this blog and to follow us on Twitter!

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