Harvard Business School, Baker Library
This season, my Fortuna Admissions colleagues and I celebrated our 10-year anniversary of coaching MBA candidates to achieve their business school dreams. Getting introspective about Fortuna’s origin story inspired us to reflect on the MBA admissions landscape, and what’s changed for business school applicants over the past decade
More importantly, how do these changing trends impact how candidates should approach their MBA applications today?
From fewer and shorter essays to greater gender parity and the rise of the GRE assessment (vs. GMAT), several trends in MBA admissions offer insights for today’s candidates. There have been major shifts in who applies, and what makes them stand out. How do these changes affect you? Here are five key trends to follow, and what they mean for you.
Over the last decade, schools have little by little been adjusting their essay questions requirements, significantly reducing not only the number of questions but also the word count. As Fortuna’s Matt Symonds said, “the schools have really refined what they’re looking for, and they don’t expect the application to be a writing marathon.”
Take Harvard Business School: If you were applying to HBS in 2012, you had to tackle no less than four essays totaling roughly 2,000 words. Today, HBS has a singular essay capped recently at 900 words. Ten years ago, candidates for Stanford’s MBA had to answer four questions, while today’s GSB applicants have just two. MIT Sloan wins the “less is more” leap. From three essay questions with a total of 1,500 words in 2012, today’s MIT candidates submit a 300-word cover letter.
Fewer words and essays may make it seem easier to complete your business school application. Yet as legendary author Mark Twain is quoted as, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Conveying a story that’s both succinct and compelling takes discipline and skills. As we observe with our Fortuna clients, ever-slimmer word counts pose a formidable challenge for capturing all that you wish to convey to MBA Admissions.
Moreover, top business schools are asking questions that aren’t as straightforward as they once were. You need to do a lot more self-introspection, asking yourself some really worthy but imposing questions such as: Who am I?, How did I get to where I am now?, and What is really important to me?
Back in 2012, the assessment of MBA candidates was based by and large on fairly straightforward and comparable metrics, including test scores and GPAs. While those standard metrics still matter, most schools put a premium on learning more about who you really are above and beyond your track record of academic and professional excellence. What are your motivations, your life experiences, your guiding values? Admissions committees assess your emotional intelligence and capacity for change as much as your intellectual intelligence. Indeed, business education has evolved over this last decade and schools are conscious of their role in developing thoughtful and ethical leaders who will be shaping our world of tomorrow.
Ten years ago, for example, Harvard asked you to write about your professional goals, your achievements, your setbacks, and why you wanted an MBA. Today HBS poses one daunting, open question, “What more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the HBS MBA Program”? As Fortuna’s Karla Cohen, former HBS Associate Director notes, “HBS is seeking principled, passionate individuals who have the potential to fulfill the HBS mission to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.”
Indeed, business schools have developed more holistic and nuanced ways to assess candidates. From formal evaluations of emotional intelligence (Yale SOM’s assessment of inter- and intrapersonal competencies) to letters of recommendation (NYU Stern’s EQ specific question) to key attributes (Dartmouth Tuck’s ‘niceness’ criteria), to videos (Kellogg, LBS, INSEAD, and MIT), programs want to know more about your character and interpersonal skills to predict your leadership potential and readiness for the MBA classroom. Berkeley Haas, for example, is explicit in assessing program fit against the school’s culture and key principles – Question the Status Quo, Confidence Without Attitude, Students Always, and Beyond Yourself.
While they may not have admitted it, 10 years ago most business schools believed that by 2022 they would have reached gender parity. And while many top US MBA programs have made good progress and some are getting close, widespread gender parity in the MBA classroom remains a distant goal. And among the most elite programs, last year Wharton became the only top MBA program to achieve gender parity in 2021.
In November of 2021, research from the Forté Foundation showed that women’s enrollment in MBA programs increased at 14 of the 26 top-ranked Business schools in the US, and that 15 of those 26 schools have more than 40% more women in their MBA cohorts. The burden of financing an MBA has often been cited as a key reason women are reticent to embark on an MBA journey, along with the constraints of completing a full-time program and a desire to maintain a work-life balance. Schools have made significant efforts to address these concerns, from offering more scholarships to developing programs and communities to support women’s specific needs.
Wharton and USC Marshall, proud outliers who have recently achieved (and in Wharton’s case, maintained) gender parity, are obviously doing something right. For Wharton, last year marked the first time in the school’s 100-year history that a class is predominantly female. Wharton has moved the needle by 7% over the last decade; back then, like today, 45% was considered a real achievement.
Over the past decade, top US schools have gained ground in balancing male and female enrollment. Enrollment of women among top schools: Kellogg (48%), Stanford GSB (47%), MIT Sloan and HBS at (46%), NYU Stern (45%), and CBS (44%).
Broadly speaking, schools in Europe and the UK lag behind their US counterparts when it comes to gender parity. The exception is Oxford University’s Said which leads with 48% and Cambridge University’s Judge close behind at 47% (both schools have increased significantly over these last few years). The percentage of women is much lower at other top schools: IESE (38%), LBS (37%), INSEAD (36%), IMD (35%), and HEC (34%).
Up until 2006, if you wanted to apply for an MBA you needed to present a GMAT score.
That year, a few forward-thinking schools such as Stanford GSB and Berkeley Haas decided that one test doesn’t fit all, and started accepting the GRE as well. Then around 10 years ago, more and more schools started to accept the GRE. While it was unspoken at the time and even until very recently, those inside the system knew that schools had a strong preference for the GMAT unless the candidate was an unusually interesting, non-traditional ‘wild card’ candidate.
Those days are over. The GRE is now widely recognized as a perfectly acceptable test score to submit with your application. The GRE has indeed gained ground and legitimacy among MBA admissions teams. Now, more than 1,300 business schools – including Wharton, Kellogg, and London Business School (LBS) – accept the exam in applications. A jaw-dropping 29% of the HBS Class of 2023 was admitted with a GRE score, compared to 22% the year prior.
There are, of course, some schools that still prefer the GMAT, but they a shrinking minority. INSEAD, one of the top schools that has 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. The trend vexing MBA admissions this year is the decline in applications to the leading US business schools. However, this decline poses an unprecedented opportunity for candidates applying in round two. As Fortuna Co-Founder Matt Symonds recently wrote in Forbes, “This year could be your best chance in a generation to get into an M7 business school like Harvard, Stanford GSB, Wharton, or Columbia.” So while a strong US job market is postponing domestic appetite for an MBA, and employers are incentivizing top talent to say put, demand for an MBA from the world’s best business schools remains strong. And with potentially fewer applicants vying for limited seats at the world’s top programs, the odds may be better than ever, too.
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