It should have been straightforward for Ed Redden. A chemical engineering graduate from Notre Dame, he had spent the five years since college working at General Electric. He had risen quickly to lead a team of 55 employees across five manufacturing lines. He clearly had the knowledge and the skills to grow as a manager. To advance his career, he applied to business school.
His applications racked up six rejections, including from Harvard and Stanford.
“It often felt like admissions was a black box and I was hopelessly trying to crack the code,” he said. “I knew deep inside that I was a good candidate for top MBA programs and had great experiences that would add value to the classroom. I just needed help telling my story.”
Redden isn’t the only person to struggle with their business school application process. In spring 2020, as the coronavirus began shutting classrooms, cancelling exams, and freezing hiring, business schools lowered their admission requirements and moved towards hybrid teaching. Some offered test waivers. Others accepted incomplete applications or extended their deadlines. Employees and graduates who were stuck at home and wondering how to rebuild their careers weighed up returning to the classroom, even from a distance, and building up their management skills.
The result was a rapid rise in the number of applicants for MBA programs. AccessMBA has tracked down the numbers. The University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School saw a 35 percent rise in in 2020 compared with 2019, with the biggest increase coming from international students. Columbia Business School received more than 18 percent more applicants last year, an increase of about 1,000 additional candidates. Wharton had 21 percent more applications, an extra 1,200 candidates.
Wharton responded by accepting more applicants. Its incoming class was 7 percent larger than the previous year. The business school at the UK’s University of Warwick went even further. After receiving 56 percent more applications in 2020 than in 2019, it increased its intake by 15 percent.
But even with larger classes and a more flexible application procedure, the rising demand for MBAs still means many more rejections than applications. Of the top ten US business schools ranked by the US News and World Report, Dartmouth College is the most generous with its acceptance letters. It accepts 34.8 percent of people who want to study there. Stanford, the top-ranked school, takes just 8.9 percent while Harvard accepts 9.2 percent.
For both those schools, more than nine out of ten applicants will receive rejection letters like those received by Ed Redden. Almost two out of three applicants to Dartmouth will get them too. Having put themselves through the difficult and long process of preparing for and taking a GMAT or a GRE test, collecting their undergraduate transcripts, polishing their resumé, finding good referees and pestering them to write persuasive recommendations, crafting a good MBA essay, and sitting through an interview, MBA applicants are still more likely than not to receive a rejection from the school of their choice.
Is an MBA Worth It?
So perhaps it isn’t worth it. Most of the biggest tech businesses—now the world’s most valuable companies—were founded by engineers or marketing people, not people with MBAs. If your career is doing well without an MBA, maybe you don’t need to put your work on hold for a couple of years to sit in a classroom. If you can learn on the job, you might be able to get to the top anyway.
But business school can deliver a number of benefits that no on-the-job learning can offer. Harvard lays out no fewer than ten reasons to complete an MBA.
The degree should lead to higher pay, of course. Harvard claims that the average salary of an MBA graduate is $88,137, an amount that rises as high as $148,750 for Harvard Business School’s 2019 MBA graduates. By way of comparison, an average bachelor’s degree generates a salary of $60,996, and a master’s degree holder typically makes $72,852.
Employers also see value in an MBA, and especially in an MBA from places like Harvard and Stanford. The knowledge that entrepreneurs can pick up in an MBA class will help them to launch their own business, says Harvard, while the use of case studies gives graduates a framework for solving the problems they’re likely to come across in their future jobs.
Studies for an MBA give students a chance to experiment with different leadership styles in a safe environment, while the diverse student body usually found in business schools exposes them to different viewpoints, an international outlook, and of course, the kind of connections with professors, classmates, and alumni that can lead to valuable new opportunities.
Above all, though, an MBA enables people to develop themselves.
“The purpose of a full-time MBA program is to give students an opportunity to immerse themselves for two years in a period of intense personal and professional development that enables students to really accelerate their career, as well as prepares them to lead organizations,” Kate Bennett, director of marketing for MBA Admissions at Harvard Business School, says on the business school’s blog.
“It’s rare to have two years to focus on improving yourself and charting how you want to make an impact. The two years allow you to reflect on the difference you want to make in the world.”
How to Get in to Business School
So taking a couple of years out of the workplace—and paying the roughly $112,000 a year it costs to study for an MBA at Harvard or the $120,000 you can expect to pay at Stanford—should be worth it. You should be able to increase your salary by at least 50 percent, meet interesting people, develop your skills, and open new opportunities.
But with the competition so intense and growing tighter, and even people with ability as proven as Ed Redden’s struggling to get a foot in the door, what do you need to beat the crowd and land a spot on an MBA course?
Stacy Blackman runs an MBA admissions consulting firm. For the last 20 years, she’s helped applicants receive admission to all of the world’s top business schools, often with merit scholarships. She’s worked with consultants and financial professionals but also with doctors, teachers, the military, entrepreneurs, and even athletes and rock stars.
Her firm employs former admissions committee officers—known as AdComs—from every top MBA program. They keep her informed about each program’s current priorities.
“We have tremendous insight as to what is currently keeping the AdCom up at night and what values they are looking for from their current students,” she says. “We tap into up-to-the-minute insights: such as, ‘Columbia is filling up – get your application in now!’”
What applicants tend to most struggle with, says Blackman, is a way to stand out from the crowd. On average almost two-thirds of full-time MBA students are men. Minorities only make up about 27 percent of the MBA student population at Stanford and Harvard. Applicants often come from a small number of “feeder companies” who send their employees to the top business schools for further training before taking them back. McKinsey, BCG, Bain, Deloitte, and Goldman Sachs all top the lists of feeder companies for both Stanford and Harvard.
So a white man who has worked for a few years at McKinsey or Bain before applying to Harvard or Stanford business school will fit right in when they reach the classroom. They’ll find themselves sitting alongside other people who look and think largely in the same way that they do. But they’ll struggle to stand out during the application process and give the AdCom a reason to choose them over a different white man from McKinsey.
“We see standing out as a key theme across our client pool,” says Blackman. “Our clients engage with us via our services to uncover and effectively position their uniquenesses relative to the applicant pool. We work with our clients to define their authentic personal story, share their values and passions, and ensure personality is infused across all MBA application touchpoints.”
One client worked with Blackman’s company over eight months to gain an understanding of their personality and values. The goal was to help them showcase their true self and stand out as a candidate.
After Ed Redden had collected his pile of business school rejections, he turned to Stacy Blackman’s company for help. Blackman recommended that Redden create a “recommender package.” Instead of simply asking people who knew him to write something nice, he gave them a list of strengths and characteristics to highlight, as well as growth areas that he was working to develop. The goal was not just to make it as easy as possible for a referee to create the letter but to ensure that the recommendation highlighted those characteristics that the applicant needs in order to stand out from the crowd.
Services like Blackman’s aren’t cheap. A complete package for a single school that includes a dedicated consultant, the development of a strategy, interview prep, selecting stories and experiences to highlight in essay questions, and a review by a team of former admission officers costs $5,950. If you want to tweak your application for a second school, the price rises to $7,750. If you’re aiming for seven schools, you could end up paying $14,625—and that’s before you’ve received Stanford’s tuition bill.
That’s another large barrier to put in front of the business school door. It’s more debt that that promised higher salary has to pay back.
The first question that applicants need to ask themselves then isn’t what they want from an MBA. Nor is it what they can bring to an MBA classroom or what they can they find in their story that will help them to stand out from the thousands of other white men with impressive resumes applying for the same school.
It’s whether the challenge and cost of an MBA is worth the rewards for them.
The difficulty and expense of hiring help to stand out during the application process is one way to find out. If you’re not willing to pay almost $6,000 to land a possible acceptance from Stanford then maybe the first rejection is really from you.