How Competitive Will MBA Admissions Be In 2021-2022?
Maria |
September 7, 2021

In this episode of Business Casual, our hosts John, Maria, and Caroline debate whether or not this year’s admission session will be less or more competitive than the previous ones, considering the number of variables that influence the candidate pool.

They also discuss law school vs. business school and which is more competitive given Harvard Law School had more applicants than Harvard Business School this year for the first time in years. 

Episode Transcript

[00:00:07.510] – John

Hello, everyone. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. Welcome to Business Casual, our weekly podcast with our co host Caroline Diarte Edwards and Maria Wich Vila. Maria, of course, is the founder of Applicant Lab and a Harvard MBA. And Caroline is the former admissions director of INSEAD, an alum of the school, and the cofounder of Fortuna Admissions. So two things for this week that we want to discuss. We had predicted that this past admission season would likely be the most competitive ever. And when we think about competitiveness, what we really think about are the basic stats, GPAs, GMAT’s and selectivity, the acceptance rate based on the number of applications received versus admits and the seats available in a given class, it turns out to have been much more mixed. So we want to put that into perspective and we want to make a prediction about this coming admissions season and whether or not it will be as competitive as this last one has been or less. So the other thing we want to tackle is law school versus business school. For the first time in many years, Harvard Law School drew more applicants than Harvard Business School.

[00:01:27.600] – John

The admit rate is lower than it is at the business school, and that’s a total reversal of what it had been. More telling, perhaps, is that the law school received 17.8 applicants for every classroom seat this past year, while Harvard had 10.7 candidates for its seats. But let’s turn first to this past admission season. And Caroline, do you think it was more competitive than the previous season but still fall short of being the most competitive season ever?

[00:02:04.200] – Caroline

Yeah, I don’t think it was the deluge of applications that we thought it might be, but it was an incredibly competitive season. It’s very difficult to know. Right, because there were so many variables last year that were creating changes in the applicant pool, challenges for international applicants thinking about potentially studying in the US or in other countries that sort of put a damper on things, challenges taking the tests, the test centers being closed, and then the online test. Some people weren’t very happy with the online version of GMAT. There were a lot of different things going on. It’s difficult to dissect exactly how that impacted the actor Paul at different schools, but I do think that in general, more people threw their hat into the ring than might have otherwise done had we not had the pandemic and the various changes that threw leaks into turmoil last year. So I do think it was a very competitive season, but very challenging for the schools because some people were applying in a rather speculative manner. So not necessarily some of that additional volume would not have been at the highest quality, and then some of those accidents would not have been the most committed applicants either.

[00:03:19.760] – Caroline

So very difficult for the schools to manage their yield in the context of so much volatility so certainly a very interesting season. The job market bounced back faster than we expected. Right. So when there’s a strong job market, typically business school applications volume can be a bit depressed because people are getting great job offers and they’re getting promotions and they don’t feel the need to go back to business school straight away. And so I think that strengthening of the job market more rapidly than you would normally see after an economic downturn meant that there wasn’t such a dramatic increase in application volume after all, which in many ways, actually, I think it’s a good thing because the problem is if you have a huge surge in application volume, it can sometimes be followed by a big dip. Right. Because people who might have otherwise applied in twelve months time or in two years, suddenly everyone applies at once, and then that can mean that it’s drying up your pipeline for future cycles. And so it’s not always a good thing that there’s a big surge in application involved at one time.

[00:04:30.060] – John

And Maria, what was your take on this past admission season? Of course, we’re still waiting for some schools to report.

[00:04:36.770] – Maria

Yeah. Like Caroline said, there are so many variables and so many unprecedented variables that I think last year was very competitive. I think this year is also going to be a difficult to predict year, because I think on the one hand, we’re going to have a lot of reapplicants who last year applied during the very competitive year last year, who might have otherwise gotten in but who didn’t get in. And so now they’re reapplying this year. So I think it also shifted forward in terms of pipeline. I think it might have also in some ways shifted forward very competitive candidates to this season. But I think this year will be equal to or maybe even lower volumes than last year, because with the world kind of well, at least we were hoping a few months ago that the world would be back to normal. Now in some parts of the world, it’s not going back to normal as quickly as one would hope. But in general, I think that this downturn was not one that was due to some sort of systemic weakness in the overall economy. It was sort of this external shock event that does have there is a way out if enough people were to comply with it.

[00:05:45.210] – Maria

And so I think that that’s why the recovery in the economy has been so much faster. And so I think the impact on business schools will also be faster. I think it’s going to level out relatively quickly.

[00:05:56.610] – John

Yeah. When you look at the schools that have already announced their number, it is a mixed bag. Word was up two and a half, Harvard up 5% in applications, Kellogg 20%, Columbia was down a little bit. Not a lot. You had increases at Yale, Duke, Cornell, Anderson, Duke and Cornell. They were on the order of 12%, you pretty much had across the board increases in GMAT class hours, but in many cases that was because the GMAT scores had plummeted the year before when the pandemic hit hardest and the market flooded with applicants and probably applicants that were having trouble getting a good test result when the switch was to the online test. So you got Wharton, they’re up eleven points on their class average. For the GM, you look at eleven points, UVA Darden up twelve, Cornell up ten, UCLA up eight, Yale up six, and Dartmouth, they stayed the same at Kellogg, which saw that 20% plunge in applications because it had such a massive increase the year before, and the median at Harvard remain the same. So I think you’re right. I think while it’s still fairly competitive, I don’t think we’re going to see a bloodbath.

[00:07:24.360] – John

Someone out there was asking, I think a legitimate question about whether or not they’d be an admissions bloodbath in this season would be incredibly competitive. And I wonder, too, what kind of activity the two of you are seeing. Maria Applicant Lab for round one deadlines, and Caroline, for your consulting firm, for people preparing for round one.

[00:07:49.310] – Maria

Yeah, for me, I think the volumes are up a little. I think the biggest change, though, is less in volume and more in how early people decided to start to get ready. I think the rumors of last year’s challenging environment trickled through, and so I think a lot of people decided to get started much earlier than they might otherwise. And I think that there’s a little bit more anxiety and uncertainty in the applicant pool just because of the variability of the past year or two.

[00:08:18.600] – John

Yeah, that makes sense. Caroline, are you seeing stabilization of the growth you saw the previous year for round one?

[00:08:27.620] – Caroline

Yeah, we’re seeing similar volumes, so I think it’s going to be strong, but I don’t think it’ll be up versus last year.

[00:08:34.220] – John


[00:08:35.020] – Caroline

And I agree with Maria. We saw a lot of people signing up very early. It seems to get earlier every year, and that’s a good thing.



[00:08:43.540] – Caroline

I think it’s good to start earlier rather than later, but definitely a lot of people are getting serious about their applications in the spring this year.

[00:08:51.950] – John

Caroline, do you think, as Maria does, that we’re going to see a surge of reapplicants in this new round?

[00:08:59.110] – Caroline

Yeah, I think it’s somewhat inevitable after a very competitive and a bit of a crazy season and the disruption of last year, that there will be people who didn’t get into a school of their choice last year and therefore reapplying now. So that can raise the level of competition overall because often they are very well prepared candidates. Right. They’ve been through the cycle. Once they’ve learned from that process, they’ve probably hopefully reflected on why they didn’t get in the first time round, and hopefully they’re coming back with a better application next time round. So they can often be incredibly strong applicants. And, of course, the school the schools just take them seriously because they understand that if you’re reapplying, you’re serious about this, you’re really motivated, you really want to go to that school if you’re coming back a second time. And sometimes people even apply more than two times. Right. So the schools do credit those applicants for their commitment and motivation, and that can give them some additional credibility and therefore create strong competition for the fresh batch of applicants.

[00:10:07.830] – John

Yes. Now, neither of you think there was a so-called bloodbath in the 2021 admissions cycle, right?

[00:10:15.620] – Caroline

It wasn’t. No. I mean, it was definitely a very competitive year, but great candidates were still getting into great schools. So I think the level of competition was a bit higher than usual. But I don’t think it was sort of completely extreme.

[00:10:34.490] – John

You take that same position, right?

[00:10:36.570] – Caroline


[00:10:36.980] – Maria

I wouldn’t call it a bloodbath, but I did see some people who I think in prior years with fewer applicants and a little bit less competition, I think in prior years, they might have gotten into school that perhaps they didn’t get into last year. So then they were stuck with the difficult choice of do I take the bird in the hand, or do I turn down that one school and then reapply next year to my dream school with nobody really knows what’s going to happen, it’s hard to advise them on what to do.

[00:11:04.440] – John

Yeah. Exactly. What did you find that they did? Did they hold off or did they decide just to go?

[00:11:11.020] – Maria

I think most people decided to go. Well, personally, there is just so much variability on a regular year, much less than a year. So I tend to say take the bird in the hand. There are so many amazing schools. You’re going to get similar, if not identical, opportunities at most top schools, et cetera, et cetera. And also with the return to in person learning, which has happened this year, I think that a lot of the doubts from previous years are no longer, you know, you might as well just go. You’re going to have a great time, you’re going to get a great education, and you’re going to have a great outcome pretty much regardless of where you go, because at the end of the day, it’s the person that makes the career, not the school. And so if you hustle and network and prepare for certain types of interviews, you’re going to get certain types of jobs regardless of if you’re at a fancier school or not. That’s my opinion. So I think a lot of them took it. But I also was like, I don’t know. You don’t know what’s going to happen next year.

[00:12:09.210] – Maria

Just grab it.

[00:12:12.810] – John

Seize the day.

[00:12:14.500] – Maria

That’s right. Car pay, acceptance.

[00:12:18.810] – Caroline

I like that.

[00:12:20.970] – John

I like that. Law school versus business school. I think that for some people, this is actually a consideration, even a debate. And we know law school had been on the Wayne for a number of years, even much more than business schools before the pandemic increase. And in many cases this past year, we’ve seen historic rises at the elite law schools and application volume, but they’re climbing out of a big hole, recovering from a much deeper and sustained dip than B schools. But what was interesting to me is seeing that Harvard Law School was up a third in application this past year, nearly 10,000, while the Harvard business goal was up a mere 5%. And Harvard Law School drew more applicants for fewer positions than the business school and, in fact, cut its admit rate nearly in half, from 12.9% to 6.9%, when the Harvard Business School admit rate is around 9%. I’m wondering, Maria, when you were on campus, could you tell the law school students from the MBA students?

[00:13:32.100] – Maria

I couldn’t, but I don’t know that there was a whole lot of cross registration. I mean, I did take a business law class my second year, which was the hardest, most intensive class, I think one of the hardest classes offered at the school. And so I wouldn’t have had any law school students enrolled in that because why? I don’t know that I had a lot of cross registrants in general in most of my classes, but that could have just been because of the classes I took. So, no, if there weren’t any, I couldn’t tell. But I do think that I did. Well, there were a few where it was just the case method is just such a unique style of managing a classroom and discussing a topic that I do think that some of them you could sort of tell maybe sometimes that they weren’t quite sure what to do, and they would raise their hand and then talk for 20 minutes and you’re like, no, stop. But aside from that, you really couldn’t tell.

[00:14:22.790] – John

And there was a general belief, though, that as law school applications were really in the tank for quite a few years, they really dramatically dropped many schools, reduced their enrollments. There were some law schools that went out of business. There was a sense that had become more of the all purpose degree and that many people who would have gone to law school in past years decided to go to business school instead. And I think there’s a certain number of people who actually think about either one. And I wonder, Caroline, what advice you might have for people who know they want a graduate degree, they know they want a professional degree, and they’re deciding between a law school degree and a business school degree. What kind of advice would you give them?

[00:15:05.800] – Caroline

Well, I’m a little bit biased. I looked at becoming a lawyer at one stage and did some internships and found it frankly rather dull. So I personally have a preference for the curriculum that you get at business school rather than law school. I find it much more interesting and much broader. But having said that, law school is also a great foundation. It’s a well trodden path as well, especially in the US. It can open a lot of doors. If you get into a great school, that’s a fabulous credential to have. I think that some of this may be driven by people coming out of undergraduate and looking to get their post graduate degree straight away. Right. Because they’re going straight into law school, whereas with business school in vast majority of cases, you need to go off and get at least two or three years of work experience first. And I think there is a trend of students coming out of an undergrad and wanting to continue their education and secure their master’s degree straight away. We’re certainly seeing that in Europe with the growth of master’s degrees and people going straight into Masters from undergrad in much larger volumes than had been the case in the past.

[00:16:21.070] – Caroline

So I think that law school is benefiting from that, that they’re getting great applicants, wonderful undergrads who just want to get on with their education and get their graduate degree straight away and don’t want to have to wait another few years and also face the uncertainty of whether they will get into business school at later dates. They apply to law school, they get into a great school, then they’re gone. Right. They’re off the business school market earlier. And that’s also why the business schools launch the two plus two types of programs to compete with that and to try to secure some of those great students who would be considering going straight to graduate school after their undergrad. So giving them the option to secure their place at business school at the same time, at an earlier stage, at the same time that they would be securing a place at law school.

[00:17:18.010] – John

Looking at the Harvard Law School class profile that was just published, it’s pretty darn impressive. I mean, the class GPA is 3.92 versus the Harvard Business School GPA is 3.69. Lsat scores. We’re at a historic high 174, where we know the GMAT scores at Harvard remain the same. There are 19 Fulbright scholars in the law school class, just remarkably impressive group of people. And of course, they enroll a smaller class than the business school, a little over 500 students compared to the more than 1000 that were enrolled, which is the largest class ever in the history of the Harvard Business School this year. But do you think law school students are naturally smarter than business school students.

[00:18:14.210] – Caroline

Obviously, fantastic academic credentials.



[00:18:17.110] – Caroline

I think those are amazing statistics that you just reeled off about the qualifications of the class. But I don’t think that there’s necessarily any huge difference between someone who goes to business school versus someone who goes to law school. But perhaps the emphasis at that stage and admission is a little bit more on academics.

[00:18:40.780] – Maria


[00:18:41.100] – Caroline

Because when you’re being in business school, there’s much more weight on the work experience. So that is a huge part of why people get in. And fantastic academic credentials are not going to get you alone, are not going to get you into business school.

[00:19:00.040] – Maria

Very true.

[00:19:01.300] – John

And obviously more women. 54% of the Harvard Law School class is female, compared to 46% at the business school. 56% of the law school class. Incoming identify as people of color, foreign access of the roughly 27% of Harvard Business School, different kind of people are definitely attracted to law, even though they may never see the inside of a courtroom. Let’s face that, right. I mean, how many people from law school really become lawyers and state lawyers? Precious few, I think. Now, Maria, you also at one point considered law with business. What made the difference for you in choosing the NBA?

[00:19:46.230] – Maria

Well, I think to the point that you just made a few people have seen the inside of a courtroom. I spent the summer I thought I was going to do public interest law. And so after my freshman year of College, I spent a summer working for a domestic violence legal clinic where I was helping women file for protective orders. And I was going with them into the courtroom. And it was just the study of the law. I’m studying the law and seeing, okay, what are these women? How does the law work and what do you have to do to get something called an ex parquet order? And how does that work? But then the practice of it was so repetitive. I mean, it was just the same thing over and over again. And then the reality was that the police officers wouldn’t do what they were supposed to do. It was very discouraging. And so I enjoy studying law from an academic perspective, and it’s sort of a bunch of logic puzzles for me. But then the actual practice of it, I think, is a lot of arguing and yelling and putting a semicolon instead of a comma and making sure that all the terms are defined in, like, Appendix C, where there’s, like by constituent we mean, blah, blah, blah, blah.

[00:20:53.190] – Maria

And by revenue we mean. And it’s just like, oh, my God. So that was sort of off putting. I realized that it was just sort of every day was the same, was very similar. I’m surprised to see that. I think Caroline is on to something that I think there’s just been so much uncertainty in the past year and a half that I think a lot of people may be graduating from College just want some certainty of we’re not sure what’s going to happen with the pandemic. Let me just go straight to grad school. I do know that law school admissions are almost entirely based upon I believe there’s actually a formula, at least in the past when I looked into it, it’s actually like they literally take your GPA and your lSET score and run it through a formula. And that essentially tells you if you’re getting it or not. It has very little to do with your personal qualities, which I think would explain why there are so many sociopaths in Congress who went to law school. It checks out. So I think it’s not that the law school applicants are smarter. I think it’s just that the sort of if you are pre law, they basically tell you major in whatever the easiest thing is.

[00:21:58.190] – Maria

So that way you maximize your GPA and just study super hard for that LSAT, because not a whole lot else matters. But I’m surprised to see it because I feel like not only is the practice of law, I feel not as exciting, but I also feel like it’s very geographically limiting. Right. Like, if I want to move to Spain and if I studied law, I would have to have a very niche practice. You have to pass the bar exam in different States.

[00:22:24.750] – John

True. From one state to another without having to go through an exam to get to the bar. Right?

[00:22:32.550] – Maria

Exactly. And it’s not like an easy exam. It’s not like a walk in the park exam. I think maybe, Caroline’s, if I had to say why, I would go with Caroline’s hypothesis that it’s just people want certainty. And so let’s just park ourselves in law school for three years and see figure out our lives at that point.

[00:22:54.210] – John

That’s an expensive place to park. Very expensive. I mean, people complain about the cost of business school in an MBA over two or even a one year period. Imagine three years in law school. And yes, if you do hit the jackpot out of law school, particularly out of an elite school, you’re starting salaries 200,000. But nonetheless, if you’re smart enough and you get into a great consulting job or finance job, you’re close to 200. Over 200 anyway, with an MBA in two years. And there’s a lot more scholarship money at business schools than there is at law school, by far. So obviously, we’re all big advocates. And let’s just put that out there, okay?

[00:23:41.730] – Maria

Besides, there is no conflict of interest. There’s no crowd.

[00:23:49.210] – John

Does anybody love a lawyer? Come on.

[00:23:55.490] – Maria

What is it? Hate the sin, love the sinner. Lawyers are wonderful people, even if their jobs are not.

[00:24:02.960] – John

Okay, you must have some good friends or lawyers.

[00:24:07.610] – Maria

I do.

[00:24:08.870] – John

All right. But there you have it. Harvard Law is actually more competitive than Harvard Business School this past year, drawing more applicants with higher GPAs and lower admit rate, which is a surprise. It’s the first time in many years that has occurred, given the slump in lost call applications that was deep and far reaching for quite a few years. And then this coming competitive season for admissions, it will be as competitive as last year, given the increase in reapplicants and given what the early signs are, but we don’t expect it to be any more competitive and we see a stabilization in the market coming for this next admission season, which is right around the corner. All right, Maria, Caroline, thank you, as always, for your smart and thoughtful remarks. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. You’ve been listening to Business Casual.

How Competitive Will MBA Admissions Be In 2021-2022?
Maria |
September 7, 2021


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