The World’s Most Popular MBA Programs
Maria |
July 19, 2023

Discover the most popular MBA programs in the latest episode of Business Casual with the hosts delving deep into the data, exploring applicants, yield rates, and application-to-seat ratios to uncover the most popular schools. You already know Harvard Business School steals the show, but they also give a shout-out to other top picks like Stanford, MIT Sloan, Berkeley, Columbia, and Yale. The hosts emphasize the importance of yield rates, revealing the number of accepted applicants who actually enroll. They dive into what creates that special “halo effect” for certain schools and how factors like location and scholarship aid come into play. And of course, they will share an interesting discussion on the differences between Chicago Booth and Kellogg, with a special focus on Booth’s scholarship game plan.

Episode Transcript

[00:00:07.450] – John

Well, hello, everyone. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. Welcome to Business Casual, our weekly podcast with my co hosts Maria Wich Vila and Caroline Diarte Edwards. Caroline, of course, was the former admissions director at INSEAD and is a co founder of Fortuna Admissions, while Maria is the founder of Applicant Lab. We want to talk about the world’s most popular MBA programs. We did a little exercise here recently at Poets and Quants. We looked at the school’s candidates identify as their target choices for an MBA program in our Handicapping Your MBA odd series. And we looked at this back to 2005. And what’s interesting is obviously there were hundreds and hundreds of these episodes where we literally tried to calculate the odds of a candidate for a given school. And we tried to see which schools are most popular on the list, and we came up with a list of the most popular MBA programs in the world. You can Google that most popular MBA program is at Poets and Quants, and you’ll see but we also did something else. We indicated the number of applications to the seats available in a class, which also is another indication of popularity.

[00:01:34.370] – John

And then we also published the yield numbers for the schools. And yield for those who don’t know is the percentage of admitted applicants who actually enroll in a program, because obviously some people will be accepted into numerous programs and then choose to go with one over another or several, and that impacts the yield data. So number one on our list, and will surprise no one, is the Harvard Business School. Yet. What’s kind of interesting about Harvard is that in terms of applications per seat, it’s not near the top. In fact, Stanford is at the top at 14.5 applicants per classroom seat. MIT Sloan is next with 13.1, and Berkeley is up there at 12.9 applications per seat. And let’s see, Columbia even is slightly ahead of Harvard Business School nine per seat versus 8.9, which is kind of fascinating. And then also Yale, 9.3 applications per seat. Are these really the most popular business schools in the world? Maria, what do you think?

[00:02:47.990] – Maria

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think there’s a ton of different data that you can slice and dice, a ton of different ways that is going to show which schools are the most popular in the world, especially if you look at it from a high level perspective across total applicant numbers worldwide. I think definitely that’s a really great way to slice and dice it. I’ve always thought that of the easily currently publicly available data out there, I’ve always thought that yield is the if I could only choose one metric to follow, it would be yield, because that’s where put your money where your mouth is, okay? You’ve gotten into one or possibly multiple schools. So if you’ve gotten into more than one school, okay, now you have to take out the loan now you have to pay the deposit. Now you have to probably quit your job and move to a new city and do all of that heavy lifting that goes with enrolling in a school. So I’ve always thought that yield is the most promising metric to use, if I could only choose one. And so I don’t think it’s the only metric that one should follow. But I think it’s probably one of the better ones in terms of what’s out there today. So, yeah, I don’t see any huge surprises in the list. It’s all the usual suspects.

[00:03:56.240] – John

Yes, really. After. Harvard, Wharton, Stanford, it’s MIT, Columbia, Kellogg, Chicago, Booth, Yale, Duke, Berkeley, Virginia, Dartmouth, Michigan, London Business School. INSEAD, NYU, Stern, Cornell, UCLA, UT, Austin, McCombs, Georgetown, Oxford, Carnegie, Mellon, UNC Kenan Flagler. Cambridge and Emory. What do you make of this, Caroline?

[00:04:24.370] – Caroline

I think it’s a great list, John. I think it makes, in some ways, much more sense than many of the MBA rankings out there. I think it reflects the reality of the relative prestige of many of the schools and actually what applicants do think about the schools and where they would like to go. If you look at your list, you’ve got the M7 right there at the top right from one to seven. Not necessarily in the order that we would put them, but it’s a good list. And Stanford is there at number three, partly because of the small class size. And so with that small class size, I think some people select out of applying, perhaps, and therefore your handicapping index, it’s lower than Wharton and Harvard Business School. Of course, I would like to see some of the international schools higher up the list. That may also be a function of, to a certain extent, the audience that is at least in the handicapping index. But I definitely agree with Maria that yield is really an interesting metric and says a lot about, actually what candidates really think about a school and where they actually want to go.

[00:05:46.990] – Caroline

And it’s a metric that admissions officers care a huge amount about. Right. They put a lot of effort into yield.

[00:05:55.410] – John

What do you think INSEAD yield is, by the way?

[00:05:58.370] – Caroline

INSEAD has very high yield, I would think.

[00:06:02.050] – Maria


[00:06:02.520] – Caroline

I mean, it’s typically between about 70 and 80%. So having a high yield is a great position for a school to be in because it means that you are playing less of a guessing game about who is actually going to join the program from the candidates that you’ve admitted. And so it gives you much more power over how you craft your class. If you have a yield that is sort of 50% or lower, then I’ve never been in that situation in the admissions office. But I would imagine that that makes it much more difficult to make sure that you’re getting the kind of diversity representation of different backgrounds that you’re looking for and sort of craft that ideal mix because you have no control over who is going to accept and who’s going to turn down your offer. Although I’m sure they have a good sense sometimes of who is less likely to accept their offer and who is more likely. So they’re probably admitting candidates on the basis of an estimation of their chances of accepting as well. But I think that crafting the class gets much more complex for schools that are further down the list in the yield ranking.

[00:07:17.290] – Caroline

And therefore it’s something they care an awful lot about because the more they can do to push that up, the better they look because as we say right, it shows that the school is very desirable and it’s a wonderful metric to perform on from an external perspective. But also it just makes the lives of the admissions office that much easier if they can make sure that the people that they’re making offers to actually attend the program and they’re not having to sort of admit two or three times the number of people that they actually need, because then it gets difficult to craft the class. And also, I think it must get much more difficult to craft the class in terms of the size of the class and trying to figure out exactly who is accepting who is not going to come. And then you have to admit people from the waitlist. You have to keep people on the waitlist to manage the buffer. So it is a pretty complex equation for the admissions team to manage.

[00:08:17.170] – John

One thing you don’t get by looking at yield is how many of those people who decided to go to a given school were scholarship and how scholarship money was used to induce them to go to the school. And obviously, schools that have large amounts of unrestricted giving have a lot more leeway in luring candidates away from other schools that they’ve been accepted into and improving their yield rates. Maria, you were the first one to said yield is all that matters to you. It’s the single most important stat. What’s your take on the yield numbers in the table that we’ve published?

[00:08:57.530] – Maria

Yeah, I mean, they’re not know. So for those folks out there who might not know what yield is, maybe it would be useful if we define it super quickly. So the yield number is the percentage of people who actually enroll in a school after having been given an offer. So if a school offers 100 folks acceptances, if a school has an 85% yield, that means that 85 out of those 100 people chose that school versus another. And one of the things that I think is interesting about the top three schools in particular and their high yield numbers and also, I think INSEAD also with Caroline mentioning its high yield number is that I think it’s a really good sign of just how well respected these programs are. But also it’s interesting because I think when people start this process, when I look at, for example, Harvard has 85 and a half percent and Stanford’s at 80%, I think a lot of people lump those two schools together and they say, I’m applying to Harvard, Stanford. You sort of hear it in the same breath. They concatenate those two words together. It’s harvard, Stanford, HS.

[00:10:05.090] – Maria

And it’s interesting because when you look at the yield numbers, I think anecdotally sometimes you see people when you work in admissions consulting, you see people who are more Stanford than they are HBS-sy, and a lot of people will apply to both programs, but a lot of people will only get into one versus the other. And I do think that some of these programs do a really good job of assessing fit in a way that when people are first starting the process right, and they just lump the programs together, they might not realize some of these nuances. But it’s interesting that there is such a high yield for both Harvard and Stanford insofar as a lot of people tend to apply to both of them. However, it’s clear that when they accept people, they are accepting people who have more of whatever their unique DNA is.

[00:10:52.350] – John

Yes, really. Man it makes the admissions job so much easier when you have confidence that more than half of the people that you’re accepting will in fact come, makes the job a lot easier. What about the whole notion of applicant to seat ratio? As I mentioned earlier, Stanford’s at the top 14.5 applications for every available classroom seat. That’s really kind of a remarkable number. At Wharton, for example, it’s 7.1. At Harvard, it’s 8.9 schools like Chicago booth 6.9. It tells you a lot about the appeal of Stanford. And I will say that although Harvard usually tops the yield tables every year for a little while, Stanford actually got ahead of Harvard on yield, and Harvard came back this past year, in fact. But what about application to seat ratio? Is that an important number?

[00:11:57.430] – Caroline

Caroline well, it’s an eyewatering number for some of those calls, right. With 14 candidates for every seat, that’s pretty crazy. But that’s also, as you said, it’s a function, partly it stamps with the small class size. Right. And Maria made the point when we were chatting earlier that there is a lot of overlap in the applicant pool between these. So, you know, many candidates, as she said, will be applying to Harvard, they’ll be applying to Stanford. And so the fact that Stanford has a higher applicant to seat ratio is more a function of the class size, yet having a somewhat similar applicant pool as Harvard, which has Harvard, of course, having a much bigger class size. But those numbers are remarkable because many of the candidates applying, a vast majority are very well qualified. Right? They are very self selecting pools. Many people don’t apply if they think they haven’t got a chance of getting in. And so those schools are in an enviable position, right, because they are getting to cherry pick, really the best of the best.

[00:13:07.960] – John

And as we know, a lot of people obviously most people apply to a number of schools. So many times when you look at, like, a Kellogg or Chicago Booth or know those students are applying the Harvard, Stanford and Wharton MIT. And if they get into Harvard or Stanford, for sure, they’re more likely to go then, you know, naturally a Kellogg or Chicago may lose out to a Harvard or Stanford, but it’s only because that person’s first choice was Harvard or Stanford. And Kellogg or Chicago, looking at that candidate’s profile, sees a very valuable, ambitious, smart person that they would love to have as it’s there is that factor in here because these candidates are applying to numerous schools. So the applicant to seat ratio is affected by that in a meaningful way. But I agree with the two of you. I think this is a pretty darn good list of the schools that are the most popular, not necessarily the best, and not best for you as an individual candidate, because it could be that Emory Goizeta is better for you than Harvard Business School. In some cases, it’s really possible. Or Brigham Young, if you happen to be Mormon, the appeal of that school to Mormons is massive, which reflects that 86.8% yield rate for the Marriott School of Business at Brigham Young.

[00:14:45.450] – John

And it also is not a measurement of the schools that have the highest employment rates, the highest salaries, the most selective admission standards in terms of acceptance rate, or GMATs or Gres, this is simply and merely the most popular schools, which I think it is kind of a cool list to look at. I agree. I don’t see many aberrations here. I’m kind of surprised to see Cambridge and Oxford in the top 25, as opposed to Achesa, Paris, and IESC in Barcelona. But then again, Cambridge and Oxford are considered to be among the five world best universities. So the halo of that overall university does cast an incredible shadow over the MBA program, and that means a lot. Any final words on the data, Maria?

[00:15:46.850] – Maria

I think the usage of the term halo effect is really useful for a lot of these, right? So when you look at, for example, people who apply to Stanford do tend to not always, but they do tend to be very interested in careers in the Bay Area or careers in technology. And so I think HAAS benefits quite a bit. Berkeley, HAAS benefits quite a bit from sort of a geographic halo. And similarly, I think, you know, MIT might benefit more from being in Boston. And so people I started, I think sometimes what happens with people is they say, well, I’m interested in Harvard, so let me look into Harvard. Hey, Boston is actually a really great city. Hey, boston actually has a ton of amazing I should maybe I should prioritize trying to go to school in Boston. I’m not saying that’s obviously not what happens with everyone, but I think I feel like I’ve seen that kind of thought process evolve in that way. So I definitely think that there’s a halo effect. One thing that I liked seeing personally as someone who lives in Los Angeles, was how well UCLA Anderson did. One of my pet peeves with the US.

[00:16:47.330] – Maria

News and World Report rankings is how they essentially interchange USC and UCLA, which is an understandable conclusion to jump to if you’re not really living in the city and interacting with graduates of those two different programs. But I do feel that strongly that UCLA is a notably stronger program and attracts notably stronger students. And so I was happy to see that, and I was happy to see Duke Fuqua in the top ten. Their yield rate of almost 55% is, I think, a real testament to how well they select for culture. They do a really good job in their application. They have a pretty unique application, right. For folks who might not know they have one of their famous questions is, give us 25 random facts about you. And it’s a little bit quirky and a little bit different. But I love that question, and I think they attract a certain type of person with that question. And so then I think when they accept folks, I think that there’s a good cultural fit, which is in fact, reflected in a higher than expected yield.

[00:17:48.470] – John

Yes. And we should point out on the list, UCLA is 18th. USC is not in the top 25 at all. It is in the next group, but nowhere near UCLA in terms of popularity, which is telling given some of the latest rankings from US. News, which has placed USC above UCLA. And that’s a head scratcher for sure.

[00:18:13.550] – Maria


[00:18:16.430] – John

Caroline, any last words or thoughts?

[00:18:18.770] – Caroline

Yeah, well, as we’re talking about the halo effect and the benefits for some schools of being in a certain geography, I think that also applies to Oxford and Cambridge, because I think for some applicants and I see that, for example, for candidates from the US. They are more inclined to apply to Oxford and Cambridge because they know the school name and they feel comfortable being in the UK as another English speaking country versus perhaps applying to some of the other schools that you mentioned, john So Ashesay in Paris or ESA in Barcelona. They may feel a little bit more nervous about going to a country where they do not speak the language. And so I think that Oxford and Cambridge benefit from that draw for native English speakers around the world who are interested in studying in the UK. And of course, as you say, they are globally renowned institutions, so I am not so surprised that they’re on the top 25.

[00:19:16.690] – John

Very true.

[00:19:17.910] – Caroline

What do you guys make of the difference there between Chicago Booth and Kellogg? There’s quite a big gap there, isn’t there, in the yield?

[00:19:26.010] – John

Yeah, there is. I think it’s scholarship aid. I think Chicago Booth is so much more aggressive because years ago, they got the largest single gift ever given to a business school, $350,000,000. And that was unrestricted. And the 350 doesn’t even account for the dividend stream that came from the gift, which has brought that gift to a value over 550,000,000. And Chicago is literally buying students with that.

[00:19:54.000] – Caroline

Right, okay. Yeah. Because I was surprised to see that it would be so much more popular in terms of yield than Kellogg, but that would make sense.

[00:20:02.040] – John

Yeah. And yet Kellogg gets more applicants per seat than Chicago Booth.

[00:20:07.590] – Caroline

Interesting. Yes.

[00:20:10.690] – Maria

And I think Booth has been buying good applicants or good students, and I think that that’s helping to bump them up in the rankings. And so it’s become like this kind of positive upward cycle where higher they go in the rankings, the better people they attract. But I’ve seen people get into another top five or an M7, and then Booth just doubles the scholarship money and wow, things like that, where it’s been pretty stunning. Yeah. I was surprised to see that Kellogg’s yield is as low as it is also because I have seen, of all the top programs unofficially unscientifically, I’ve seen Kellogg play the most number of games with waitlists in terms of, like, they will call people up and be like, hey, you’re on the waitlist. Let’s chat with an admissions officer about you being on the waitlist. And then on that call, they’ll say something like, okay, if we give you the seat, will you take it? So basically, I have heard that they do this. I think all schools probably do this to some extent, but I’ve heard that Kellogg in particular does it. So I almost wonder in some ways if they use the waitlist in that way as a yield management tool.

[00:21:17.150] – Caroline

Yeah, it sounds like they probably do. They’re probably really struggling with that 38% there. That’s probably a massive target for them to get that up. And they’re probably, as you say, with people applying often to schools that are in geographic proximity. They’re probably losing out a lot to Booth.

[00:21:37.390] – John


[00:21:38.050] – Caroline

Even though they are quite different programs.

[00:21:41.330] – John

So check it out yourself. The world’s most popular MBA programs. Look it up at Poets and Quants. Really some fascinating data on all the top schools that clearly are among the most popular schools in the world. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. You’ve been listening to Business Casual, our weekly podcast.

The World’s Most Popular MBA Programs
Maria |
July 19, 2023


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