MBA Applications Spiked in 2020—What’s That Mean for 2021?

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A pandemic and the prospect of having to complete at least a portion of coursework online did not discourage MBA applications for fall 2020 entry, according to the findings of the Graduate Management Admission Council’s (GMAC) annual Application Trends Survey. Among the total responding sample of 1,085 graduate business school programs, 67 percent report that they received more applications for 2020 entry than they did in 2019.

Among full-time MBA programs specifically, 69 percent report increased volumes, including 35 percent of programs that report applications were “up significantly” (up 21% or more vs. 2019).

By program world region, 74 percent of US full-time programs were up, and 42 percent were up significantly, and 72 percent of European full-time programs were up and 31 percent were up significantly. Most Asia-Pacific programs were up (53%), but only 11 significantly.

MBA application spike typical of past economic slowdowns

The 2020 jump in MBA applications shows that the countercyclicality of business school admissions holds firm even in the face of a pandemic. You see, historical trends in application volumes show that a strong economy typically has a depressing effect on demand for graduate business school programs, and periods of economic recession typically increase demand because the opportunity cost is reduced.

“This year is like none other when observing and analyzing trends associated with applications to business school,” said Sangeet Chowfla, President and CEO at GMAC. “While the environment has certainly been challenging for schools and candidates since the outset of COVID-19, one constant is the countercyclical nature of demand for an advanced business degree. The opportunity cost of leaving a job to pursue an MBA or business master’s lessens as economies begin to regress, as a result we are now seeing more people thinking about b-school to grow or improve their career prospects.”

Many admitted applicants took advantage of programs’ option to defer amid COVID-19

A notable quirk to the findings of this year’s survey is the significant increase in admitted students who opted to defer to next year’s incoming class amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The survey findings show that 65 percent of responding full-time MBA programs allowed admitted students to defer entry to next year. As a result, the median deferral rate of programs was 8 percent, and the 75th percentile was 15 percent. Compare that to 2019, when the median deferral rate was 3 percent, and the 75th percentile was 6 percent.

As noted in the survey report, deferral rates were much higher for international students, who faced perhaps the greatest level of uncertainty amid the pandemic. Across program types, the median deferral rate for international students was 15 percent, compared to 5 percent for domestic students.

Implications for the current admissions cycle

What does all this mean for prospective students who are applying for a seat in next year’s incoming class? According to some experts, it could make for a particularly competitive year.

Because a higher than typical rate of admitted students deferred entry to 2021, more seats will be reserved for these students, leading to a double whammy of fewer seats available and a high volume of applicants trying for those seats amid an economy that’s continuing to falter amid the global pandemic.

Read more: COVID-19, the Next Admissions Cycle, and Why You Should Think About Applying Now

How to stand out in a competitive applicant pool

While you should expect a challenging admissions cycle, its nothing a little extra prep can’t make up for. Here are three tips to keep in mind.

Engage with your target schools early and often. Yes, schools take notice when you actively engage with them. While in-person events are on hold in the current environment, MBA programs have adapted to holding virtual information sessions and attending virtual MBA Tour Events. Not sure how to approach a virtual event? Read our top eight tips to make an impression at a virtual event. Just because you’re not in person doesn’t mean you can’t make a positive impression and help your case for admission.

Put thought into crafting your MBA story. Oftentimes, the difference between who gets in and who doesn’t in competitive MBA applicant pools is who does a better job of telling their story and making their case for admission. During particularly competitive cycles, setting yourself apart is even more crucial. Read our tips for telling your MBA story.

Earn your best GMAT exam score. An elite GMAT exam score can help you stand out in the admissions process and demonstrate your ability to succeed in MBA classrooms. Read our advice for how to improve your GMAT exam score and check out these five ways to tailor your GMAT prep.

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