Selectivity, Yield, and MBA Admissions Math

November 20, 2012 | by Matt Symonds

Beyond the headlines of the latest Bloomberg Businessweek MBA ranking, there is a tremendous amount of data for potential business school applicants to analyze. From class size, cost, and curriculum to community spirit and careers, the survey responses from more than 10,000 graduates provide invaluable perspectives on the search for the right MBA fit.

The Rankings History, with results that go back to the first Businessweek ranking in 1988, gives a sense of how consistently the world’s top business schools have performed over time, which I think speaks to the enduring quality of many programs, starting of course with Chicago’s fourth consecutive placement at No. 1.

But the other table that caught our eye shows the pickiest business schools on earth in 2012. The daunting number of applications for a place at Stanford Graduate School of Business, UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, or Harvard Business School might make you think that you’ve got a better chance of making your fortune at the roulette tables in Vegas than you have being admitted to their MBA programs. Harvard last year received 8,963 applications for a place in its MBA program of 919 students, while Stanford admitted only 7 percent of its applicant pool. You don’t have to be an analyst as McKinsey to crunch the numbers on the competitive nature of admission to a top business school.

It would be a shame, however, for these numbers to dissuade talented young professionals from thinking they had a chance of securing their own place. Discussions among the Fortuna Admissions team, who were themselves directors of admissions at the top B-schools, suggest that there is reason for optimism.

One of the first points they make is that an admissions committee is looking to build a diverse and balanced student mix, to ensure that classroom discussions are not dominated by a single train of thought from ex-Wall Street analysts or Bangalore software engineers. Though business schools don’t work with official quotas to achieve this diversity—whether based on nationality, gender, ethnicity, or academic or professional background—the biotech scientist from Denmark is unlikely to be competing directly for her place with the strategy consultant from Chicago.

Schools will not admit candidates who fall short academically, or will fail to make a meaningful contribution to the classroom, but don’t talk yourself out of applying because you have a nontraditional background, or you don’t work for one of the typical feeder companies to B-school such as McKinsey, Google, or JPMorgan. Use your difference or unique experience to your advantage.

In fact, applicants from consulting and investment banking firms, who apply in large numbers, as well as the Indian software engineers I mentioned earlier, arguably have to make a more compelling case in their application to show what makes them special among their peer group, beyond high GMAT scores and a solid professional background.

If we go back to the applicant numbers themselves, both Caroline from her time at INSEAD and Pete from his time at Haas confirm that their programs saw a fairly stable flow of high-quality candidates from one year to the next. The variability in volume, in their opinion, often comes from lower-quality candidates who are jumping into the applicant pool. So when there is a boom in applications, there is not necessarily an increase in the number of strong applications.

Judith also describes a “Hail Mary” phenomenon that she would see in Wharton’s final round of admissions, when candidates with only a small chance of success made a desperate “long pass” application. It didn’t work for the Patriots in the last Super Bowl, and it is unlikely to work at business school. So prepare well, and apply earlier if you can.

To finish this week’s post on a point of contention, here is my take on how competitive a place at a top business school really is.

If a business school with 500 places in its MBA program receives 5,000 applications, it can quickly eliminate around 20 percent of applicants who fail to make the grade, perhaps because of a subpar GMAT score, disappointing GPA, lack of significant work experience, or essays that provide only vague and generic responses to the questions about what they want to do post-MBA, and why this is the right school for them.

There are also plenty of re-applicants each year whose application is no better the second time around. This could be as much as 10 percent of the applicant pool.

So now we are down to 3,500 names in the hat.

If the school has a yield of 75 percent, it will have to admit at least 667 applicants, knowing it will lose some candidates to other schools, or to a startup that is too hot to refuse, or an improved job offer that means the applicant defers his or her place in the class.

And if I were running the admissions committee, I would want to meet at least twice as many candidates for interviews as the number I need to admit in order to fill my class. So I’d send out close to 1,350 invitations to interview, to applicants who I believed had the potential to thrive in my MBA program.

At this stage, assuming that you had all of the elements of an application that make you a viable candidate, your chances of securing an interview are better than 1 in 3.

Those from over-represented groups will have to work hard to stand out, and nontraditional candidates still need to make a coherent and compelling case. But with those sort of odds, I’d rather take a bet on myself than placing all my chips on red in Vegas.

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