MBA News: MBA Applications–Blip or Drought?

Last week, Bloomberg Businessweek published two articles on declining MBA application volumes, going so far as to call the current application environment a “drought.” In its first article (“Columbia, NYU MBA Applications Plummet”), Bloomberg Businessweek noted that Columbia Business School (CBS) and New York University’s Stern School of Business (NYU Stern) saw declines in the number of applications last year of 19% and 12%, respectively, from the previous year. Meanwhile, the number of applicants to Harvard Business School (HBS) declined by 2% and to Wharton by less than 1%. In a separate article (“At Top Business Schools, an MBA Application Drought”), Bloomberg Businessweek revealed that the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and the Yale School of Management (SOM) saw drops of 3.5% and 9.5%, respectively. So, is this truly a drought, or is this just a blip—and what does it all mean for you?

Let’s start by taking a look at some incomplete numbers (some schools do not release data on application volumes) for a few schools mentioned in the articles:


























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2009 *




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2008 *




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* Data unavailable; all data taken from school Web sites and cited Bloomberg Businessweek articles.


Drought or Blip?

If we were to declare this past application season a drought, then we would have to be able to conclusively say that many schools had significantly fewer applicants than expected based on previous years’ numbers. While NYU and CBS did experience double-digit drops in application volumes, HBS has basically been flat throughout the past five years. If one were to exclude 2010, when HBS saw a significant surge in application volume, HBS has been remarkably consistent and is actually up from its pre-financial bust application total of 8,661. Meanwhile, Wharton has seen a steady decline over the past four years, but with a 1% drop this year, the school is hardly experiencing a drought—it is just off the highs that came when many financially focused applicants found themselves dislocated in the economy. As for Chicago Booth and the Yale SOM, because these schools have not always released data, defining a trend for either one is difficult. However, the year-to-year drops in application volume are likely not keeping admissions officers awake at night at Chicago Booth in particular. A 3.5% change (about 150 applications) is not all that compelling when the school sees 4,000 applicants per year.

What Does This Mean for You?

The prospect of fewer applications being submitted to these schools may initially make you uneasy—you may worry that the crowd is wiser than you and begin to think, “Maybe now is not the right time to go back to school!” From an admissions perspective, now is actually a great time to apply, because getting into top schools is becoming less difficult as application volumes drop. While some schools are shrinking class sizes (as Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business did, according to Bloomberg Businessweek), top programs will still fill their classes—only they will do so with fewer applicants in the pool.

Definitively predicting where application volumes will go this year is impossible, but we expect that with no major changes in the economy on the horizon, application volumes will probably stay flat or see mild—low single-digit—declines at most top schools. So, if you feel that the economy will be stronger when you will be graduating in approximately three years, you might consider applying now—when getting into business school is easier—and then graduating when landing a job will be easier. We will leave the economic prognostication to you.

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