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Competitive MBA 2021

Joline Huntemann was looking forward to starting her MBA at Stern in the fall of 2020, a step she felt she was taking at the right time in order to advance her career. However, Huntemann, who lives in Colonge, Germany, decided to defer a year due to visa complications and restrictions brought on by the pandemic.  

Like many of her fellow incoming MBA students, Huntemann decided it was best for her to continue work for another year in order to return next year and get a more complete MBA experience.

Following a steep drop in full-time MBA applicants for the fifth year in a row, the trend has suddenly reversed in 2021 with experts suggesting this year could possibly be the most competitive year for full-time MBA programs. 

Pre-pandemic, interest to attend an expensive two-year graduate program had been on the decline, partly due to the rising cost, partly due to a decrease in visas issued to foreign students. 

By the time the Trump administration announced new visa restrictions for international students in early July, Huntemann said she wasn’t able to get a visa appointment in time to start school.

“Not being able to start my MBA in person or at least in the US was the biggest part of my decision for the deferral,” said Huntemann, who now works for Janssen-Cilag, a pharmaceutical subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. 

When COVID-19 became a global health crisis, business schools in the U.S. allowed record high deferrals, especially for the international students, and loosened the testing requirements. In addition, many MBA applicants are hoping to ride out the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, leading to a surge of applications for the fall.

Historically, Stern has seen an increase in applications when the economy slows down, said Lauren Calio, Director of MBA Admissions. 

“In times of slow down, when there is more job uncertainty and job loss, people take the opportunity to go back to school,” Calio added. 

Among 1,085 MBA programs, 67% reported more applications for the 2020 cycle, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s annual application trends survey. The rise is especially pronounced for full-time MBA programs where they have seen a 69% increase compared to 2019.

Generally in the past, a bad economy has typically driven more people to apply as the opportunity cost is lessened. The survey shows this year 65% of full-time MBA programs allowed admitted students a one-year deferral with a median deferral rate at 8% compared to 3% in 2019, making the application pool even more competitive. 

John Byrne, CEO and editor-in-chief at Poets and Quants, told the Oppy he also believes the current MBA admissions cycle will be “among the most competitive ever,” with many top-tier schools seeing their round one applications soar.  

“At UVA-Darden, for example, applications through its R1 deadline have soared by 30%. Stanford-GSB has also confirmed that it is seeing an increase in apps. But as you probably know, schools generally do not reveal application volume during the cycle itself,” Byrne added.

Although Harvard Business School announced its plans to expand its enrollment for year 2023 and 2024 to about 1000 students each in an effort to accommodate the expected surge in applicants, it is in the minority. Most schools decided on students’ requests to defer on a case-by-case basis.

However, Byrne urges interested applicants to not get discouraged as the “increased volume is largely offsetting several years of decline,” and as long as their statistics and backgrounds are similar to class averages at their target schools they should be qualified for admissions.

“And while applications will be up, remember that most candidates apply to a number of schools, usually four to six, yet obviously can only go to one,” Byrne told the Oppy, “So the increased volume doesn’t always mean the odds are completely aligned against you.”

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