Harvard MBA Business School

Is this a Good Time to Apply to Business School?

The short answer is, it depends.

If you're from China, every year that passes reduces your chances of being admitted to an elite American business school. That's because the MBA degree is booming in popularity in China and more students are applying. The number of annual of GMAT test takers tells the story:

China GMAT Tests
China 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Test Takers 23,550 30,264 40,069 58,196 53,005 57,783 62,691 70,744

*Note that the number of test takers jumped significantly in 2012 and then fell below the trend line in 2013. This doesn't reflect a spike in demand for the degree. It's a consequence of the fact that the GMAT changed in June of that year (adding the Integrated Reasoning section) and test takers wanted to sit for the exam in its traditional format.

As you can see, the number of test takers in China tripled over the last seven years, and that means being admitted from China has become more difficult. But just the opposite is true in the United States.

U.S. GMAT Tests
U.S. 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Test Takers 130,508 127,061 116,546 117,511 90,541 87,110 84,600 83,410

As you can see, while test taking tripled in China from 2009 to 2016, it fell by 36% in the U.S. That means it's now easier for an American to be admitted than it was eight years ago. There are simply fewer people to compete with.

What Happened?

The economy crashed.

MBA applications are a counter-cyclical phenomenon. When the economy is down, the number of applications is up. This makes sense because as young professionals lose their jobs in a recession, they're more likely to return to school for graduate degrees, which is precisely what happened in 2009 when the Collateralized Debt Obligations created by some Wall Street geniuses crashed and took the economy down with them. It made sense to get an MBA, and the number of students in my GMAT classes who were unemployed jumped from it's normal 5% to nearly 50%.

By contrast, when the economy is booming, young professionals see a way forward in their careers that doesn't necessarily involve more education. So they tend to remain in their jobs or to move up to the next level. That's why fewer people apply to business school during an economic upturn and why the number of Americans taking the GMAT exam has shrunk over the last eight years.

What Will Happen in the Future?

More of the same. Demand for the MBA degree will continue to grow in China, encouraging even more American business schools to establish partnerships there and making it harder for Chinese applicants to be admitted to American schools.

At the same time, as long as the American economy continues to expand, the number of Americans applying to business school should continue to fall, making it easier for Americans to be admitted.