Business Schools Expect Boom as Economy Sags

Applicants are anxious over increased competition, but admissions officers say the rules are the same.

MBA students outside the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
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Due in large part to volatile markets, the business school business has been very hectic lately, a climate that could—if conventional wisdom holds—create one of the most competitive admissions cycles in history.

Business school recruiting events are often standing-room only, and test prep companies are fielding dozens more phone calls a day from nervous prospects. The organization that administers the Graduate Management Admission Test, the business school admissions exam, reports that the number of tests taken worldwide the past two years has increased far faster than in previous years. Although some of the growth can be attributed to interest in business schools rising overall, the numbers speak for themselves. GMAT growth for August was 24.5 percent from 2006 to 2008, compared to 16.5 percent growth from 2004 to 2006.

At admissions offices, it's too early to tell for sure whether more test takers will create a newsworthy bump in the number of applications. But business schools traditionally benefit when the economy suffers. The 2001 dot-com bust created similar bouts of career panic. Dan McCleary, director of admissions for M.B.A. programs at Duke's Fuqua School of Business, is "cautiously optimistic" about a significant increase in applications.

What officials know for sure is that there is plenty of anxiety floating around. Test prep companies, often witness to the first wave of interest, have been fielding more phone calls from people who have lost their jobs or are worried about their industries. Scott Shrum, the top admissions consultant at Veritas Prep, says he's seen an influx of E-mail and phone calls from bankers this year, while 2007 was mostly the year of the former real estate agent. Most inquirers are looking for options; some are looking for an exit strategy.

Perhaps the most concerned parties are potential students who have been preparing their applications for months. Sara Neher, the director of M.B.A. admissions at Virginia's Darden School of Business, says that applicants with nontraditional backgrounds seem the most concerned, worried that they can't compete with banking and finance refugees.

On the flip side, executive M.B.A. programs will likely be less competitive than in years past. With financial futures in question, fewer companies are shelling out cash to further their employees' careers.

All of this, however, is speculation, and admissions officials can't say for sure if this year will be as cutthroat as some two-year M.B.A. prospects fear. But they have offered some advice to wannabe students:

If possible, apply early. Getting your application into the first or second round will give it a far better chance. But, Neher cautions, don't sacrifice quality for speed. It's still more important to submit the best application possible.

Whether an M.B.A. has been part of the grand scheme or your plans have been abruptly accelerated, "you don't want to appear like you're fleeing something," says McCleary. That means keeping Facebook and blogs free of despair (yes, they check them). "You just want to be really clear about why you want to get an M.B.A. and what you want to do for your career," McCleary says.

Admissions officials hope that applicants who've been crafting a profile for months don't change their plans on account of the economy and increased competition. If anything, their well-planned applications will stand out from the din. "If you're applying out of desperation," Shrum says, admissions officers "can just smell it."