"Although test-taking volume spiked in 2011, [applications] themselves didn't. That would seem to imply that there is a potential boom out there in applications for the upcoming cycle," says Russell Schaffer, senior communications manager at Kaplan Test Prep in New York. An increase in applications in the 2013 cycle would spell more competition for students planning to apply to b-school next year.
Linda Abraham, founder and president of Accepted.com, a college and graduate school admissions consultancy, agrees that there might be a boom on the horizon for certain graduate business programs. But it's important to remember that the graduate business school application market is really a number of markets, she cautions.
Although online MBA programs, Asian business schools, and specialized master's programs are increasing in popularity, two-year MBA programs, typically the "gold-standard in graduate management education," are struggling, according to Abraham.
"For there to be a boom in two-year MBA enrollment, applicants need confidence that there will be a job awaiting them with a salary high enough to merit the risk of two years off work and a six-figure tuition bill," she says. "I'm not sensing that confidence yet. I think there will be more people applying to part-time and one-year alternatives, as well as the specialized master's programs that are typically done earlier in one's career. That's where the boom will continue."
[Learn more about one-year MBAs.]
Even if an application boom is likely to surface in 2013, Schaffer, of Kaplan, is hesitant to recommend that b-school applicants choose when to apply based solely on the volume of the competition.
"In terms of someone's particular strategy, whether or not an applicant is ready is always going to be far more important than how many people are applying that year," he says. "It's good for applicants to know the trends, because it will help them better understand their own competitiveness and what they may have to do extra to stand out."
Meanwhile, some experts, such as Betsy Massar of Master Admissions, a consultancy in Berkeley, Calif., question the likelihood of an increase in MBA applications in 2013.
"I think the biggest drivers will be the economy and financial industry opportunities," Massar says. "I cannot in my heart of hearts predict that those two will magically reverse themselves. Hence, no real boom."
[Read about deferred admissions, which can offer MBA students a safety net.]
Two business trends that Massar has observed are the growth of entrepreneurship—which she calls "startup fever"—and a decline in finance jobs with the tarnishing of Wall Street's glamour. "I don't see a huge turnaround [in MBA applications], especially as the price tag to attend, plus lost income and perhaps lost traction, take their toll," she says.
Robbie Wullschleger, a first year MBA student at Frostburg State University in Maryland, says that if applicants face a higher volume of competition in 2013, it would be a mixed bag. Although fewer competitors can mean better admissions chances, having to distinguish themselves in a larger pack can push applicants to excel even further, he says. Given a choice of the two, however, Wullschleger would opt for the thinner competition. "I can self-motivate," he says.
But even Schaffer, of Kaplan, admits that crystal-ball predictions can miss the mark. Since GMAT test scores are valid for five years, the gap between the numbers of test takers and applications could mean that b-school aspirants are holding back and waiting to see where the job market for MBAs is heading. If would-be applicants aren't inspired by the state of the market next year, there may not be a boom after all.
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