GMAC Reports 2011 M.B.A. Application Trends

A recent survey finds that applications have decreased for the majority of business schools.

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M.B.A. application volume historically trends countercyclical to economic conditions—rising in bad times and falling in good—but this year, the faltering global economy seems to have contributed to a slight slowdown in the number of people applying to business school, the Graduate Management Admission Council's (GMAC) annual Application Trends Survey has found.

About two thirds of two-year, full-time M.B.A. programs reported decreases in application volume, while the majority of part-time and executive programs said application levels had remained the same or rose in 2011 compared with 2010.

[See U.S. News's rankings of the top business schools.]

The Asia-Pacific region experienced the largest slump, with 78 percent of programs reporting a decline in growth. GMAC is quick to point out that the drop in numbers, which can be seen in full-time M.B.A. programs in every corner of the globe, may indicate the effects of a gradual economic recovery climate in which prospective students are loath to spend significant time out of the work force.

A recent piece in Bloomberg BusinessWeek echoes that notion, reporting that Harvard Business School's 2+2 Program, aimed at new college graduates, has received dozens of deferral requests from students who have decided to pursue a steady paycheck for the time being.

[Find ways to pay for business school.]

This dip in applicant volume hasn't affected acceptance rates, however. The majority of full-time M.B.A. programs reported an applicant base that is similarly or more qualified than last year, the survey reveals. Growth among strong candidates, as noted in recent GMAT exam data showing higher total score averages, could explain this phenomenon of improved quality in leaner times, says GMAC.

[Get tips for choosing between the GMAT and GRE.]

The steady interest in graduate management education by foreign applicants likely staunched the declines reported by two-year, full-time M.B.A. programs in the United States. According to the survey, 45 percent of the 2011 applicant pool came from outside the United States, while last year just 39 percent of b-school aspirants were international. Most of these foreign applicants come from India, with China a distant but growing second.

[See which b-schools have the most full-time international students.]

It's also worth noting that registration volume for GMAT testing has grown sharply over the last several months, says GMAC President and CEO Dave Wilson, which is one indication of student demand that might benefit schools as they head into the next admissions cycle.

"At the end of the day, you really can't time the market," writes Random Wok blogger Mark Wong, who soon starts the full-time M.B.A. program at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. "And while political dysfunction and looming economic recessions are fun to track, the honest truth is that these outside factors played very little into my decision to get an M.B.A. This year was the time for me to go to back to school based on my career progression."

Financial markets go up and down, and so does the demand for an M.B.A. degree. If it's down now, it will go up. I have seen the cycle several times in my career as an admissions consultant. I also believe that having the M.B.A. degree is an evergreen tool no matter what is going on in the economy. If times are tough, your network and job search resources are that much more valuable. In a hyper-competitive employment market, having an M.B.A. from a top school only helps to differentiate yourself from the crowd.