Three Encouraging Trends MBA Applicants Need to Understand

New trends in the MBA admissions landscape started to appear in late 2022 and early 2023, and any potential applicant who wants to boost their odds of winning entry at better MBA programs needs to know about these encouraging developments.

They include:

  • Admissions test waivers and other accommodations for laid-off employees
  • Less competition from fewer applicants at many of the top MBA programs during 2021 and 2022
  • New “light” admissions tests

Here’s a brief summary of these important developments.

1. Admissions Test Waivers and Other Accommodations for Laid-Off Employees

Several technology industry employers suddenly started laying off employees in 2022. Over 180,000 American tech workers lost their jobs last year, of which nearly 60,000 were dismissed after October 1. Those layoffs included about 11,000 employees dismissed on a single day by Facebook, and 5,000 let go from Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco following Elon Musk’s takeover.

Fortunately that November, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management waived its Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) or Graduate Record Examination (GRE) admissions testing requirement for tech employees who had just lost their jobs. The move kicked off a trend where most of the top 25 business schools and many of the top 50 quickly followed suit, meaning that laid-off tech employees could apply to these programs without taking an admissions test during the remainder of the 2022-2023 admissions cycle.

Besides test waivers, some of these schools like the Scheller College of Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta extended this cohort a broad range of other accommodations as well, such as:

  • Priority application web platforms
  • Application fee waivers
  • Access to specialized admissions counseling and career coaching
  • Extensions for filing deadlines
  • Applications for “designated fellowships” (full tuition scholarships)

As reported by Poets and Quants, many of the MBA programs offering accommodations like these to laid-off workers already have strong connections to Silicon Valley and the tech industry. More of the business schools known to have special admissions programs for furloughed tech employees include:

  • University of Virginia, Darden School of Management
  • MIT Sloan School of Management
  • Indiana University, Kelley School of Business
  • University of California at Berkeley, Haas School of Business
  • Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business
  • Duke University, Fuqua School of Business
  • Dartmouth College, Tuck School of Management
  • New York University, Stern School of Business
  • UCLA Anderson School of Management
  • Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management

Although tech layoffs have continued during 2023, it remains unclear whether the universities will extend these policies for employees dismissed during this year’s summer and fall seasons. However, as we’ll see in the following section, there’s a good reason why it’s in the schools’ best interests to do so.

2. Less Competition From Fewer Applicants at Many of the Top MBA Programs During 2021 and 2022

Applicants experienced far less competition when applying to highly-ranked programs during the 2021-2022 admissions cycle. In fact, applications plunged all over the top ten. Declines ranged from 13 percent at the number-one-ranked University of Chicago Booth School of Business to 25 percent at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

As a result, some of the acceptance rates climbed to unusual levels. Top-ranked Chicago, for example, accepted 30 percent of applicants. At Dartmouth’s #9 Tuck School, a third of applicants also won entry; at #25 Georgetown, half were accepted. During the 2022-2023 cycle, as applicant pools fell, the average acceptance rate at the top ten schools had climbed to nearly a quarter of applicants—as high as 22.2 percent. That’s up from 18.4 percent the previous year, a substantial 21 percent increase overall.

Experts predict only a slightly more competitive 2023-2024 admissions cycle because of applications from some of the laid-off tech professionals. This would mean that, on balance, the encouraging trends toward increased MBA admissions and reduced competition will probably continue.

3. Coming Soon: New “Light” Admissions Tests

The minority of MBA applicants still required to sit for admissions tests by elite business schools will experience much shorter examinations starting in 2023 than their predecessors in previous years. This is certainly an encouraging development for many applicants that could very well reduce their time, effort, and money spent on test preparation and tutoring.

For example, the revamped Graduate Management Admissions Test, rebranded as the “GMAT Focus Edition” and scheduled for launch at the end of 2023, will run about an hour shorter than its predecessor currently in use. That’s because the test’s administrator—the Graduate Management Admissions Council—deleted the entire Analytical Writing essay section along with roughly 23 verbal and quantitative questions.

GMAC also dropped the general Integrated Reasoning section in favor of a more focused section called Data Insights specifically designed to evaluate candidates’ data analysis, interpretation, and decision-making skills.

These are the biggest changes to the GMAT since GMAC fired Educational Testing Service and developed the exam’s current computer-adaptive format with help from Pearson in 1997. The “Light” GMAT is so different that its new scores—all tagged with the numeral “5” as a suffix—are not comparable to those from previous versions because GMAC says the new test measures different skills. Some schools have delayed accepting this new assessment; they include the Harvard Business School which says it will insist upon “Classic GMAT” testing through the remainder of 2023.

Not willing to lose business to its principal competitor, arch-rival Educational Testing Service quickly announced plans to cut its nearly four-hour-long Graduate Record Examination down to less than two hours starting this October. Nearly all business schools that still require admissions tests now accept the GRE for both their MBA and specialized master’s degree programs.

The New York Times pointed out that the GRE’s changes are “tacitly acknowledging the test’s declining importance in graduate school admissions,” and reflect a general decrease in standardized testing due to the current trend towards test-optional admissions. The trend developed partly because of university administrators’ concerns that the tests don’t accurately predict graduate school performance, and because they discourage qualified applicants from underrepresented groups when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated university affirmative action programs.

The changes by ETS were also intended to stem the tide of a trend labeled the “GRExit movement” by the scholarly journal Science back in 2019. That Science investigation disclosed that increasing numbers of graduate school departments had made the GRE optional or entirely dropped it from their admission requirements across several programs. But the Times reports that in many of the latest cases, like at Duke University, such moves extended or expanded test-optional policies launched during the pandemic.

The administrators of both tests have been facing steeply declining markets in recent years. For example, the number of GRE tests decreased from 541,750 in 2017 to 341,574 in 2021—a 37 percent drop. Similarly, worldwide the number of GMAT sales also fell from 250,000 annually to slightly more than 156,000, a 38 percent decline. However, the GMAT’s sales were off the most across America. During the same period in the United States, yearly GMAT sales plummeted a whopping 54 percent from 104,000 exams to less than only 48,000.

As we’ve pointed out in more than a dozen comprehensive BSchools guides and reports since early 2018, most prospective MBA applicants in the United States no longer take admissions tests like the GMAT or GRE. Increasing numbers of business schools have dropped such test requirements, and others have expanded their offers of test waivers for applicants with sufficient years of work experience, advanced degrees, or high undergraduate GPAs. These days the tests are predominantly taken by candidates applying to top schools like Harvard, those with insufficient qualifications for waivers, or those who believe they can earn a score high enough to win a scholarship.

In a May 2023 interview with U.S. News and World Report, the executive director for MBA enrollment management and recruiting at Wake Forest University’s School of Business in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Kevin Bender, shared some remarkable insider perspectives about current admissions trends.

Bender pointed out that applicants are increasingly “test-averse,” and the prevalence of the GRE and the growth of test-optional admissions are hard trends to ignore. He also mentioned that at Wake Forest, almost 50 percent of the class that entered in the fall of 2021 had earned test waivers, and if current trends continue, in the fall of 2024 about three-quarters of the entering class will earn waivers as well.

Bender explained that those proportions are comparable to those he’s seen from other MBA programs. Moreover, he said the elite schools have now begun awarding waivers at higher rates.

Bender then pointed out that only about 25 percent of applicants to Wake Forest will take an admissions test in the 2023-2024 season. Of that group, about 60 percent will submit GRE scores—which means that only about 10 percent of all applicants to his school will submit GMAT scores. In reference to the changes in the GMAT Focus Edition, he continued:

We live in a world where every applicant we see is requesting a waiver. Nobody wants to take either test. From our applicant population, I don’t know that saving time and making every question multiple choice will result in us seeing an increase in the number of applicants. . .What we’re seeing, and I think my peers at other schools would say the same, is more and more GRE scores coming in every year.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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