Yield in MBA Admissions, Part Two: Why MBA Applicants Need to Care About Yield Management


Admission practices based on yield management influence the admission outcomes of all university candidates, and MBA program applicants need to understand this crucial concept. To explain the significance of yield management, this guide assumes that readers reviewed our previous report in this series. Here’s a summary of that article’s main points:

First, we introduced the concept of yield in university admissions as the proportion of students who accept a university’s admission offers. We showed how admission yield resembles agricultural yield and presented some alternative names for yield ratios.

Next, by juxtaposing 2017 data from Harvard Business School and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, we made inferences based on comparisons of the two schools’ yield rates. We then discussed the relationship of a school’s yield percentage with their selectivity and pointed out the inverse relationship between yield and acceptance rates.

Finally, we highlighted the yield ratio’s most frequent function as a barometer for a school’s attractiveness, brand appeal, the commitment of their applicants, and the resourcefulness of their admissions officers. We cited an example of how universities downplay—despite expert opinions to the contrary— the fact that yield considerations drive admissions decisions. We concluded by identifying stakeholders who exert pressure on admission officers to drive up yield rates. Such stakeholders include a university’s board of trustees, ranking authorities like U.S. News & World Report and even the bond market on Wall Street.

What is Yield Management and Why Should Applicants Care?

Universities devised practices initially to make them less reliant on financing when fewer students enrolled than yield forecasts predicted. These days universities practice these tactics continually, irrespective of budget considerations. They’re known as yield management.

For the purposes of this guide, yield management encompasses two main concepts: yield protection and demonstrated interest. Business school applicants need to understand these concepts because admission practices based on them affect the admission outcomes of all university candidates.

Yield Protection

No university wants to be considered a stellar applicant’s “safety” school. That’s because the likelihood is so great that the applicant will reject the university’s admission offer—which, in turn, damages the school’s yield ratio.

What might happen when a university expects that a spectacularly qualified applicant will accept an admission offer from a higher-ranked or more prestigious competing school? The university may decide not to accept them, but instead add that candidate to the school’s waitlist—if not rejecting them outright.

This admission practice is known as yield protection. Some also refer to this practice as “Tufts’ Syndrome,” because the practice was first speculated upon by applicants with outstanding credentials whom Tufts University, near Boston, nevertheless rejected.

Now we’ll examine three scenarios that illustrate how yield protection can drive a school’s interviewing and waitlisting strategies and rejections of outstanding candidates. To conclude, we summarize how applicants can exploit demonstrated interest tactics to boost their admission odds.

A Yield-Driven Interview Challenge

Admission consultants consider one interview question, in particular, to be not just difficult, but unfair because a candidate can never be certain how the school will use their response. It is included in our recent “Guide to Uncommon MBA Interview Questions” and our research shows a larger sample of experts ranked this topic more difficult than all other types of questions posed with the exception failures and personal weaknesses.

Here’s the question: “To which other schools have you applied?

“This is a tricky question! Anyone who is asking you to answer this question is putting you in a difficult situation,” says former Harvard Business School associate admissions director Chioma Isiadinso. “But the reality is that this question comes up from time to time in business school interviews.”

Ostensibly, the interviewer might merely wonder whether a candidate seems more ambitious than conservative in their choices of target schools. Or the interviewer might be attempting to discern whether the applicant merely decided to apply to the six highest-ranked schools—or instead chose targets in a way that demonstrates more thoughtfulness.

But the real reason for asking this question is usually that the interviewer’s school has significant yield concerns. “The interviewer wants to know more about who they are competing against should they offer you an admissions offer,” says Isiadinso. Asking that “warning shot” question implies that the interviewer’s school intends to preclude offering entry to candidates who—in the likely event they’re given a choice—will select another school.

Waitlists: Risk Management for Schools

Business schools maintain waitlists as “insurance policies” to protect them against actual yield percentages that turn out to be smaller than predicted. Other things equal, the lower the school’s yield percentage, the longer the waitlist the school needs to maintain. Moreover, according to Alfred University English Professor Allen Grove, “The more difficult it is for a college to predict yield, the bigger the waitlist and the more volatile the whole admissions process will be.”

Declined offers by waitlisted applicants over the summer (immediately before tuition deposit deadlines) pose special challenges for admission officers. The Harvard MBA founder of the affordable, interactive admissions support platform ApplicantLab, Maria Wich-Vila, suggests that such late-season declines damage the school’s yield percentage while time is running out for admissions officers to maximize that value for the current year.

Wich-Vila believes this effect largely explains why admissions offices play “waitlist games.” One such tactic involves calling to ask waitlisted candidates what their decision will be should the school offer them entry. During these calls, applicants who don’t express enthusiastic and unequivocal demonstrated interest—which we discuss below—may end up rejected by the school.

Why “WOW” Candidates Might Receive Rejections

Nobody raises eyebrows when Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business rejects a candidate with a 3.7 GPA, a 730 GMAT, and a terrific resumé that lists promotions at a business school feeder company. These “WOW” (walk on water) applicants frequently find themselves rejected by schools like Stanford, the Harvard Business School, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

But when a candidate this qualified receives a rejection from a school like Emory University’s Goizueta Business School—a “safety school” for some also applying to the HSW trifecta—people wonder, What happened?

Maybe the candidate blew the interview. Or maybe they filed their application late. Or perhaps one of their recommenders didn’t exactly write the wildly enthusiastic reference letter they had promised.

But what about cases where none of these explanations apply? Wich-Vila asserts that in these cases, it’s likely that a university such as Emory issued a rejection because the school believed the probability was too high that the candidate would damage their yield ratio by declining their offer. Emory’s admissions officers probably were convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that Harvard, Stanford or Wharton would offer that candidate entry.

Applicants and admissions consultants who believe that they are observing yield protection can never actually prove this practice caused an adverse outcome. But they can arrive at such a conclusion through inferential analysis that resembles a common medical practice: the “diagnosis of exclusion.”

When physicians rule out all other likely causes for an illness known for its exclusion diagnosis, doctors generally ascribe responsibility to the single possible cause which remains. Admissions consultants, who often have experience with hundreds of applicants over many years, can be astute at justifying a school’s decision to waitlist or reject a candidate. When consultants recognize no other likely explanation for an applicant’s adverse outcome, they tend to ascribe the reason to the school’s yield protection concerns.

Demonstrated Interest

Given the above three scenarios, why should MBA candidates care about a business school’s yield calculations?

Universities want to grant entry to applicants who will enroll, not those who will decline but accept an offer from a higher-ranked or more prestigious competitor. The pressure to admit students who will enroll means that universities always—and continually—want assurance that they’re a candidate’s first choice.

These facts apply to any academic division, including business schools. There are significant reasons why candidates need to care about yield rates while evaluating their strategy and tactics.

By drawing an analogy between marriage proposals and university admission offers, this entertaining ApplicantLab video which we cited in Part One of this guide explains that until a candidate receives an acceptance letter, they need to treat every business school to which they’re applying as their first choice.

How? By demonstrating their interest in attending each school through as many clear and convincing tactics as possible.

For example, universities know from experience that applicants who visit their campuses are more likely to enroll than the candidates who fail to do so. So are candidates who apply under an early decision program like the one offered by the Columbia Business School. Although the full range of methods by which a candidate might demonstrate interest falls beyond the scope of this guide, other examples include observing classes as a guest, as well as reading and responding to email messages from the school.

According to Grove:

Put another way, a college is more likely to accept you if you’ve put in a clear effort to get to know the school and if your application shows that you are eager to attend. When a college receives what is called a “stealth application”—one that just appears with no prior contact with the school—the admissions office knows that the stealth applicant is less likely to accept an offer of admission than the student who has requested information, attended a college visit day, and conducted an optional interview.

In other words, according to Wich-Vila, candidates will boost their chances of gaining entry by convincingly demonstrating, through as many ways as possible, their interest in enrolling. All other things equal, the most compelling applications will be those that leave no doubt in the minds of the admissions committee that the candidate plans to enroll.

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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