Applying to Grad School in a Pandemic

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Wednesday, November 18, 2020
By AACSB Staff
A recent GMAC survey shows that the uncertain economy may be giving a boost to business schools.

This article originally appeared on November 12, 2020, in BizEd Magazine.

Despite the pandemic, a majority of business schools have seen increases in the number of applications to their graduate programs, according to the 2020 Application Trends Survey conducted by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC). At the time the report was released in early November, 66 percent of MBA programs and 67 percent of business master’s programs had reported receiving higher numbers of applications compared to last year. The survey highlights shifts in enrollment trends across Asia Pacific, Canada, Europe, and the United States.

The survey showed that application growth is present in some form across nearly all geographies and program types—but so is the deferment rate, as students exhibit concern about travel, online learning, and the ability to secure visas. Overall, the deferment rate climbed from 2 percent in 2019 to 6 percent in 2020 and could impact the numbers of students who actually enroll.

Those deferment rates varied significantly across countries. In the United States, the yield rate—the percentage of accepted students who ultimately enrolled—remained flat at 60 percent, but other regions experienced declines. Both Canada and Europe saw a 5 percent drop, while Asia Pacific’s yield rate was down from 62 percent in 2019 to 51 percent in 2020. Some of the variance can be attributed to differences in how flexible programs were on their admissions policies. Only 35 percent of responding schools in Asia Pacific allowed candidates to defer entry, compared to 61 percent of responding schools in the U.S.


Other regional variances become clear in comparisons of data from schools that responded to surveys in both 2019 and 2020:

In Canada, the total number of applications increased by about 13 percent. Eighty-four percent of programs reported growth in applications from domestic candidates, and 79 percent experienced overall growth in the number of applications.

In Europe, 72 percent of responding schools experienced growth in applications received; the total rose by 24 percent. Eighty percent of the applications were from international candidates, far outpacing other regions and heavily skewed toward business master’s programs in subjects such as management and finance.

In the United States, applications went up by 21 percent, with the increase in the number of domestic applications outpacing that of international applications. Nearly 80 percent of full-time two-year MBA programs in the U.S. reported growth in domestic applications, and almost 67 percent saw overall growth. Higher-ranked schools were more likely to report a rise in applications, particularly from international candidates—but they also saw higher deferral rates for international applicants.

In Asia, the picture was not as rosy, with responding schools experiencing a 7 percent decline in applications. There were noticeable country-level differences among schools in this region—for instance, application rates were dampened in China by the early advent of COVID-19, while social unrest in Hong Kong affected application volume in that city. A national lockdown prompted by the pandemic also had an impact in India.

“This year is like none other when observing and analyzing trends associated with applications to business school,” says Sangeet Chowfla, president and CEO of GMAC. “While the environment has certainly been challenging for schools and candidates since the outset of COVID-19, one constant is the countercyclical nature of demand for an advanced business degree. The opportunity cost of leaving a job to pursue an MBA or business master’s degree lessens as economies begin to regress. As a result, we are now seeing more people thinking about b-school to grow or improve their career prospects.”

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