The 5 things you need to know about MBA admissions in 2023

BY Sydney LakeDecember 27, 2022, 3:53 PM
Henry R. Kravis Hall at the Columbia Business School campus in New York, as seen in September 2022. (Photographer: Amir Hamja—Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Following a spike early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, applications to MBA programs fell 6.5% in 2022, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council. There are many factors at play, but the global trend can partially be attributed to a return to a more stable market and a desire to stay in the job market following the height of the pandemic, the GMAC study shows.

MBA applications may have declined in 2022, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that business schools are getting less competitive, admissions experts agree. Top 25 programs will still ultimately have their pick of the best applicants, Devi Vallabhaneni, a managing director with mbaMission, an MBA admissions consultancy, tells Fortune. 

“Schools where supply is greater than demand—often those in the middle tier of the rankings—will have to work much harder to convert prospective candidates to applicants and admits and ultimately to matriculants,” says Vallabhaneni, who earned her MBA from No. 1-ranked Harvard Business School and served on its admissions board as an interviewer. “Schools will want to lock in great applicants through scholarships, strategic use of waitlists to hedge yield metrics, and other incentives.”

Candy Lee LaBalle, who runs MBA admissions consulting firm LaBalle Admissions, also advises MBA applicants not to pay too much attention to the drop in applications to business schools. 

“Getting into a top MBA program is always competitive,” she tells Fortune. “An applicant must always assume they are up against the most amazing people in the world, and put their absolute best application forward.”

After speaking with several MBA admissions experts, Fortune put together a list of 5 things to know when applying to business schools in 2023. This can be useful for class of 2025 applicants who have a few more months to work on their applications, as well as those people who are looking to apply to the class of 2026.

  1. Start your application early
  2. Resume, test scores, and GPA still matter
  3. Pay attention to diversity measures
  4. Apply to schools that are a good fit
  5. Business schools want to see how you’re a leader

1. Start your application early

Round 2 deadlines for class of 2025 applications are coming up in January 2023, though there is still time to apply in the 2022-2023 admissions cycle. However, many admissions experts agree it’s important to start to think about your application profile early. For those people looking to apply during the 2023-2024 admissions cycle for a spot in a class of 2026 class, now is the time to do so. 

“Start the application process as early as possible,” LaBalle says. “Earlier than you think.” 

Round 1 applications for the class of 2026 will be due in September 2023, so LaBalle suggests applicants start their applications in January. Applicants sometimes fall into the trap of not applying early enough to business school because they haven’t achieved the GMAT score they’re aiming toward. This can cause intense stress as application deadlines approach.

“Waiting too late to start your application adds the stress of tight timelines to an already very stressful process,” she adds. “It makes you rush applications, you might not get to apply at enough schools, your recommenders may not have enough time to be truly thoughtful in their letters.”

2. Resume, test scores, and GPA still matter

Several top business schools in 2022 announced they’d grant application fee waivers—and even testing waivers—for applicants who are tech workers that have been affected by the mass layoffs. Such provisions can be helpful to some applicants looking to quickly submit a business school application, test scores as well as more quantitative factors like work experience and GPA still matter to business schools.

“While schools are going to be test-optional for things like tech layoffs—and that’s really great—the school still needs to be able to differentiate to give out scholarships,” Nicole Gwanzura, CEO and founder of Education Advancement Consulting, tells Fortune. 

Now is a good time to take an introspective look at what you’ve done in your career and what your college transcript looks like, she adds. If you need to improve a score from a quant-based class like statistics or calculus to better your chances of getting into business school, the sooner the better to take a new course to replace that score and prepare yourself for business school, she adds.

Many MBA applicants also underestimate the importance of a “comprehensive, yet easy-to-understand resume,” Vallabhaneni says. The resume acts as a cross-reference for recommendation letters, puts experiences from your essays into context, and serves as a conversation starter for interviews, she adds.

“Often, a resume is written in a voice and structure that only your colleagues can understand. That’s a limited way of putting together a resume,” she says. “Your family and friends who are in completely different fields should be able to pick up your resume and instantly understand the breadth and depth of your jobs.”

3. Pay attention to diversity measures

In the wake of racial reckonings during the pandemic, some business schools said they would start taking diversity measures more seriously. When you’re looking at schools to apply to, it’s important to question the progress and what the school is doing to take the issue of diversity more seriously, Gwanzura says. It should look like more than a token representation by students and faculty alike, she adds.

“If they say they care about it, they should be looking to hire staff. I’ve been in environments where the only people of color I saw were in the janitorial staff and front desk,” she says. “That tells you something. Why aren’t there more in higher-ranking roles?”

In turn, some business schools have included questions intended to make applicants reflect on diversity, equity, and inclusion measures. For example, Columbia Business School asks applicants to reflect on why its focus on an inclusive leadership environment is a good fit for them. The University of Washington (Foster) asks applicants to share ways they’ve practiced inclusion, promoted equity, or supported the advancement of underrepresented groups; and the University of Virginia (Darden) asks applicants to describe a “tangible example” of promoting an inclusive environment and what they’d bring to Darden’s community.

“It’s two-sided,” Gwanzura says. “The school needs to represent, but you also need to be able to explain how you’ll contribute to that community.”

4. Apply to schools that are a good fit

The so-called M7 business schools and top 20 MBA programs get a lot of the attention and hype from applicants, but there are plenty of programs that could be a better fit for you. Use class profiles as a starting place when figuring out the schools to apply to, Gwanzura suggests, but also look at proximity, career outcomes, and cost of attendance.

You’ll want to take a look at where you fall in the school’s range of average test scores, GPAs, and years of work experience. Even if a school provides test waivers, Gwanzura suggests giving the test a try because your score could ultimately strengthen your profile. Plus, no one knows how long test waivers will last.

“While trends may change and things may evolve, going to a school that’s going to be a good fit for you—at the end of the day—is going to give you the greatest outcome,” she says.

5. Business schools want to see how you’re a leader

Business schools have always looked for leadership qualities in applicants, but now they’re evaluating how you served as a leader during a major global crisis. Applicants should reflect on how they exerted leadership during the pandemic, whether they took on additional responsibilities, how they helped their community, how their job, company or industry changed, and whether their career goals changed as a result of the pandemic, Vallabhaneni says.

“Applicants who demonstrated success, upward progression, and impact on people and projects despite COVID will naturally stand out in the applicant pool,” she adds. This means applicants must show how they’re “maxing out their lives” before applying to MBA programs, she says, which could include involvement in personal extracurricular, taking on additional roles at work, and community service work.

When asked what admissions committees at top business schools are looking for in candidates this year, LaBalle said: “I would assume what they always look for, strong data points: GPA, test scores, professional and personal accomplishments, leadership potential, intellect, community commitment. And personal traits of humility, generosity, empathy. An awareness of diversity, an open mind.”

Check out all of Fortune’rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.