6 MBA admissions trends during the pandemic

BY Jordan FriedmanApril 22, 2021, 03:27 pm
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY Group of students wearing reusable face masks while walking together on campus.

Before the pandemic, school was the farthest thing from Alexis Frank’s mind. But when COVID-19 hit the U.S. in the spring of 2020, the Los Angeles–based TV producer began reassessing her long-term career path.

After a recruiter from the Pepperdine University Graziadio School of Business reached out to Frank on LinkedIn, she decided it was the right time to take the next step and get an MBA. 

“I saw getting an MBA as a great way to advance my entrepreneurial skills and get a different perspective and business background that I was sort of missing,” says Frank, who enrolled in the part-time program at Graziadio for her second master’s degree. 

Students like Frank who applied to MBA programs during the 2019–20 admissions cycle did so at a time like no other. Schools readjusted admissions requirements, communicated with prospective students virtually, and increased flexibility for students throughout the process. Here’s a look at admissions trends from the onset of COVID-19 through the 2020–21 admissions cycle.

Overall, demand increased for MBA degrees

Applications surged in the pandemic’s early days

During the 2019–20 admissions cycle, 70% of U.S.-based MBA programs reported increases in applications from the previous cycle, according to survey data released by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), an association of leading graduate business schools worldwide. While specific application deadlines vary across schools, the 2019–20 admissions cycle lasted from fall 2019 through spring 2020, overlapping with the beginning of the pandemic.

Rahul Choudaha, GMAC’s director of industry insights and research communications, says the MBA application increases aren’t all too surprising because demand for graduate degrees, specifically from business schools, tends to rise amid periods of economic uncertainty. 

During these times, job candidates typically want to sharpen their skills and differentiate themselves from other applicants, Choudaha says, “so that they are career-ready when they emerge out of the recession or economic downturn.” Choudaha adds that this phenomenon mirrors the increase in MBA applications during the 2007–09 Great Recession.

Also contributing to the rise in applications? More flexibility for admitted students to push back their start dates, extended application deadlines, and additional rounds of admission at some schools—plus, GMAT and GRE test scores were waived at nearly half of MBA programs during the 2019–20 cycle, according to GMAC.

Across the board, the increased demand didn’t necessarily lead to stiffer competition in 2019–20, in part owing to the high number of accepted students who decided to defer entry to fall 2021. Some schools also increased class sizes during the pandemic, especially in online programs, Choudaha says. 

Lower acceptance rates expected for fall 2021

At leading business schools, acceptance rates will most likely drop for students starting in fall 2021, Choudaha says. This is due to a combination of factors, including spots being reserved for students who deferred enrollment last year and continued strong demand for MBAs.

One example of this high demand is demonstrated by the 55% increase in applications across all MBA programs at the Pepperdine University Graziadio School of Business during the 2020–21 admissions cycle compared with the previous year, says Arman Davtyan, assistant dean of enrollment management at Graziadio. 

As a result, the full-time MBA program—which is smaller and cohort-based—became more selective, Davtyan says. But selectivity for the online and part-time MBA programs at Graziadio essentially remained stable owing to fewer operational and logistical constraints.

Rising interest in online MBAs

In the 2019–20 admissions cycle, online programs rose in popularity among applicants. A higher share of online programs reported growth in applications compared with all other types of full-time and part-time offerings—and even business-focused master’s degree programs, GMAC data reveals. 

This isn’t surprising given worldwide travel restrictions and safety concerns. “People wanted to play it safe and at the same time not lose out on the opportunity to sharpen their career edge in times of economic uncertainty,” Choudaha says. 

Online MBAs have existed for a while now, but the mass adoption of virtual communication during COVID-19 led to a greater acceptance for distance learning, Choudaha says. And 60% of MBA programs offered an online start with a transition to in-person learning in the 2019–20 admissions cycle, according to GMAC.

International applicants are more hesitant about online degrees, the survey found, which led many to defer enrollment for a year.

“The online MBA model is not for everyone,” Choudaha says, especially those people who value the immersive experiences and face-to-face opportunities typically afforded by full-time MBAs.

Going test-optional: GMAT and GRE scores waived

With test centers closed and concerns surrounding at-home versions of the exams, 45% of MBA programs waived the GMAT and GRE test score requirements during the 2019–20 admissions cycle, according to GMAC survey data. 

Scott Edinburgh, an MBA admissions consultant and the founder and CEO of Personal MBA Coach, says this trend has persisted—and possibly even expanded to more schools—in the current admissions cycle.

Under these circumstances, applicants like Matt Allen, a software developer in the pharmaceutical industry, saw it as a good time to apply.

“If I didn’t have to take the test, that was one less barrier to entry for me,” says Allen, a resident of Pennsylvania who has applied to two online MBA programs. He says he circumvented the stresses—and costs—associated with preparing for the exams.

Schools will need to decide whether to re-implement test score requirements for the next admissions cycle or uphold test-optional policies moving forward.

Flexible admissions deadlines and deferral policies

Amid the chaos and uncertainty that many people experienced at the outset of the pandemic, MBA applicants struggled to gather academic transcripts and other materials they needed to submit to programs of interest, says Naz Erenguc, director of admissions at the University of Florida Warrington College of Business MBA program.

That resulted in some changes ever since. “On all fronts, programs are being more flexible on when candidates are supplying us with their application materials, of course within some reason,” Erenguc says.

For example, “schools are taking test scores later than their application deadlines,” something that was much less common in past years, Edinburgh says.

Meanwhile, 60% of MBA programs allowed students to defer entry for a year in the 2019–20 cycle owing to concerns about online learning and travel, GMAC data shows. Edinburgh says he has seen interest in deferrals drop for students starting in fall 2021 as COVID vaccines roll out in many countries this fall.

Virtual interviews, tours, and events

Nearly half of MBA programs conducted online interviews with applicants in 2019–20, according to GMAC. At Graziadio, prospective students can also sit in on classes and attend admissions events virtually, Davtyan says.

“New technology has emerged in a very short period of time to respond to this need,” Davtyan notes.

Frank says she virtually toured schools before applying. And she also virtually attended an online coffee talk, where she heard from recruiters, Graziadio alumni, and current MBA students about their experiences.

“You can connect and gain perspective on their experience and what drove them to take the program,” Frank says.

Expected resurgence of international students this fall

With so many international students choosing to defer enrollment from fall 2020 to fall 2021, students from overseas may come to the U.S. for MBA programs in particularly large numbers this fall “provided pandemic disruptions ease at a rapid pace,” Choudaha says. 

Along with the expected reopening of many MBA programs this fall, President Joe Biden’s election in November 2020 has reduced concerns among international students about certain immigration policies, Choudaha says. Results from a preelection GMAC poll of international students had found that Biden’s election would significantly increase the chances of their choosing to pursue an MBA in the U.S.

Taking the next step

The latest data from GMAC suggests that prospective student concerns about COVID-19’s impact on the application process are lessening. As we all remain hopeful that the pandemic will subside, leading to fewer disruptions in our lives, consider whether to apply for an MBA this fall based on your career goals and choose a program format that aligns with your personal and professional responsibilities.

While we move through what are hopefully the pandemic’s final days, there’s plenty of research you can do as a prospective student when it comes to MBA programs, Edinburgh says. This may entail connecting with current students to discuss their experience at the school, attending online information sessions, and going on virtual tours.

“My advice is not to underestimate the importance of reaching out and having these types of conversations,” Edinburgh says.