What is on the mind of prospective MBA students around the world? Why are they applying to business school? What factors influence their school selection? How do they really feel about the application components, such as standardized tests and video essays?
The Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC) set out to find the answers to these questions – and many more – as part of the 2016 MBA Applicant Survey released on June 15, 2016.
The annual survey, which was launched in 2009, covers each stage of the admissions process, ranging from tools applicants first use to research programs, as well as the reasons they select programs, to career and salary expectations.
“The survey pretty much sums up all factors I considered when deciding on the MBA program of my choice.” –2016 AIGAC Survey Applicant
Wide range of survey participants, representing 83 countries
More than 3,500 applicants completed this year’s survey, which was fielded between February 15 and May 2, 2016, in partnership with Constituent Research.
With a particular interest in the most immediate incoming class, AIGAC segmented the findings based on the 1,114 respondents who intend to enroll by January 2017. Of this population, the majority are male (65%) and 44% live in the U.S. Nearly 20% already hold a master’s degree.
High expectations with an eye on the bank account
Among the many survey findings, one main takeaway is that MBA applicants continue to be optimistic about their post-MBA employment and salary prospects, while also being mindful of costs and showing increasing interest in shorter full-time programs.
Nearly half of applicants (41%) who intend to apply by January 2017 expect a salary increase of more than 50% within 6 months after their graduation. The majority of applicants expressed interest in the traditional post-MBA career paths of Consulting, Finance/Accounting, and Technology.
Other key insights
The 2016 MBA Applicant Survey revealed the following additional key insights from respondents who intend to enroll by January 2017:
- Declining interest in two-year, full-time MBA programs, and a willingness to consider options perceived as more cost-effective
- Reputation and impact on career are the most important factors in school selection
- Reliance on multiple sources of support for the application process; friends (44%) admissions consultants (39%), and family members (30%) topped the list of resources used
- Standardized tests and essays are the most challenging application components
Respondents show increasing openness to programs other than traditional two-year MBAs
Interest in full-time, two-year MBA programs decreased from 89% in 2015 to 69% in 2016. Meanwhile, interest in full-time, less than two-year programs increased from 33% in 2015 to 40% in 2016. Slightly more than a quarter of applicants (26%) considered part-time MBA or executive MBA programs in 2016.
Affordability is a significant factor in school selection but reputation matters most
Cost appears to loom larger in applicants’ minds than it did in the first AIGAC MBA Applicant Survey in 2009. Nearly a quarter (21%) of 2016 MBA applicants indicated that they modified their list of target schools during the application process based on cost and access to financial aid, and 41% of 2016 respondents indicated that their initial choice of schools was partly influenced by affordability. By comparison, financial aid and program costs were ranked the least important factors in 2009.
Still, reputation (ranking) of the MBA program (74%), followed by impact on career (48%), city/geographic location (46%), and school culture (38%) are the most influential factors in specific school selection, although 30% of the respondents considered net cost (program cost/availability of scholarships) when evaluating specific schools.
Role of admissions consultants in expanding school choices
More than a third of applicants (32%) indicated that their admission consultant encouraged them to earn a higher GMAT score before applying. Meanwhile, 29% of respondents said their admissions consultant encouraged them to apply to a school that they had not previously considered, and 27% of applicants said their consultant encouraged them to apply to more schools than they had originally planned.
Standardized tests and essays are still considered harder than video essays and group exercises
The majority of respondents (61%) named standardized tests as the most challenging application component, followed by written essays (46%), and interviews (20%). Only 19% of applicants indicated that recorded video responses and group exercises were especially challenging. Nearly half of applicants (49%) claimed that the video essay represented them “well” or “extremely well,” although survey comments revealed concerns by some applicants regarding technical difficulties in remote overseas locations.
Survey respondents continued to overwhelmingly favor the GMAT vs GRE
The GMAT remains the test of choice, with 89% of applicants reporting that they submitted a GMAT score and only 7% of applicants noting that they submitted a GRE score in 2016. Survey participants indicated that they took the GRE primarily because they were applying to multiple types of graduate programs or because they had already taken the GRE before applying to business school. Nearly a quarter of respondents, however, said it was because they had struggled with the GMAT.
Ten schools ranked highest in getting to know applicants well
Applicants acknowledged the schools that made an effort to get to know them well. They include, in order:
1. Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College
2. IE Business School
3. Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University
4. Fuqua School of Business, Duke University
5. Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University
6. The University of Chicago Booth School of Business
7. IESE Business School, The University of Navarra
8. Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University
9. Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto
10. Saïd Business School, University of Oxford
10. McCombs School of Business, The University of Texas at Austin
Providing a Voice to Applicant Needs and Aspirations
The survey findings provide admissions officers with the opportunity to hear from applicants who may not otherwise share their feedback about the admissions process directly with the schools. Moreover, the survey data add to the collective insight on an industry-wide level so schools can learn how applicants to other schools are responding.
We are pleased that past survey findings have had a tangible impact and helped to enhance the application process for prospective students and schools alike. For example, the 2013 edition of the survey highlighted the pressure that many applicants face from their recommenders, encouraging them to write their own recommendations. The analysis and ensuing discussion was a large reason why many prominent business schools started to move toward more standardized recommendations.
In order to continue to build a strong pipeline of the best applicants, we encourage schools to consider the following recommendations based on this year’s findings.
- Given the increasing level of cost-consciousness among MBA applicants, it would be beneficial if all graduate business schools fully disclosed the net cost of MBA program attendance as well as the amount of financial aid available to students and the timing when it will be dispensed. Leveling the playing field in terms of the disclosure of such information would be very helpful in facilitating the school selection process among MBA applicants.
- As graduate business schools continue to experiment with and incorporate new technology into the MBA application process, such as video essays, applicants can provide valuable suggestions for improving and fine-tuning the use of such technology through the constructive feedback that they provide in AIGAC’s MBA Applicant Survey (e.g., some survey respondents commented that they felt that there should have been more preparation and response time for the video essays).
- Many international MBA applicants apply to American graduate business schools with the dream of working in the United States following graduation. It can be frustrating and disappointing when they aren’t able to secure the job (and place) of their dreams because of visa limitations. Additional communication to manage expectations regarding the likelihood of post-graduation employment in the United States would be beneficial for all concerned.
- Furthermore, many international students run into additional challenges following an internship when their hiring manager wishes to hire – and retain them – for a period longer than they are eligible to work in the United States under current regulations. Again, clearer communications on the front end (i.e., during the application process) will establish a better experience throughout their educational journey.
Founded in 2006, the non-profit Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC) exists to define ethical standards for graduate admissions consultants, contribute to their professional development, educate the public about the admissions consulting industry, and strengthen relationships with related service providers (e.g., test prep) and business schools. AIGAC is the standard-bearer for best practices and excellence in advising graduate school applicants around the world.
AIGAC is committed to helping applicants educate themselves about their options and optimize their candidacy as they make high-stakes decisions and investments in their higher education. Members of AIGAC include former admissions officers from top universities, graduates of leading programs, widely-read authors, and subject-matter experts who are frequently quoted in the international media including the Bloomberg Businessweek, Financial Times, Forbes, Poets & Quants, and The Wall Street Journal.