At the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, a number of business schools around the world eased the application process and removed certain requirements. But now they are finding that many more people applied for their MBA programmes. In one case, applications increased by over 60% from last year.

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Is it now harder to get accepted in the upcoming admissions cycles? What does the sudden surge in applications mean for prospective MBA students?

Here is what we know so far and what information you should take into account when deciding where to apply.

Do not be misled by relaxed requirements

In the spring of 2020, a number of business schools were relaxing their application requirements – offering test waivers, for example, or allowing people to submit incomplete applications and send additional documents after the deadline. Even prestigious Executive MBA programmes for professionals with advanced leadership experience were giving applicants more flexibility so they could apply during this disrupted, challenging period.

At the same time, business schools worldwide have been adapting their format of instruction and, in many cases, switching to blended learning to respond to changing public health and safety conditions in their respective countries. This has led to some uncertainty, as schools could not predict how prospective students would react to the new modes of learning.

Neither of these developments has meant that getting in is any easier. This winter, many business schools are reporting unprecedented growth in application numbers. The possibility of doing part of their studies online has not deterred candidates, and more people are planning to start their MBA in this and the upcoming terms. This makes sense: in a disrupted world, the MBA continues to deliver predictably strong career outcomes for graduates.

MBA applications – the latest data

The rise in applications reported by international business schools is staggering. At the University of Oxford Saïd Business School (UK), applications are up 35% in 2020 compared with 2019, the Financial Times (FT) reports. Applications from international students, in particular, were increasing more sharply, according to the school. Columbia Business School (US) experienced an annual increase of 18.6% in its applicants. That means more than 1,000 additional MBA candidates, leading to a record total number of applications, Forbes announced.

Some schools are expanding their intake in order to accommodate the extra candidates. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania (US) received 21% more applications this year, or over 1,200 additional candidates. It admitted an incoming class that was 7% larger. Warwick Business School at the University of Warwick (UK) received an amazing 56% more applications compared to last year and expanded its intake by 15%. However, even as select business schools are admitting more candidates, they are still far from keeping up with the increase in applications.

And at least one school is bucking this trend: Imperial College Business School (UK) announced it was admitting fewer candidates this year, in spite of its 41% increase in applications. Imperial “believes that having fewer people will make it easier to retain the quality of classroom interaction should teaching have to be switched from face-to-face to online lessons,” according to the FT.

Other schools reporting an over 10% rise in applications in 2020 include the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US), the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University (US), and the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia (US). The highest rise in applications is at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University (US), where applications rose by an astounding 63%.

As the last two examples show, these increases are a trend not only at the most elite and prestigious schools, but also at quality mid-tier MBA programmes. Nor is the trend limited to the US and the UK. In continental Europe, too, INSEAD (France) received 57% more applications year-on-year.

Your next steps

The takeaway for candidates is clear. While there may be exceptions to the rule, MBA admissions indeed appear more competitive in this and the upcoming admissions cycles. During an economic downturn, more professionals are seeing the value of this prestigious MBA degree. Even those who may have delayed applying because of other career opportunities are sending in their applications now.

An MBA leads to a higher salary and stronger career development over time. It is a worthwhile investment, even if competition is stronger at the moment. Prospective students should do their research and carefully plan their options. A good policy when deciding on your application strategy is to “aim as high as you can reach”: identify your personal top schools and find out where you would be a strong candidate for scholarships.

In the current environment, speaking with school representatives directly can give you a leg up in admissions and provide insider information about the best schools for you. Attending online MBA events would be helpful as you decide on your next steps.

If you do your research, build connections with school representatives during events, and craft tailored applications for each school, you will be well on your way towards a valuable MBA degree.