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What to Look for in 2021 Based on Business School Trends in 2020

Emily Swenson
Emily Swenson
January 2, 2021
Spotting the 6 most notable trends for business schools from 2020, and what to look for in 2021, plus 3 ways to stand out on your applications!
Est. Reading Time: 9 minutes

For better or for worse, 2020 was a year that none of us will soon forget (as much as many of us would like to). The pandemic brought unique challenges to the education landscape, and MBA programs were no exception. Much of the value of business schools is the peer-to-peer learning and network building, making them particularly vulnerable during this time. Overall, 2020 changed opportunities for schools and students alike.

The 6 Biggest Trends for MBA Programs in 2020

Distance Learning

Obviously, the biggest shift in MBA programs was the move to distance learning. The pandemic forced most business schools to respond by replacing in-person classes with virtual ones using a wide array of platforms including Coursera, Zoom, and Canvas. Schools that had already invested significant time and resources to building their remote learning infrastructure and increasing online course offerings were able to adapt more easily to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. These schools experienced minimal disruption to their operations.

Decreased MBA Funding

Despite many efforts to adapt, some business schools were not as fortunate, and many of them saw a rise in admission deferrals until the 2021 school year, meaning less money brought in from tuition. This was piled on top of tuition decreases and demand for refunds on room & board. While the costs of moving online have hit the majority of business schools hard, implementing online technologies and systems will benefit these schools in the long-term and help them weather unforeseen circumstances in the future. (Business schools and students likely won’t know the full impact of these trends - cheaper tuition? schools closing? - until long after the pandemic has ended.)

More Flexible Applications

Other systems and processes also moved online as face-to-face interactions became increasingly unfeasible. The application process for many MBA programs became more flexible to accommodate candidates who had to deal with travel restrictions and closed testing centers. Application interviews moved fully online, extra application rounds were added, and deadlines were extended. Some business schools even waived GMAT and GRE test requirements or granted conditional admission. Test providers created at-home versions of exams so students could take the GMAT and GRE remotely.

Increase in the Number of Applicants

While deferrals rose, there was also a surge of applications to MBA programs. Though this may seem counterintuitive considering the difficulties business schools must overcome before returning to normal operations, the tough job market and the low interest rate on loans are motivating factors for people to invest in their future success. Graduating from a top MBA program has the potential to double your salary and many companies actively recruit and hire MBA talent even during a recession. However, increased MBA applications and deferrals also means fiercer competition for those considering applying to business school.

Increase in the Number of Admits

The question is: was there a corresponding uptick in business school acceptances? Overall the influx of MBA applications and the increased online learning capacity led schools to admit more students. Although not all schools increased their acceptance rate, admissions at the top U.S. business schools did increase by nearly 4% from 17.5% in 2019 to 21.2% in 2020.

Changes to Internships and Full-Time Positions

For those students who were already in MBA programs, the loss of in-person classes and interaction made for a predictably turbulent year. Students struggled to secure internships and full-time employment. Even students who received offers suddenly found their offers rescinded after the pandemic hit and scrambled to find a new opportunity. If the school network was strong or if some companies were still interviewing, they may have been lucky to secure an opportunity. However, some certainly missed out on internship opportunities that would make them stronger candidates for full-time interviews. Additionally, for those with internships, many worked remotely, meaning fewer (or perhaps simply different?) networking opportunities within the company.

What to Expect for MBA Programs in 2021

Deadline extensions and late round application cycles have reversed a three-year downward trend in business school applications. The rise in MBA applications doesn’t seem to be slowing down in the new year.

People who have been furloughed or laid off are increasingly applying to business school as they reconsider the path to achieving their career goals. At the same time, the uncertainty of when schools will return to on-campus operations and the number of accepted candidates who have deferred their admission will likely increase the 2021 cohort size across all the top business schools.

These upward trends mean that those considering applying for business school this year will face greater competition. Moreover, admitted students who deferred entry to 2021 will have seats reserved for them making it even harder for aspiring candidates.

Who Should (and Should NOT) Apply in 2021

Who should pursue an MBA in 2021?
It’s hard to know when in-person classes will fully resume, but for people who are looking for a more flexible schedule in their MBA program it could be a great time to apply. Interest rates continue to be low, making education loans cheap and remote learning means you don’t have to relocate (or change out of your pajamas).

If you do decide to apply, be prepared for a particularly competitive admissions cycle. However, a little extra prep work will help you stand out in the applicant pool. Starting now, you should try to engage with the schools you want to apply to, including virtual (for now) information sessions and tours. A high GMAT score is always an asset to your applications so dedicate more time to improving your GMAT exam score. You should also work on crafting your personal statement and telling a compelling story that will impress the admissions board.

Who should NOT pursue an MBA in 2021?
If a big part of your motivation for enrolling in a certain MBA program is to participate in a global exposure program, then 2021 might not be the year to realize your MBA dreams. In general, it might be a good idea to delay applying due to the lack of in-person opportunities for learning and networking. While you’re waiting for on-campus programming to resume, you should spend this time wisely. It’s a great time to take more practice tests, study vocabulary, and build professional relationships in your industry.

Three Ways to Stand Out on Your MBA Applications

The items in this list have always been things that will help you stand out, and now more than ever, it’s important to excel in these areas when possible. However, do not let these be barriers to taking the action of applying if you are putting forth a solid effort. Avoid self-elimination and allow the admissions committee to make the decision instead.

Communicate with Your Key Schools

Networking while in the MBA program is an invaluable skill, and there’s no better way to show a university that you’ll be able to do this once admitted than by showing them before you have been admitted. Though it may not be possible to visit universities in person as previously was the case, many schools will simply offer online learning opportunities so that you can get to know the program. Though it may feel uncomfortable, be prepared to put that microphone (and even camera!) on and build that recognition. Just be sure to do a test ahead of time to ensure you are set up the way you would like to be. Though emails are nice (and necessary), also pick up the phone and start to build rapport with those on the other end of the call. Showing a sincere interest in their program will help give them reasons to advocate for you if needed.

Write Compelling Essays

I recently heard someone say, “Everything in life is a sale.” While I personally don’t feel it’s entirely accurate, I do think there’s a kernel of truth in there, and applications are no exception. The essays for the application process act to show admissions committees that you have a viable game plan that an MBA would support, that you will be a strong enough candidate to secure a full-time position, and that you will be a good culture fit for the school.

Before writing your essays, spend some time reflecting on what differentiates you from your peers. It can be useful to collect feedback from managers, mentors, and colleagues in order to gain a bit of perspective on your unique qualities, strengths, and weaknesses (ideally, an MBA should strengthen those weaknesses). There are also a number of MBA essays floating around out there on the web from previous applicants that can provide a sense of what some applicants are doing. And of course, you can always use services like ours (shameless plug!) if you benefit from a guided approach to admissions!

Secure a Strong GMAT Score

This is a given! While a GMAT score may not guarantee your position at (or hold you back from!) a top school, it would certainly never hurt it. The reality is that while there are many qualified candidates out there, the numbers still play a role in the decision. I have worked with a number of students that have two mistaken attitudes about the test and admissions.

The first is what I call the “Harvard or Bust” attitude. In this case, the student goes into the application cycle targeting a 700+ score and refuses to settle for any other school than whatever their #1 target school is. This can be problematic for two reasons: 1. Not everyone can attain that score, and they end up with no school options if they don’t open up to other fantastic possibilities and 2. It can be extremely demoralizing if the student is trying to full-out sprint Olympic-style before they can walk. The second mistake attitude is that this test is basically the adult version of the ACT/SAT. It is not. Yes, it’s a standardized test, but while you may have been able to skate by on a bit of memorization and pattern-recognition, the GMAT will not allow for that. My suggestion is to spend time preparing for the test and give it a full effort. My go-to materials for preparation are the Manhattan Prep Guides, the Official Guide Set, the gmatclub forum, and the practice tests from the Official GMAT (2 free!). And of course you can equip yourself with a great tutor (again, shameless plug!) to help along the way.


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