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Applications Have Dipped at U.S. Business Schools. Will GMAT Score Averages Take a Dive?

By Ajay Amar, Ph.D., May 14 2019 07:14PM

In 2015, most U.S. business schools (57%) had happily received more applications – primarily for full-time MBA programs – than the year before, a growth trend that they had enjoyed since 2011. Then came 2016, and the trend reversed. By 2018, 70% of U.S. business schools were reporting application declines, and applications nationwide were down 6.6%.


I wondered: Was the pool of quality applicants drying up? Would the slump in applications slow or reverse the relentless rise of GMAT averages?



From the data, the answer is, clearly, “No, my friend. No.”

Above is a sample of popular U.S. business schools. Of the 24, only nine received more applications in 2018 than in 2015, but of those eight had application numbers slump in 2017. Only one – Tuck School at Dartmouth – had applications continue to rise. Only one – UCLA’s Anderson School of Management – managed to turn around the downward trend in 2018.


For some fortunate schools, applications were down a little, like MIT Sloan, which benefited from expanding its admissions cycle in 2016. For others, like Georgetown McDonough, which typically attracts a global mix of applicants, the overall decline in international applications to the U.S. had a negative impact; the school began setting up workshops to help students address visa and immigration issues. And for an unlucky few, applications went to historic lows, like Rice University’s Jones Business, which had to recover from Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath, and to a lesser extent UVA Darden, which had to deal with the aftershock of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.


Whatever the school’s situation, one thing stayed true: GMAT score averages remained pretty much the same, or went up.


A decline in applications did not depress GMAT score averages at U.S. business schools.


As the rush of applications coming into admissions offices slowed, presumably lowering the volume of high scores, you might think that admissions teams might lower the standards a bit. You’d be both right and wrong. Yes, some admissions teams did admit more applicants on a wide range of merits. But, no, for the GMAT, standards did not seem to slip (nor for the GPA, in case you were interested).


Reason 1: Supply. A large pool of applicants with 700+ scores is still available to Top 20 U.S. schools.


The U.S. application decline comes at a time when applications to Asian, Canadian, and European business schools are on an upswing. Nonetheless, U.S. business schools received a solid majority (69%) of all GMAT scores sent to schools, worldwide, in 2017 (the most recent year for which GMAC provides data). The U.S. still dominates the field of graduate business education.




Take a look at the GMAT score statistics in 2017, for example.

U.S. citizens took the most GMAT exams and received the most 700+ scores. U.S. citizens always send most of their GMAT scores (about 97%) to U.S. business schools.

• The second largest group of test-takers were Chinese citizens, earning the second highest number of 700+ scores. Chinese test-takers continue to send most of their GMAT scores (about 69%) to the U.S.

• The third largest group of test-takers were Indian citizens, earning the third highest number of 700+ scores. The U.S. attracted the highest percentage of India’s GMAT scores (49.1%).

• Collectively, the rest of the 700+ scores came out of a mixed group of countries. Of course, not all of their citizens are interested in applying in the U.S. For example, German citizens were most interested in German business schools, with the Netherlands and the U.S. following as distant seconds. However, it is worth mentioning that Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, and South Korea all have citizens taking GMAT exams with significant percentages scoring in the 700+ range, and those countries’ scores are primarily sent to the U.S.


In fact, of the 358,401 GMAT scores received by U.S. schools in 2017, more than 26% (94,839) were above 700. U.S. admissions committees still have a wide selection of applicants with great resumes and high GMAT scores.


Reason 2: Demand. High GMAT scores are still highly valued by admissions teams, because they’re valued by school leadership and alumni.


I previously wrote about why your high GMAT score continues to be a crucial component of your application (What’s Up with GMAT Scores). The score is not the only thing that admissions teams take into account, but it retains its importance because of rankings, rankings, rankings, and school pride.


In the opinion of my VP of Graduate Programs, Elaine Conces, when a business school is going through a transition at the top, the admissions team may tend to play it safe – that is not the time to slip down the rankings, which means that the GMAT score average cannot slide. As you can see from our list of 24 schools, in recent years more than half have installed or began seeking new dean.

When a new dean assumes the mantle of leadership, he or she doesn’t want alumni upset by lower rankings – and the admissions team knows it. When many admissions teams are trying to please many new deans, the ripple effect may be increased GMAT averages across all schools.


The 700+ GMAT scores are still in demand at U.S. business schools, and applicants are still delivering.


If you seek admission at a top business school, I recommend that you plan to deliver a good GMAT score as part of a stellar application. In my next blog post, I will explain “What Is a Good GMAT Score“ to help you better understand what schools expect. In the meantime, start studying!


Note: Harvard Business School has not published its average GMAT score for 2018, choosing to publish the median GMAT score, which is 730. In the past, HBS has released the average or the median, whichever one is higher; therefore I have surmised that this year’s mean GMAT score is 729 or lower.


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