Admissions 101: Don't Let the Numbers Fool You

With some popular outlets recently reporting that your odds of getting into a top-ranked MBA program have improved since last year, we want to revisit an idea that we wrote about more than a year ago. In a nutshell, whether application numbers are up or down barely affects your chances of admission.

Yes, most top-ranked business schools reported that their application numbers were down in the 2010-2011 admissions season when compared to the previous year. This certainly isn’t bad news if you hope to get into one of these MBA programs this year (assuming that the trend continues; this is a reasonable assumption, but not a trivial one), but the problem with all of this is that statistics are very useful in the aggregate, but using them to judge an individual case can lead to some off-base conclusions.

We’ll repeat some of what we wrote last year since it’s crucial that you understand where we come from. Here’s the crux of today’s “Admissions 101″ lesson:

You should stop worrying about how many applicants are trying to get into each of your your target schools, and start worrying about how many GREAT applicants are applying.

See where we’re coming from? Let’s say you apply to Fancy Business School (FBS), which takes 500 new students each year. Last year FBS received 6,000 applications and admitted 600 of them, for an acceptance rate of 10%. (100 of the lucky admits decided to instead matriculate at the Luxurious Graduate School of Business instead.) This year, the school will receive 7,500 applications and will still admit 600 of them (they expect yield will be the same), for an acceptance rate of 8%.

YIKES! FBS’s acceptance rate just went down by two percentage points (from 10% to 8%), and you therefore must be 20% less likely to get in! Well, what if we told you that those additional 1,500 applicants all had unremarkable work experience, GPAs under 3.0, and GMAT scores lower than 600? You’re a lot less worried about those additional competitors now, aren’t you? Now what if we told you that they all were rock stars in their jobs, they all earned 3.8+ GPAs at Ivy League schools, and not one of them has a GMAT score below 740? You’re pretty darn worried now, right?

Of course, you don’t know who those additional people are, just as, when application numbers decline, you don’t know who’s not applying but did apply a year ago. In this hypothetical case, your true competition comes from the portion of applicants who realistically have a fighting chance of getting into (and doing well at) Fancy Business School. In the case of FBS, we’ll estimate that it’s about a quarter to a third of the applicants (this is very consistent with what we hear from admissions officers)… Their job is hard not because they need to choose among the 7,500 people who apply to FBS, but rather because they must decide which of the approximately 2,000 great applicants they will admit.

If those 1,500 “new” applicants are all jokers, then the admissions committee’s job isn’t really that much harder. And if you’re strong enough to be one of the approximately 2,000 great applicants that the admissions committee is really considering, then you should be too spooked by those additional 1,500 applicants. Again, the total number of applicants, by itself, is almost meaningless if you don’t know anything about who those people are. Hearing that FBS’s acceptance rate dropped from 10% to 8% should not have any effect on the rational part of your mind. (We know, we know… Applying to business school is not always a fully rational process!)

The argument works the same way when the number of applicants drops: If FBS gets 500 fewer applicants this year, you’re happy to hear that. But if all 500 of those people wouldn’t have gotten in anyway — perhaps they were the classic “bad economy fence sitters” who applied on a lark, with miserable GMAT scores and laughable recommendations — then this isn’t exactly super news for you. It ain’t bad news, but it’s not much more exiting than hearing that your second-favorite hockey team just moved from fifth to fourth in the standings.

We’ll leave you with the final piece of advice, which is always true in any kind of weather: You can always help your chances the best by focusing on what you can do to make YOUR application terrific. Let let the rest just happen, because that’s all you can do.

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