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Data & Trends

Application Trends Survey 2003 Results Quantify the Change from Last Year

It’s the time of year we yearn for an answer to the eternal, existential question, “Am I alone?” Yes, it’s time to see if the volume of applications to b-school programs increased, decreased, or stayed the same in 2002–03, compared with last year.

GMAC has published summary results of the Application Trends Survey 2003 online and distributed more detailed reports to the schools that participated in the survey (the survey results are excerpted below). The information should help explain why some programs may not have reached all their admissions goals this year and why it may be helpful to monitor economic and demographic trends and worldwide political and health issues when setting next year’s goals.

Between May and June 2003, the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), in cooperation with the Executive MBA Council, surveyed 289 MBA programs from 147 schools on the number of applicants seeking enrollment in the 2003–04 school year. In the survey, GMAC asked respondents to compare the number of applications they received in 2002–03 with the number they received in 2001–02.

Here’s what the programs said about their application volume:

Of the 117 full-time programs responding to the survey—

  • 35% reported an increase in the number of applications
  • 12% reported no change
  • 53% reported a decrease

Of the 94 part-time programs responding to the survey—

  • 34% reported an increase in the number of applications
  • 21% reported no change
  • 45% reported a decrease

Of the 78 executive MBA programs responding to the survey—

  • 36% reported an increase in the number of applications
  • 13% reported no change
  • 51% reported a decrease

Making Sense of the Stats

At first blush, 53% of full-time programs reporting a decrease in applications sounds like evidence of a decline in interest in graduate management education. But placing these statistics in context is imperative. First, the application volume for 2001–02 was atypically high. If the 2002–03 application volume is compared with the volume in 2000–01 instead, the percentage of full-time programs reporting a decrease is 41% and the percentage of full-time programs reporting an increase is 50%.

Changes in the Economy

Changes in the economy are frequently credited for both increases and decreases in the number of applications schools receive. As a first response to a weak economy, it seems many prospective students believed that going back to school was preferable to job hunting, accounting for the high 2001–02 volume. But as the weak economy persisted, household income decreased, and unemployment rates increased, prospective students were less willing and able to make the investment to attend business school. Giving up a steady income may have seemed too risky. Further, some companies have responded to economic pressures by cutting back on their sponsorship of employees seeking an MBA.

In the past year, prospective students also saw that earning an MBA does not guarantee employment. According to the GMAC Corporate Recruiters Survey 2002–03, 59% of the recruiters who believe the economy is weak said that, as a result, their recruiting plans are constrained. Prospective students might not know, however, that MBAs were the only group recruiters said would increase in number within the typical company’s overall hiring mix in 2003.

Worldwide Political and Health Issues

Weak world economies, geopolitical instability, the aftermath of 9/11, the war in Iraq, and SARS have had an impact on the number of applications U.S. business programs have received from international (non-U.S.) students. Visa and travel limitations top the list of barriers. Also, international students have seen that finding employment in the United States after graduation can be extremely tough. In the Corporate Recruiters Survey 2002–03, 54% of employers said there is such a thing as an ideal MBA student population from which to recruit; within that 54%, the average employer said the ideal mix was 91% citizens or people authorized to work in the employer’s country and 9% noncitizens and those unauthorized to work in the employer’s country. That’s a clear message that graduates may not find jobs outside their countries of citizenship.

Fewer 25- to 34-Year-Olds in the Overall U.S. Population

Separate from the political and economic concerns of the day is the simple fact that there are fewer 25- to 34-year-olds in the United States than in previous years, and this is the age range that typically supplies the most graduate business school students. The U.S. Department of Education projects that the trend in overall U.S. graduate enrollment by students in this age bracket will be negative to flat from 1999 to 2004 and start to increase in 2005. The population within this age group has also been declining in Western Europe and is expected to continue to decline through 2010.

Women, International Applicants, and U.S. Underrepresented Minorities

The Application Trends Survey also analyzes the overall application trends in applications submitted by women, international applicants (those who hold citizenship outside the country of the school surveyed), and U.S. minorities who are underrepresented in b-school in relation to their representation in the U.S. population. About a quarter (26%) of the full-time programs surveyed reported an increase in the number of applications from women, whereas 42% reported a decrease. About half (51%) of full-time programs reported a decrease in the number of international applicants.

GMAC asked survey respondents from U.S. schools whether they conducted special outreach activities to recruit U.S. underrepresented minorities. Twenty-nine percent of schools overall made no special outreach efforts during the 2002–03 application cycle. Of the three types of MBA programs (full-time, part-time, and executive MBA), full-time programs conducted the most outreach (48% of programs reported some kind of U.S. minority outreach). (For more information on trends concerning female, international, and U.S. underrepresented minority applicants, see Application Trends Survey 2003 at

Participate in Next Year’s Survey

For schools that participate in the Application Trends Survey, GMAC provides a report via email that provides information not presented in the report published on, including application trends analyzed by school size and type, school geographic regions, and school competitiveness. Participants are also given information about trends in the volume of applications submitted by those straight out of undergraduate programs and the relative volume of admits from this applicant segment.

According to a 2002 GMAC customer needs assessment study, participants of Application Trends Survey have used the survey report to better understand the market and benchmark against other schools, develop strategies, share results, evaluate internal goals, and justify resources.

To get more information or to sign up for the survey, contact Rachel Edgington, manager, applied research, by phone (1-703-749-0131) or email (

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