Graduate Management News
Data & Trends

New Information About Application Decision Cycle Can Aid Recruitment Efforts (Results of the Registrants Survey)

Did you know that nearly half the people considering graduate business school take two years or more to make the decision to pursue a degree?

That’s a long time to think about going to business school, but thanks to results of a recent GMAC survey of 10,000 people who signed up on—the Registrants Survey—we now know not only how long prospects and applicants take to progress through the business school pipeline but also how schools can recruit them effectively at each stage by using the right messages at the right time.

Moving through the B-School Pipeline: Three Decision Stages

Typical business school applicants progress through a three-phase decision process, during which they seek answers to questions that will help them move on to the next phase. At each stage, the prospective applicant (prospect) may also decide to drop out of the process, particularly if they cannot find satisfactory answers to their questions and concerns about going back to school for a business degree.

The stages are shown below, along with the questions prospects typically seek to answer in each phase and the time they typically spend in that phase.








Stage 1: Thinking about Business School
During the first stage in the decision process, prospects research the MBA in general, to determine whether the degree is right for them. They may use such online resources as MBA-related websites, business publication websites, or school websites for information. They may also get information from print publications, such as MBA guidebooks, and personal sources, such as people they know from the workplace and friends and family who have gone to business school.

Prospects first wrestle with the larger questions about affordability and lifestyle changes. Can I do it? Am I ready? Can I afford it? They may then move on to questions about their own qualifications (Can I get in?) and how applicable and worthwhile the degree will be for them (Is it right for someone in my field? Will it help me change/advance my career? Will it pay off?)

Even though prospects may not contact schools directly during this first phase of the decision process, schools can still influence prospects by using their own websites and sources of general information about the MBA (e.g., guidebooks, magazines, print and Web advertisements) to deliver messages that address the prospects’ concerns and give them compelling reasons to pursue the degree.

Stage 2: Deciding to Apply
This phase is shorter than the first decision phase, taking an average of 10 months. During the “deciding to apply” stage, prospects—

Prospects in this stage of the decision-making process take very different paths to the point of completing an application. Some take the GMAT® first. Others apply first, then take the GMAT. Still others sign up on, then take the GMAT, then apply (about half the survey audience took this traditional route).

Prospects are much more open to recruiting by schools before they sit for the GMAT exam. We know from previous research that the list of schools to which GMAT test takers send their scores usually includes the school at which they will enroll, so schools should make every effort to make contact with prospects in time to get on that list.

How to do that? In this decision stage, prospects are deciding what school attributes are important to them and trying to compare different programs to find the ones that seem to be the best fit. Tell them what school and program attributes they should be looking for, and attract them with messages about the unique identity and offerings of your school. Specific information about concentrations, cost, curriculum, faculty, and program type, for example, can help prospects evaluate what your school has to offer, compare it with others, and narrow the list of schools they are considering.

Stage 3: Deciding to Enroll
At this stage, prospects are firmly within the school’s sphere of influence, evaluating specific information and offers from program(s) to which they have applied. The Registrants Survey results concentrate on the stages leading up to prospects’ final decision about where to enroll. For information on how prospects make enrollment decisions, see the School Selection results of the Global MBA Graduate Survey at

Helping Prospects Make the Decision to Apply

Analysis of the survey results tell us generally that people who apply to business school believe they have the background and experience to be admitted, believe that a graduate management degree is what they need to achieve their career goals, are able to finance a degree or feel they will reap a return on their investment, and are willing to make the personal sacrifices necessary to earn a degree. They are confident, realistic, game for a challenge, and convinced of the long-term value of the MBA with regard to career mobility and monetary gain. These characteristics are true for both men and women, with a few exceptions.

Although some of the characteristics listed above are personal qualities, some are traits that can be engendered by good communication on the part of schools. Positive messages about the value of an MBA, the life-changing challenges and growth opportunities it offers, and the unique experience of the MBA learning community can motivate a prospect to make the personal and financial investment necessary to earn the degree. Clear messages about admissions requirements can give prospects the information they need to decide to apply now or prepare to apply in the next application cycle.

There are some common barriers that can keep prospects from applying. Schools can use their awareness of these barriers to improve the effectiveness of recruiting efforts.

Financial Pressures. Financial strain, real or perceived, is a major barrier to pursuing graduate management education, and women and some U.S. underrepresented minorities are particularly vulnerable. Receiving information about financial resources and affordability early in the decision process is particularly important for these groups.

Women, blacks/African Americans, and Hispanic Americans are most likely to report previous debt from school. Women are also more likely to work in nonprofit and government, which pay less than finance and consulting, the fields most popular with men. Women are also more likely than men to say they will finance their graduate degrees with loans, whereas men are more likely to depend on personal savings.

Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans are significantly more likely than other U.S. subroups to say they plan to finance their graduate management degrees with loans. Blacks/African Americans are more likely than other U.S. subgroups to say they plan to finance their business school degree with grants, the most unreliable source of financing. Other GMAC surveys have shown that the amount of financial support offered by a school is important in influencing blacks/African Americans’ decisions about where to enroll.

Messages about affordable programs, scholarships, and financing options should be readily available to prospects in every decision stage, but this information may be particularly important for female and minority prospects early in the decision process, to keep them from dropping out of the business school pipeline.

The survey results also show, however, that messages about flexibility and affordability should not take the place of messages about academic rigor, personal challenge, and professional growth. People who are serious about the MBA want the challenge, regardless of their financial concerns. They don’t want a school to dilute the intensity of the MBA experience in the name of convenience or cost. Quality and high standards should always be part of a school’s messaging, regardless of the stage at which a message is meant to reach prospects. Previous GMAC studies have shown that school quality is important in students’ choice of a school at which to enroll.

Reaching Prospects through the Right Means

School professionals should keep in mind the complex decision process that prospects undertake while they decide whether to apply to a graduate management program. Schools should make every effort to reach prospects with messages that address the questions they want answered at each stage.

The following are suggestions for reaching prospects through the right methods, with the right messages.

School websites. In addition to offering information about school and program quality and specifics, schools should make sure that their websites address the issues some prospects see as barriers to admission by clearly stating admissions requirements and offering detailed information about financial aid assistance, scholarships, and special programs for working students and students with families.

Other School Sources of Information. Once a desirable prospect enters a school’s sphere of influence (i.e., sends GMAT scores to the school or requests an application), schools should follow up immediately with school materials and personal interactions, inviting prospects to interview with a school representative or alumnus, attend an information session, visit the campus, and talk to current students and alumni informally (possibly through an electronic bulletin board, discussion board, or chat room hosted by the school).

MBA Pathfinder School Search Database. Schools should make sure that information about their programs is displayed in the MBA Pathfinder school search database on (see for more information). MBA Pathfinder is a searchable database that enables prospects to find schools that fit their exact requirements.

Applicant Finder. The survey results indicate that the Applicant Finder names product ( may be an especially useful tool for reaching prospects. Applicant Finder allows schools to search for prospects signed up on who meet the school’s desired criteria. The prospects whose names and contact information are included in Applicant Finder have said they want schools to contact them, meaning these prospects are potentially more open to recruiting than prospects identified through other means.

GMASS. Schools that wish to target prospects who have taken the GMAT exam should use the GMASS service (, which provides names and contact information of test takers who meet criteria a school user defines.

Who Are the Registrants?

The Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) surveyed people who registered on the website between September 1, 2002, and September 1, 2003. The website is targeted primarily to those who are interested in applying for an MBA and contains information on the GMAT exam, choosing schools and program types, application strategies, and MBA careers.

Roughly half the 10,000 respondents were citizens of the United States and half were citizens of other countries, providing the best international mix of any GMAC survey to date.

For More Information

GMAC will continue to provide information from the Registrants Survey in Graduate Management News and on its institutional website,, at

To learn more about this and other GMAC surveys, or for information on participating in the GMAC research program, contact Rachel Edgington at or 1-703-749-0131.

Global MBA®, GMAC™, GMASS™, GMAT™, Graduate Management Admission Council™, and MBA Pathfinder™ are registered trademarks of the Graduate Management Admission Council™. All rights reserved.
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