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Mba Madness Is Back

News: Analysis & Commentary: BUSINESS SCHOOLS


It was crunch time. On Apr. 10, a parade of overnight delivery trucks carted 700-odd last-minute applications to the MBA admissions office at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "We see FedEx here every day during the admissions season," says Samuel Lundquist, director of MBA admissions. "But on our deadline, we got three different FedEx deliveries alone."

It has been a great year for B-schools--and for the overnight delivery folks who serve them. Applications to BUSINESS WEEK's Top 20 business schools jumped a remarkable 19% this year, creating what likely will become the most competitive admissions year since the roaring '80s. The B-schools at Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Columbia all reported record numbers of applications. Wharton also hit an all-time high--6,137 people were vying for 750 seats.

Admissions officers welcome the surge, but say they are slightly mystified about why it's happening. Some speculate that with job placement for grads of major schools booming, potential students are more willing to leave stable jobs in pursuit of the golden passport. Consulting firms are hiring more MBAs than ever before, and mainstream companies have revived on-campus recruiting efforts. Some deans also believe business schools are picking up would-be law students discouraged by career prospects in the legal field. Indeed, law school applications are down 8.2% from 1994, according to the Law School Admissions Council.

COMFORTING WORDS. More than anything, though, the startling numbers appear to reflect a stratification among B-schools. Overall, the number of people taking the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) dropped 6% this year. Applications to BUSINESS WEEK's 20 second-tier schools, moreover, were up just 11%--still impressive, but well below higher-ranked rivals. The application rush at the top 20 could indicate a flight to perceived quality. "I sense that our applicants are saying: `If I'm going to go for it, then I'm going to go to the best school I can get into,"' says Ethan Hanabury, associate dean for admissions at Columbia Business School.

Whatever the explanation, many top schools are finding themselves forced to turn away candidates they would have admitted in past years. Stanford, which historically has turned down 10 of every 11 applicants, expects to reject 15 of every 16 this year. To soothe the disappointed, Stanford Dean A. Michael Spence expects to spend more time than usual on the phone comforting candidates who didn't get in. Try again next year, he might well advise, after the FedEx boom is over.By Lori Bongiorno in New York

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