Over the past year, 9,759 incredibly qualified and successful young professionals applied for fall of 2016 entry into Harvard Business School’s full-time MBA program. Only 11% were accepted. And they had it easy compared to high school students trying to attend four elite undergraduate business programs. Data collected through the ranking of Poets&Quants’ Best Undergraduate Business Programs revealed four schools on the list had acceptance rates lower than 11%.
No other undergraduate business program was tougher to gain acceptance to than Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. Technically housed in the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the school admitted 132 out of an applicant pool of 1,858, for a clip of 7%. Up next was the University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business with an admittance rate of 8.22%. UC-Berkeley was followed by Pennsylvania’s Wharton School at 9%, the Washington University in St. Louis Olin Business School at 10.3%, and NYU’s Stern School at 12%.
Another eight schools had acceptance rates lower than 20%. Out of the 50 schools to be ranked this year, 38 had acceptance rates lower than 50%, with two right at 50%. In other words, for 80% of the ranked schools, the odds of getting an invitation to attend the school is not in an applicant’s favor.
THE DIFFERENCE IN DIRECT ADMIT, FOUR-YEAR AND TRANSFER
“The appeal of the undergraduate degree in business has never been higher,” says Dan Bauer, the CEO of AdvanceAdmissions, an undergraduate admissions consultancy and The MBA Exchange, a Chicago-based admissions consultancy that helps MBA applicants as well as freshmen and sophomores transfer into undergraduate business schools. “The stature, appeal, and quality of undergrad business programs continues to grow and therefore, the competition for getting into the highest ranked, most prestigious, most selective schools continues to grow.”
Of course, entry into a top undergraduate business school is often convoluted, a circumstance that mainly stems from the extreme differences in admissions processes for individual schools. At the Dyson School, it’s fairly straight forward. Some 1,858 high school students applied and 132 were accepted this year.
It’s not as easy at many other schools, especially some of the two-year programs. UC-Berkeley’s Haas School is the most telling example. During the 2016 application cycle, 17% of the university’s applicants were accepted to UC-Berkeley. But students wanting to study at Haas have to apply again to Haas during their sophomore year. For entry into the Haas School this past fall, 713 UC-Berkeley students applied and only 263 were offered admission, or, about 36.9%. So, if 17% of high school applicants are accepted into UC-Berkeley and then about 37% of those are accepted into Haas two years later, technically the acceptance rate for a high school student going through the UC-Berkeley system is 6.27% — less than Dyson. But Haas also accepted 107 outside transfers out of an “eligible” pool of 570, for an acceptance rate of 18.8%. A weighted average calculation of both groups reveals a 8.22% acceptance rate overall. One takeaway: It’s easier to get into Haas by spending the first two years at a junior college or other university than at UC-Berkeley.
WHY DIRECT ADMIT PROGRAMS HAVE MORE APPEAL
This makes direct admit programs much more appealing and is one reason why the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business just switched to a four-year undergraduate program that admits freshmen. “When we talked to upperclassmen, the students who were admitted as freshmen were glad that they were, and the students who were admitted later expressed that they would like to have been (admitted as freshmen),” says Paul Kirsch, managing director of the Ross BBA program. Ross will now admit 80% of its class, roughly 500 students, as freshmen. The remaining 125 students will come in as transfers in their sophomore year (see Ross Opens The Door To Freshmen).
There’s many reasons why a direct admit program is preferable. For many students, freshman year is often a transition period that can result in less-than-spectacular grades that would make it tougher to jump over yet another steep admissions hurdle to get into a school’s two-year business program. “The best of of all worlds for a high school student who knows he or she wants to be in business is direct admit,” Bauer says. “There’s no question about that. Where that’s an option, that’s best.”
In addition to experiencing less anxiety your first two years of college, Bauer says students usually receive preference on classes, early networking with students and professors, as well as better access to potential scholarships and internships. “However, the better the school, the higher the bar is for being admitted as a direct admit,” he points out.
What’s more, Bauer says, there is often more “variability” in transfer situations than direct admit. “For some schools it’s simply a matter of GPA,” he says. “For others, it’s a more comprehensive approach, similar to what an MBA admissions campaign can be.” For those programs, Bauer explains, decisions come down to GPAs, test scores, essays, recommendations, and maybe even interviews.
MORE PARENTS WANT THEIR KIDS IN A MAJOR THAT IS ‘INSTANTLY TRANSLATABLE INTO EMPLOYMENT’
“It really compounds the decision on where to apply to college,” Bauer adds. “In addition to the challenge of getting into a selective college, now you’ve got the second hurdle to go through, which is getting into the business school. If I don’t get into direct admit, does that mean I don’t go to that college? Or does that mean I go and optimistically hope to become a transfer student? Or do I take a lesser school where I got a direct admit? These compound the decisions big time.”
The increasing competitiveness to gain entry into undergraduate business programs stems from a few factors, according to Bauer. For one, high school students and their parents want to major in a subject that can help them land a job and start a career. “In selecting a major, an increasing number want to pick one that is instantly translatable into employment after graduation,” Bauer notes.
Parents, in particular, seem to be playing a large role. “Parents who have endured — as working professionals — the economic turndown in 2008 and 2009,” Bauer says, “look at the rising cost of sending their children to college and they want to make sure that’s translatable into a job and a career path upon graduation.”
‘TIME IS THE GREATEST ASSET’
Also, the undergraduate degree is increasingly seen as an “end” and not just an “end and a means,” he adds. “An increasing number of high school students and their parents are viewing the undergraduate business degree as the end-game. That’s the ticket. There may or may not be a need for an MBA down the road.”
Bauer’s advice to navigate this increasingly convoluted space is to apply to a mix of target schools. An example Bauer gives is applying for direct admit to less prestigious schools and more prestigious schools as a transfer applicant. He also says to start early. “Regardless of the situation somebody is in, time is the greatest asset,” Bauer insists, noting it’s not too early to start planning as a 10th grade high school student for direct admit or during your first week of freshman year for transfers. “The sooner students start to evaluate their candidacy and leverage strengths and mitigate weaknesses, the better their chances will be for success.”
While Bauer says it helps to have leadership activities, internships, and relatable summer jobs, a student’s GPA and standardized test scores still reign supreme. “There is no replacement for GPA and SAT or ACT score,” he says. “That’s the gold standard that gets someone admitted to a great college or rejected. Without that, it’s definitely a struggle.”
NOT GETTING ANY EASIER ANYTIME SOON
When evaluating potential schools to attend, Bauer ticks off a string of factors to consider. He says to look at recruiting stats that include the percentage of students getting jobs and which industries they are going into. Also, check out the caliber of the school’s faculty. Does the school have superstars who are quoted in the media and are movers and shakers in the business world? And take into account everything about the business school from the size and variety of business-specific clubs to the electives offered and the size of the alumni network.
Regardless, Bauer says undergraduate programs will likely remain as hard to get into as a world class MBA program. “I don’t see it getting easier for people who want to get into these top undergraduate business schools,” he says.
See the next page with an entire list of acceptance rates at the Poets&Quants Top 50 Undergraduate Business Schools.