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Do Business School Acceptance Rates Really Matter?

Here’s a fun experiment to try: visit (make sure you’re logged out of your Google account, first) and search for “Harvard Business School”. Search for “Stanford Business School”. Search for “Wharton MBA”. Notice something? “[School name] acceptance rate” comes up in the top 3-4 suggested search options, every time.

Everyone, it seems, want to know about the acceptance rate at their target schools. I get asked by clients almost every day: “I only want to apply to M7 schools. I really want to go to Harvard or Stanford. What are my chances of getting in?”

Here’s the deal: Stop looking at acceptance rates.

Seriously, stop. Halt. Arrêtez. You’re looking at this from the wrong perspective. Acceptance rates give you a very, very general idea of whether a school is hard to get into. Whether the number is 8% or 10% or 20%, it tells you, “This school is relatively hard to get into.” If the number is 50% or 60% or 70%, it tells you “This school is not as hard to get into.” That’s it. And is that really new information?

Do Business School Acceptance Rates Really Matter

The acceptance rate is an average across every single student that applies to that program. You are a single data point. Your personal chance of getting into Harvard could be 50%, or 80% – or it could be 1%. Knowing Harvard’s acceptance rate doesn’t change that, and doesn’t tell you which it is.

And don’t forget: rankings and acceptance rates change. The “Top 3” business schools in the world will be ranked differently from year to year, and will depend on whether you’re looking at US News’ rankings, or the Economist, or the Financial Times.

So what can you do? Start focusing on your goals.

An MBA is a huge investment – $100,000 to $200,000, and one to two years of your life. If you were going to invest that sum of money into a business venture, would you do your due diligence first, or would you just pick the “best business” from the top of a list somewhere and plunk your money down?

It’s time for applicants to get off the hamster wheel and look beyond the numbers. I want you to get into a great school – and I also want it to be the right school, the school where you will excel and go on to a career that pays well and that you love.

I knew of an applicant not long ago who wanted to pursue an MBA in order to advance her career – she wanted to work and be competitive in the fashion and luxury brand industry. She is a brilliant woman and was admitted to a top MBA program in the US. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a program that had significant connections to the fashion industry, and ultimately it took her nearly a year to land a job in her field. As much as she enjoyed the school, looking back she wishes she would have looked into options like HEC Paris or the concentration in Luxury Brand Management at SDA Bocconi in Milan.

When you’re trying to decide where to apply, don’t focus exclusively on the school’s ranking and exclusivity. Peel the onion. Is this school really a good match for you? Put the focus on what you want to do, what skills you need in order to take the next step in your career. Which schools will prepare you for that next step?

Take a look at Harvard, Darden, and IESE for example. They are all great schools. Each of them emphasizes the case method approach in their curriculum. So to start, you need to think about whether that’s the right approach for you. Will you be able to thrive in a case-focused  environment? Is the case method a good fit for how you learn?

Aside from curriculum, the three schools are very different. Harvard’s average graduating class size is over 900 students; Darden and IESE average 350 students in a typical graduating class. Darden is located in small-town Charlottesville, with a population of just under 45,000. Harvard’s home town of Boston is home to about 650,000 people, but Barcelona, where IESE is located, is home to 1.6 million. Where will you thrive?

Not everybody can arrange a campus visit, especially if you live outside the U.S. The good news is that there are options available to you even if you can’t visit the schools. . Many of the MBA programs provide applicants with a ton of information via webinars and international information sessions making it easy for applicants to learn about the schools. Not taking advantage of such opportunities can signal to the schools that you are not a serious candidate.

If you don’t know the school, how can you possibly make a case for being admitted? It’s like a lawyer going into court unprepared. Drill down into all those resources. Get specific – what companies are recruiting there? Who are the faculty and what are they experts in? Who has gone into the fields you want to go into?

Getting into a great MBA program is not about the rank or the acceptance rate. It’s about understanding where you will fit in the best. Think through what you want to do, where you will learn the skills you need, and what you bring to the table. Do your research, know the schools, and the acceptance rate will mean much less to you.