Reputation is the holy grail of recruitment in business education. The moment your school is known as the first, best, highest value, leading, smartest, most diverse program, by some ranking, that title is all your over banners, website landing pages, brochures, and inserted into the Dean’s speeches and recruitment presentations. 

But did you know rankings, in and of themselves, are only consulted by two of five MBA applicants, according to GMAC’s 2015 Prospective Survey Report? (1)

The reality, of course, is that a school’s reputation is a fusion of factors, and a school’s reputation varies from one individual applicant to another. While we cannot precisely calculate why students apply to one institution over others, we can review the external and internal factors that influence their decision, and apply these factors to how we communicate to these students as higher education professionals.

Half of admissions directors in The United States (51 percent) said they were very concerned about meeting their enrollment goals for the 2015-16 academic year, and 58 percent said they did not meet their goals.(2) 

Yet, in 2015, Harvard Business School’s MBA program received 9,315 applications and admitted 12 percent of those applicants for a class of 1,838 students.(3)

With half of admissions directors concerned about enrollment, it’s fair to say, most of us cannot fathom accepting just 12 percent of applicants while still managing to yield a class of nearly 2,000.

Let’s get started by getting to know what motivates our applicants.

A group of students discussing

Who are Today's Applicants

The majority of applicants seeking graduate business education (65 percent according to GMAC) are doing so to expand their job opportunities. GMAC further segments this group into “career enhancers” (34 percent), “career switchers” (38 percent), and “aspiring entrepreneurs” (28 percent).(4)

What motivates these groups?

Career enhancers are likely to already have an undergraduate business degree, or similar discipline, and are looking at a graduate degree to help them gain promotions, improve their job performance and skills, and earn more respect in the workplace.

Career switchers most likely do not have a background in business, but want to change their career path to have a more business-oriented role.  This group wants to change their job function, improve their salaries, find more challenging and interesting work, as well as find a sense of freedom in their careers.

Aspiring entrepreneurs have a mix of educational backgrounds and may already be self-employed. Aspiring entrepreneurs are looking for a graduate degree to develop leadership and management skills, as well as expand their opportunities, learn how to control situations, and influence people.

While each of GMAC’s segments have their own specific aspirations, the common denominator is that they want to come out of their program with an opportunity to evolve in their career. For some, that’s a title change and a heftier paycheck, for others that’s honing the skills they needed to do something entirely different.

What does this mean for business schools?

Recruiting teams need to highlight how their program can help applicants achieve their goals. Schools need to find a mix of hard data and student/alumni success stories that speak to the needs of the students they are targeting.

Show that your program will help students improve skills for the changing world with compelling case studies, prove that your alumni are getting paid more, or highlight the entrepreneurial successes of your recent grads.

Take time to look into the specific students who choose your program and rank it first. Find out:

  • Who they are
  • What their goals, challenges, aspirations are
  • Where there’s a match
  • Where there’s a mismatch

Build personas of your ideal applicants that answer the questions above and combine what you know about your future students with research, like this report, to make a plan to attract the right students to your school.

What do Applicants Look for in an MBA Program

LinkedIn surveyed MBA prospects using their network in 2015, asking them a set of questions similar to GMAC. Among their network, LinkedIn found that most prospects’ short list is exclusive. The average short list consists of only three schools, 72 percent develop their short list before they reach out to a school representative, and 93 percent ended up enrolling in a school from their short list. (5)

So, as an MBA program, how do you get on a student’s short list?

Quality of Faculty

The quality of teaching at your school is a top factor for domestic and international students from all around the world. Students want to know the professors they’re learning from are truly experts, making groundbreaking discoveries, publishing influential papers and books, or affecting policy.

  • Share faculty thought leadership with prospective students, highlighting new publications in emails, presentations, and school tours.
  • Invite interested students to a guest lecture or webinar with a particularly engaging or well-known faculty member to set your school apart from others.

Program Type Offered & Program Length

‘Program type offered’ was considered among the most important for Canadian, American, and European students, with Canadians also indicating program length as one of the top five factors in where they go to school. How an academic program fits into your lifestyle can make or break whether or not an applicant chooses your school.

According to Poets & Quants co-founder John Byrne(6), program innovation is an excellent, yet under-utilized way to draw attention and applicants to your program.

  • Identify your program’s differences. Highlight study trips, dual degree options, part-time programs, and co-ops that set you apart from a similar program in an applicant’s eyes.
  • Feature program options on materials and in conversations with applicants, while continually sending feedback on what’s important to potential students up to the Dean’s office for consideration.


Tuition is going to be a major factor to students, and it’s one that you don’t have any control over. However, you can control your messaging around tuition.

  • Make scholarship information accessible. Whether in presentations or on your website, highlight availability of any scholarships and grants to help reduce the “sticker shock” by the time the applicant learns the cost of your program.
  • Promote program return-on-investment (ROI). When reviewing a significant investment like higher education, applicants need to see potential for a great ROI. John Byrne recommends one of the best ways for schools to improve their applicant volume is to be upfront with their authentic ROI information and how they compare with competitors. As Byrne points out, ROI is not something only relevant to top-tier schools: “If you are a lower rank school, in most cases your tuition will be less, in most cases the people coming in will earn less and therefore coming out their ROI will be significantly higher than ROI even at the best schools,” Byrne said.

Job Placement

Like ROI, applicants want to see that your program will get them the jobs they want. Because the business school market is so competitive, it’s not enough to simply say “85 percent of our graduates get jobs three months out of school.” Applicants want to see where people are working and the quality of jobs they are being offered.

When you release employment data, create a campaign to applicants, and display it clearly on your website. Here are some samples from Rotman School of Business and Ivey Business School.

Feature testimonials from students who scored positions with top employers or even bring them in as panelists at free prospective student events.

Where do applicants seek information when choosing a school?

According to GMAC, these are the top five marketing channels students consider when selecting a school:

  • School websites
  • Friends and family
  • Published rankings
  • Current students and alumni
  • School admissions professionals

Let’s go through these channels, what they mean to you and your prospects, and how your recruiting and admissions work can influence these top channels positively to secure more applicants.

Your Website

Your website is your easiest, most accessible information portal for applicants, but it’s also the easiest way to lose them. A poorly designed or out-of-date website, unfortunately, reflects pretty poorly on your program. Even if you’ve got great faculty, can promise good jobs, and a smart alumni network, if prospective students land on your website and get confused, find conflicting information, or do not find it aesthetically pleasing, it leaves a bad taste in their mouth.

Having said that, tossing hundreds of thousands of dollars into a new website, when you don’t have a strong program promise to back it up, won’t magically improve your applicant volume.

Friends and Family Recommendations

In a study by The McCarthy Group, 84 percent of millennials stated they do not like advertising. However, on a scale of one to five, they ranked recommendations from closest friends a solid four(7). Your alumni network is a marketing channel unlike any other. With half of GMAC survey respondents (51 percent) reporting that friends and family influenced their decision, your alumni relations team actually has a massive impact on your recruiting efforts.

Consulting firm CarringtonCrisp reported that 45 percent of MBA prospects would evaluate a school on word of mouth over a school’s rankings(8), further fueling the importance of a happy network.

One way you can work with your alumni relations team to help raise friend and family recommendations is ensure alumni communications are talking about new program innovations and updates, and that all current recruiting messaging aligns with alumni communication.

Some schools leverage their alumni networks through “referral” programs, where alumni are invited to bring a friend to an event, or share their friend’s resume with the school for a chance to win a prize, or for the friend to receive a scholarship.

Published Rankings

To no one’s surprise, rankings do influence MBA applications. However, just because your program isn’t top ten, or even top one hundred, doesn’t mean you should ignore rankings. You can acknowledge that your school doesn’t qualify for the specific criteria that Financial Times or QS MBA is looking for, while highlighting your value offering.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, focus on what’s special about your school. Embrace what’s unique about your program and how you provide quality education (small classes, hands-on learning, ROI, etc.) that may not be major factors in rankings.

Current Students and Alumni

Your current students and alumni are brand advocates in everything that they do.

  • On social media, showcase student and alumni stories to help prospective students “see themselves” in your class. Student and alumni ambassador programs are one way to enlist students to share their positive experiences on social media or by email. These initiatives can be hit or miss, depending on how well they are executed, so make sure you have a solid strategy and select reliable students before rolling out an ambassador program.
  • Promote student and alumni success stories in recruiting materials and presentations.
  • Engage alumni in your acceptance process. Have alumni send congratulatory emails or phone calls to top students, expending a personal proof point that your school is the best choice. We’ll talk about this more in Week 4 when we focus on yield.

School Admissions Professionals

Here’s where you come in: GMAC’s survey found admissions teams reached 44 percent of applicants and had a 48 percent influence on them (websites had a 53 percent influence and friends and family 51 percent, for context).

None of the above factors can work without you, your role is pivotal to students finding their perfect fit at your institution. However, here’s where the Master of Business School Admissions comes in: the MBSA is here to equip with all of the latest stats, trends and big ideas in higher education admissions.

What isn't Important to Applicants

What might really surprise you are the marketing channels that prospective MBA applicants ranked as having little to no impact. Among them, traditional marketing performed very poorly in this study.

  • Radio advertisements were ranked the lowest of all marketing channels, hitting just 4 percent of possible applicants.
  • Television advertisements did not fare much better at 6 percent, despite being one of the most expensive ways for schools to advertise.
  • Official school videos reached 11 percent, however, that number may not be entirely accurate, given school videos are also heavily featured on successful websites (the #1 resource)
  • School-related guides (reached 5 percent), school-related websites (reached 8 percent), and professional associations (reached 13 percent) had a significantly larger impact pre-Internet era, but are clearly not still having the same effect.

Next Steps

The goal of this post was to give you some ideas and jumping off points for changing the conversation about recruitment at your school, based on research from leading expert organizations, GMAC and LinkedIn.

The ideas we’ve presented here are just a drop in the bucket of creative and compelling methods business schools can use for recruitment in graduate business education.

So what are you waiting for?

Investigate your newest class or alumni cohort to find out what spoke to them most about your school, and focus on emphasizing those value offerings to future classes.

Review the motivating factors that excite and drive your students and the marketing channels they reference most often. Your budget should align with the channels that are bringing the best conversion rates of high-quality candidates.

Shed the traditional means of recruitment that aren’t bringing you results and test new methods to connect with prospective students.

1. 2015 Prospective Students Survey Report, pg. 16

2. Insider Higher Ed, 2015 Survey of Admissions Directors

3. Harvard Business School, Facts and Figures

4. 2015 Prospective Students Survey Report, pg. 7-8

5. Connecting with Today's Prospective Students

6. Kira Talent, Interview with John Byrne

7. Engaging Millenials: Trust and Attention Survey

8. LinkedIn Marketing Solutions: How the Buyer’s Journey has Changed in Higher Education Marketplace