Rejected: Foreign MBA applicants face major hurdles

November 23, 2011: 9:52 AM ET

International applicants account for a large portion of applicants at many U.S. business schools, but they also receive the lion's share of rejections. Applicants from India and China lead the pack of the rejected.

By John A. Byrne, contributor

Duke University's Fuqua School of Business

Over 50% of Duke Fuqua's full-time MBA program were international, but only 30% of the students in this fall's entering class are coming from outside the U.S.

(Poets&Quants) -- MBA applicants from India and China face significantly higher rates of rejection by many top U.S. business schools than either domestic candidates or those from Europe or Latin America, according to a new study by Poets&Quants. In some cases, the acceptance rate for U.S. citizens is four to five times higher than the rate of acceptance for Indian and Chinese applicants.

At some prominent business schools, international applicants now outnumber those from the U.S. That's the case at MIT Sloan, Duke University's Fuqua School, and Michigan's Ross School of Business. At Purdue University's Krannert School, nearly eight out of 10 in its latest MBA applicant pool were international. At Washington University's Olin School of Business, 70% of last year's 1,490 applicants to its full-time MBA program were non-U.S.

Yet at all of these prestige business schools, the percentage of international students admitted and enrolled is far lower than their portion of the overall applicant pool. At Washington's Olin School, for example, only 35% of the latest entering class is international, even though international candidates made up 70% of the school's applicant pool. Although 53% of the 3,452 applicants to Fuqua's full-time MBA program were international, only 30% of the students in this fall's entering class are not from the U.S.

The rarely seen data on the makeup of the MBA applicant pool -- as opposed to data on the students who enroll -- comes from B-schools that have supplied this information for the first time to Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Not all schools agreed to hand over this data. Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and Columbia were among the top institutions that declined to provide this information. Yet, most business schools, including some of the most prominent, complied with the request to shed light on their applicant pools.

India and China: Largest pool of rejections

Though schools disclosed admissions information for all of their international applicants, admissions officials say the major problem is with Indian and Chinese MBA candidates largely because there are so many of them. An internal admissions report obtained by Poets&Quants from a Top 10-business school certainly supports that conclusion. The report reveals that applicants from China and India are more than four to five times likely to be turned down for admission than either domestic applicants or those from Europe, Latin America, Africa, or the Middle East.
Last year, for example, 20% of the applications received by the school were from China and other Asian countries while 22% were from India. The school's acceptance rate for the Chinese and Indian applicants was 10% and 8%, respectively. The acceptance rate for U.S. citizens was 39% -- four to five times higher.

International applicants from other regions of the world fared much better than applicants from Asian countries. The school accepted 39% of its European applicants, and 26% of its applicants from Latin America and the Middle East. The overall acceptance rate was just a tad above 25%.

Admission officials say there are many reasons for the discrepancy between the size of the international applicant pool and their portion of enrollment at their schools, from a need to craft more balanced and diverse classes to language difficulties that make some international students less attractive to the job market. No less important, they say, is an inability to meet the expectations of students from China and India to stay in the U.S. and gain visas to work here after graduation.

Keeping expectations realistic

"We're looking at it from the perspective of a corporate recruiter hiring our class two years later," explains John Roeder, admissions director for Vanderbilt University's Owen School of Business. At Owen, international applicants made up 45% of the 1,013 applicants who applied for admission to this fall's entering class. But international students make up only 25% of the class.

"The language difficulties come into play, too," adds Roeder. "Any international student coming into a U.S. school has more hurdles to overcome than a domestic student in terms of the job search. The bottom line is we want our students to come into our program and be highly successful landing a good job. If they can't do that, we haven't done our job."

At the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, 44% of the 1,826 applicants to its full-time MBA program last year were international -- but only 21% of the school's enrolled students this year are from outside the U.S. The upshot: 17% of the U.S. applicants are now students at Marshall, while only 6% of the international applicants are enrolled. It's impossible to tell how many domestic versus international applicants were accepted and declined an invitation to attend Marshall. But U.S. citizens are more than three times as likely to be enrolled at the school than international applicants.

"In general, what you're seeing across all universities, whether it is business school or college, is that the largest applicant pools by far are from China and India," explains Shantanu Dutta, vice dean for graduate programs at Marshall. "They are very good applicants. But it's very important to get diversity in the class. We have students from 18 countries."

Part of the issue also stems from the outsize, and perhaps unrealistic, expectations of international business school students. "We tell them the market is tough in the information sessions and try to manage expectations," Dutta says. "But when they come, everyone thinks they can beat the odds."

MBA admissions consultants say that most schools are trying to balance the diversity of an entering class with the merit of the applicants who apply. "In creating an MBA class, top business schools face the challenge of establishing 'a meritocracy with diversity,'" says Dan Bauer, founder and managing director of The MBA Exchange, an admissions consulting firm. "Balancing meritocracy and diversity means that neither aspect can be disregarded. When these two variables are not considered in tandem, the admission process ceases to be objective and fair."

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About This Author
John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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