HEC Paris has the lowest acceptance rate–17.5%– for any European MBA program receiving more than 1,000 applications a year
For years, the world’s MBA applicants have consistently asked the question whether the best European business school equal the best options in the U.S. The Financial Times ranking, in particular, would suggest that many of the European and Asian schools can now go toe-to-toe with the likes of Harvard, Columbia, MIT Sloan and Chicago Booth.
But the metrics in the FT ranking fail to capture statistics that reflect on the quality of incoming classes of MBA students, the selectivity of the best MBA programs, the financial resources available to schools to buy the best faculty and students, and the FT’s methodology tends to disguise the full career outcomes of graduates by adjusting MBA compensation data on purchasing parity conversions.
One of the most frustrating aspects of this debate has to do with the lack of transparency of admission statistics by many of the European business schools. INSEAD routinely declines to reveal the number of applicants to its ten-month MBA program, the number of admitted candidates or the acceptance rate for its students. So do many other highly prominent European rivals. INSEAD is a bit more generous when it comes to class GMAT averages but little else (see Average GMAT Scores For Top 20 European Business Schools).
INSEAD’s Virginie Fougea
Reliable sources tell Poets&Quants that INSEAD, which had been ranked first by the FT for two consecutive years in 2017 and 2016, accepts slightly more than 30% of everyone who applies to the school, an acceptance rate far beyond Stanford’s 6%, Harvard’s 11%, or MIT Sloan’s 12%. In fact, only two—UNC Kenan-Flagler and Emory Goizueta—of the top 20 U.S. business schools have higher admit rates than INSEAD.
At London Business School, the acceptance rate is similar to INSEAD’s at 32.8%. At the business schools at both Cambridge and Oxford, it’s estimated (Judge and Said won’t provide actual numbers) to be slightly north of that. And at the best Spanish business schools, IESE, IE and ESADE, it hovers between 35% and 38% (see table with the latest data for the entering classes in 2018).
Asked about the school’s refusal to provide admissions data which is publicly available on all the U.S. schools, INSEAD Director for MBA Recruitment & Admissions Virginie Fougea told Poets&Quants: “The reason why we don’t communicate those numbers is primarily because it drives people to wrong conclusions. It starts creating the thoughts of ‘I have more chances’ or ‘I don’t have any chances so I should not apply or even consider this.’ We feel it gives them the freedom to decide which school they want to apply to depending on their profile, depending on the network they want to belong to, depending on the family they want to be part of. And they should make a decision based on what fits their need and career plan, rather than trying to speculate on their chances.”
More skeptical observers suggest another reason for the lack of candor. “The simplest explanation is almost always the best one: The European schools tend not to report their stats because their stats tend not to reflect well on their institutions,” maintains Jeremy Shinewald, founder and CEO of mbaMission, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm. “If your application volume were sinking and your acceptance rates were rising, then your standards are falling. Maybe you don’t want to broadcast that? Until the trends are in their favor, expect opacity.”
When Poets&Quants asked for standard admissions data from each of the top 20 European schools, four schools–Imperial College Business School in London, Erasmus University’s Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, City University’s Cass Business School in London and Lancaster Business School—-declined to provide any information at all. Many others–including Cambridge, Oxford, IMD, IESE, IE and Warwick–would only fork over partial and incomplete admissions data.
Of course, there are European exceptions to this lack of transparency. HEC Paris and London Business School routinely provide applicants the same data they can expect from a top U.S. school. With a 17.5% acceptance rate, HEC Paris can rightly claim to admit fewer candidates from its applicant pool than Wharton, Chicago Booth, Northwestern Kellogg or Dartmouth Tuck. In the past year, some 2,231 candidates, a 5% increase over year-earlier volume, applied to HEC’s MBA program. The school admitted only 391 candidates to enroll a class of 235 students.
Yet, the most selective—judged by merely the acceptance rate without regard to other crucial factors such as GMAT and GRE scores, undergradute grades or work history—is a big surprise. Mannheim Business School in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, reports an admit rate of just 16.6%, a sliver below HEC Paris, to be the full-time MBA program with the lowest acceptance. Mannheim’s 12-month program is small, with 55 students but in the past year the school says it received 465 applicants and admited just 77 of them.
Despite reports that more MBA candidates are applying to European programs, the schools reporting on their stats show a mixed picture. Warwick Business School claims the biggest percentage increase in MBA applicants this past year, reporting a 26% jump in applications. Cambridge University’s Judge Business School says applications increased by 16% to 1,286, while IE Business School in Spain reports a 10% jump in applicants to 2,927.
But applicants to a host of other well-known European options are down. London Business School says it received 10% fewer applications for its MBA program in the 2017-2018 admissions season, while ESMT Berlin in Germany was down 11% and IESE Business School in Spain was down 8%. Italy’s SDA Bocconi reports the same level of applications as the previous year: 375 for 108 classroom seats.

London Business School students gathering on the lawn
Still, several schools are increasing MBA enrollments in Europe. Despite its 10% drop in applicants, for example, London Business School increased its MBA intake from five to six streams this year. It now enrolls 485 MBA students a year, something made possible by the opening of a new building. LBS originally planned to expand the MBA in 2019, but the school brought it forward by a year. The school says it is not worried about the applicant decline, describing it as the sort of blip adminstrators see all the time.
While the anti-immigration rhetoric and uncertainly over work visas in the U.S. has led to a decline in MBA applications at even the best American MBA programs, Europe apparently has not seen big gains to reflect a dramatic change in demand. “Those people aren’t just thinking: ‘Okay, so I’m not going to the U.S, I’m going to Europe,’ says Benoit Banchereau, director of admissions for the full-time MBA at HEC. “Some of them, of course, are doing this. but I think some of them also go to Asia, because I think there’s also some growth in Asia. Of course, we probably get some of them will apply to HEC, and I’d say at London Business School, but I wouldn’t say that explains any of our growth.”
Still, admission directors at Europe’s best schools say there has been an increase in interest from American students. “A trend across a few business schools in Europe is the increased interest of students from the United States in MBA programs outside of their home country,” says Tino Elgner, senior associate director of admissions for full-time programs at Madrid’s IE Business School. “That is also reflected and noticeable in our application numbers. In addition, we have seen a steady increase in students from Mexico.” Increases in application volume from North America, adds Elgner, are not the result of increased marketing in that region, unlike the higher numbers from such other countries as Israel and Australia, which can be clearly attributed to a concerted effort to recruit from there.
HEC Paris’ Benoit Banchereau
Is Brexit changing application patterns for the British schools? “At the moment it doesn’t seem to be having too much effect on us,” says London Business School’s David Simpson, who heads up recruitment and admissions. “It comes up in conversation, but as many times as people are concerned, it’s with people saying they’re looking at the opportunities to be gained from being here in a post-Brexit environment, especially if you’re at the higher qualification and skill set. It isn’t impacting as negatively at the moment, but we’re keeping an eye on it. Our student body is highly international and usually those who want to stay and work in London can do so, irrespective of being European nationals or not. We’re not expecting the impact of Brexit to be huge in that way.”
Over the Channel the view is slightly different. “If I was a student today probably I would say: ’I’m not sure if I want to go to a country like in the U.K. that thinks it’s actually better to be just on our own,’” says HEC’s Benoit Banchereau. “That would be actually a first issue for me. The second one will be if Brexit happens next year, am I going to find a job in the U.K.?’”
He thinks that the very top schools will still be attractive to international students, because having them on your CV is a stamp of approval. Whether the negatives associated with Brexit will outweigh the benefits of an MBA from a less prestigious school remains to be seen. In general, though, Banchereau says, “I think more and more students are turning to countries where they feel that globalization is still actually at work.”
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