The Journey of the Business School Applicant: Best Practices to Recruit MBA Candidates

MBA applications are on the rise, and this growth is not limited to the top-10 business schools in the U.S.

In 2014, 62 percent of American two-year MBA degree programs reported an upsurge in applications, a 10 percent increase above the previous year (GMAC Application Trends Survey, 2014).

Who’s applying? Changes to the applicant pool

Prospective students are also applying to more schools at once. Twenty-five percent of applicants planned to apply to five or more schools in the 2014–2015 application season, a four percent increase above the previous year (Stacy Blackman, 2014).

The past three years have seen an increase in the number of applicants for full-time MBA programs, as well. The fastest-growing group of applicants is those under age 24 (Bloomberg Businessweek, 2013). These future MBAs were just eight years old when Google came onto the Internet scene. At the other end of the spectrum, elite MBA programs such as Harvard's have seen a “graying” of their class population.

The rise in MBA applications has been uneven across different demographic sectors, however. Previously underrepresented groups are applying in greater numbers than in the past (GMAC Application Trends Survey, 2014), while the number of women taking the GMAT in the U.S. has declined since 2012 (GMAC Profile of GMAT Testing: North America, 2014). At the same time, certain schools, such as, Wharton, have seen record-breaking numbers of women enroll (Bloomberg Businessweek, 2014).

Overall, the main driver behind the increase in applications is an influx of foreign-born applicants (GMAC Application Trends Survey, 2014). Why are international students looking to attend b-school in the U.S.? According to the GMAC survey, the “reputation of educational system, attractiveness of location, and better preparation for a career” are key reasons (mba.com Prospective Students Survey, 2014).

The 2014 GMAC Trends survey reports that while the majority of b-schools have seen increases in applications overall, 44 percent of schools have experienced a decrease in the number of applications received from domestic-born MBA hopefuls. (On the flip side, 48 percent report increases from U.S.-born applicants.) B-schools across the U.S. are benefiting from rising overseas interest, but certain schools are succeeding at maintaining and even increasing the domestic-applicant base, while others are seeing waning numbers from that group.

To see more trends among the MBA candidate pool, check out Noodle's infographic about the state of the MBA in 2014.

How do prospects choose where to apply?

New ways of gathering information

Gone are the days when prospective students passively waited for viewbooks mailed by schools suited to their GMAT scores. Today, there is no single authority that MBA prospects rely upon to when deciding where to apply.

A 2012 study published by Compete, Inc. and Google’s Insights Team underscores just how numerous and wide-ranging data sources have become. The majority of students interested in higher education use at least four sources to gather information, with 96 percent turning to the Internet to research schools.

In 2013, GMAC also surveyed b-school applicants about the resources they used in researching schools. The study found that 80 percent of MBA applicants referred to a prospective school’s website when researching potential business programs. Other school resources, such as brochures (46 percent), meet-and-greets (42 percent), and blogs (31 percent), were popular as well. The survey notes, however, that “the ability to drive prospective students to a school’s most valuable channel—its official website—or to any other school marketing channel, begins with an informed individual, someone who is aware of the school.”

A long research timeline

Before sitting for the GMAT, American b-school applicants will spend seven to nine months, on average, researching and narrowing down their lists of schools (mba.com Prospective Student Survey, 2014). The Compete, Inc./Google Survey of Higher Education Applicants found similar results.

It’s a long journey from discovery to application.

The GMAC survey did not measure a crucial step in this information-gathering process: the use of search engines. Since 2012, a greater percentage of prospective students relied on search engines than on school websites in evaluating schools, according to the 2012 Compete Custom U.S. Education Study. The popularity of sites like Google and Bing as tools to find and research schools has increased dramatically in recent years, as the following chart shows.

Resources Used in Higher Education Research Bar Graph Compete Study 2012

Use of search engines as a funnel

The importance of search engines to MBA applicants is clear. The increased complexity and trend toward more applications indicates that prospects spend more time gathering information than ever before, and search is the key tool they use.

Searches typically start general, and ultimately narrow down to the point of contact with a b-school. Some people enter queries that are specific school names or programs, but most prospective applicants’ searches are unspecified, or “non-branded” (e.g., “average MBA debt” or “best MBA programs near me”). In the past year, non-branded searches have increased by nine percent in the MBA category (Google Education Search Analysis, Q2 2014).

Before the typical student commits to a school (i.e., “converts”) — whether by applying online, requesting information, or contacting an admissions officer — he will use a search engine 15 times, with 10 of those searches non-branded (Compete Custom U.S. Education Study, 2012). What this indicates is that applicants use search when they are undecided about where to apply and looking to gather information.

How people use search engines confirms this intention. Before converting, the typical prospective student will visit a certain b-school site more than once, as well as two or more websites of competitors. He will also be searching at least 30 days in advance of any action (Compete Custom U.S. Education Study, 2012). Before the admissions team knows of a student’s interest, he will have entered at least 15 search queries.

Furthermore, search engines aren’t limited to one part of the process — the majority of search engine users actively utilized them throughout their investigative journeys (Compete Custom U.S. Education Study, 2012).

Compete Custom US Education Study

How to use search to attract more applicants

Online engagement between prospective students and b-schools

MBA prospects today are very proactive in finding information: They start gathering information months before they apply and search repeatedly before connecting with a school.

Some business schools have accordingly adopted recruiting strategies to court potential applicants at the time when students are still open to any option. Marketing budgets for MBA admissions departments have reached new highs (Wall Street Journal, 2014), and for-profit b-schools with accelerating enrollment have changed the competitive landscape. Hult International Business School, now the business school with the largest enrollment in the world, boasts a $7.1 million recruiting and marketing budget (Poets & Quants, 2014). Founder Philip Hult explains how school’s efforts differ from others: “A top-10 school spends almost no money on promotion.…They print some catalogs, and then they wait for the applications to come in.” The top-10 schools are comfortable now relying on their brand recognition, but newer schools and programs face a different set of challenges.

SEM: A 21st-century approach to marketing

Now, consider how much attention and time you spend on social media or on producing new brochures. Do you allocate comparable resources toward optimizing your website? While a social media presence and print media are still great ways to convert prospective students into applicants, you can connect with more students — and earlier in their decision-making processes — if you pay attention to how visible your website is to search engines.

A targeted Search Engine Marketing (SEM) strategy will improve the visibility of your brand on search results. This strategy, above all, needs a clear definition of who the goal audience is and what the expected outcome is.

For example, let’s say you want to boost applications to your part-time MBA application program. In that case, your school should be visible when people type “best part time MBA programs” in search engines. How do you make this happen?

One of the first steps in the planning process is to consider how your target audience might conduct the search process for an MBA program. Once you have identified these steps, you should seek to have a brand presence in the results for every search in that process. In order to make this happen, you must differentiate yourself from your competitors. You must know what unique strengths you can highlight that will attract traffic regardless of brand recognition or geographic proximity.

There are two types of search results, and each has a role to play in driving traffic: organic, in which your institution appears in the search results for a specific keyword (the phrase typed into the search bar), and paid, in which your institution appears via ads bought through search engines.

Where your brand appears on the search results is extremely important. The first five organic results receive two-thirds of clicks in any given search, while results in positions six through 10 get less than four percent of clicks (Moz Blog, 2014). Even if your website appears sixth on the first page of organic search results, it might receive few clicks.

In your SEM plan, you can try Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to improve the position of certain keywords. This strategy seeks to increase the volume of traffic from organic search.

You can also pay for ads on different search engines. This is also an effective strategy because it puts your website or target URL at the top of the page, regardless of how your website ranks organically. While paid ads do not receive as much traffic as the top-ranking organic results, they still attract approximately 10 percent of clicks in any given search (Statista, 2014).

Additionally, do not forget to have a “call to action” where your prospects land. This will enable you to capture your new traffic. Do you want prospects’ contact information, or do you want them to contact an admissions officer? Do you want to send them directly to an application? Every SEM strategy should have a (measurable) way to engage the visitors you receive.

Organic traffic: Know your keywords

Most likely, with zero effort, you rank number one, in the prime position, if someone types in your school name into the search engine. Great! But what about the other 99 percent of searches? An SEO strategy could help you to get traffic for non-branded keywords without spending any of your advertising budget.

Search engines prefer to refer sites that are clearly laid-out (i.e., every page can be reached from a link on another page), have in-depth and original content, and are popular with visitors (i.e., low bounce rates and lengthy page view times).

There are two SEO factors for a website to consider: domain authority and page relevance.

Domain authority is a measure developed by SEO specialists to measure how reputable your overall website (i.e., Web domain) is — will a visitor find a lot of spam or unhelpful information, or is yours a trusted brand? For example, a webpage about recommended remedies for the common cold on the Mayo Clinic’s site ranks higher in search results than a site like 10coldcures.com, even if the two sites have similar content, because of the former’s well-established reputation. The Mayo Clinic has a greater domain authority not only because of the comprehensiveness of its content, but also because of the large number of other sites that cite it as a source. These “back links” are indicators to search engines that other people value a site. Links from sites with greater domain authority have greater weight; for example, it’s a bigger sign of authority to have the New York Times linking to your website than a personal blog doing so.

You can find out the score of your domain authority at moz.com. You should seek to have a greater number than your competitors. If you do, then you are more likely to rank on non-branded keywords.

It’s important to remember, however, that domain authority is just a marker developed by SEO experts to assist in tactical strategy. The specific factors that each search engine uses to measure the authority of a domain change over time and differ between engines.

Fortunately, you, as a university, have a significant advantage. Your .edu address is an automatic signal to search engines to trust you (and thus, to give you a higher domain authority) than .com or .org websites. (Websites ending in .gov receive similar boosts.) Unless your website has hidden malware or a lot of dysfunctional pages, you do not need be concerned with improving your domain authority.

In addition to domain authority, where your content ranks in search results is contingent on page relevance. This marker depends on how well your content matches what a searcher is seeking. Using a complex algorithm, search engines present the most relevant content first (from the sites with the greatest domain authority). To return to the common cold example: The Mayo Clinic advice appears first in the search results because it has descriptions of different types of treatments, FAQs, and even the numbers of doctors to call. Anyone searching for a cold remedy could satisfactorily find an answer there.

Page authority depends on the quality of the content and can vary among the pages that make up your website as a whole. One of your webpages might rank for “part-time MBA programs,” while another might be prominent when someone searches for “MBA programs for IT professionals.” It’s possible the same webpage might rank for both terms — but often, it’s more sensible (and feasible) to focus on a single term or phrase (“keyword”).

For this reason, you should consider each of your website’s pages from a SEO perspective: What’s the main purpose of this page? What questions does this page answer? What term or phrase would someone be using to find this content? You should identify the central keyword (whether it’s “cold remedies” or “best part-time MBA programs”) that addresses your audience’s search queries.

After conducting this keyword research for new or pre-existing pages, you can try to optimize the individual pages on your domain for the keywords you have picked. A well-optimized page sends signals to search engines that it is entirely about a certain keyword; in turn, when someone searches for that keyword, your page is more likely to appear.

Paid traffic: Know your competition

It’s crucial to understand whom you’re competing against in every category — if you see ads for other schools when you search for the name of your school, then potentially one out of 10 intended visitors to your site is directed elsewhere. To maximize your traffic, pay to advertise even on your own branded keywords.

In addition, you should be present for the keywords your target audience is using to gather information before they have learned about your brand. Remember the search funnel: 90 percent of searchers are undecided about which school they want to attend when they begin their research (thinkeducation, Q3 2011).

Paid ads guarantee your presence at each step of your target applicants’ information-gathering process. This strategy can be costly, however, and tends to work best when coordinated with targeted SEO work.

How can I be part of other conversations?

Additional content strategies

High placement on search results will be a driver of major traffic, but it works in concert with other media. You should try to keep your school on the minds of your target audience by having your content appear where the people are. Remember the popular mantra: location, location, location.

Is there any content that both reaffirms your message and is shareable — that is, dinner conversation-worthy, something people will want to tell their friends and family about. Consider writing editorial-style pieces that can be published not only on your school website, but also on popular websites like Poets & Quants, Bloomberg Businessweek, or Noodle, for example.

This content doesn’t need to direct prospects straight to conversion, but what it does is drive traffic, spread name recognition of your school, and reinforce your school’s brand. The key rule: Link back to your school’s website in order to build your domain authority.

Example

Target audience: Part-time MBA applicants in the tech sector

What are they looking for: Productivity apps

Where they’re spending time: wired.com, forbes.com, tech websites

Recommendation: Submit an article for publication on one of these tech websites about a helpful app developed by an alum and include a link to a webpage on your domain about how your part-time program supported his development.

Finally, you can also consider placing advertisements on these sites in addition to placing content. As with search results, the more appearances, the better, regardless of whether the display is paid or not.

To attract undecided prospective students, you should be with them every step of the way.

Sources:

2014 Application Trends Survey Report.” (2014). Graduate Management Admission Council.

2014 mba.com Prospective Students Survey Report.” (2014). Graduate Management Admission Council.

Baron, E. (2014, September 2). “How Hult Became the World’s Largest Graduate Business School.” Poets and Quants.

Blackman, S. (2014, May 9). “MBA Application Trends in 2014-2015.” Stacy Blackman Consulting.

“Engaging the eduSearcher in a New Reality.” thinkeducation. Google/Compete U.S. March 2011.

GMAT Profile of North America, Testing Year 2010-2014.” (2014). Graduate Management Admission Council.

Korn, Melissa. (2014, June 4). “How Elite B-Schools Pump Up Applicant Pools.” Wall Street Journal.

Lavella, Louis. (2013, August 19). “The Graying of Harvard Business School.” Bloomberg Businessweek.

“Q3 2014 Education Search Analysis.” (2014). Google.

Paid Search Clickthrough Rate in the United States in 2nd Quarter 2014, by Ad Position and Device.” (2014). Statista.

Petrescu, P. (2014). “Google Organic Click-Through Rates in 2014.” Moz Blog.

“Resources and Devices Used.” (2012). Compete Custom U.S. Education Study.

Symonds, M. (2014, August 29). “Will Harvard Ever Have an MBA Class With 50 Percent Women?” Bloomberg Businessweek.