Business schools are enjoying a rush of demand for their flagship MBA programs as greater economic uncertainty and a softening labor market pull working professionals back into full-time study. So, what do prospective students, who are looking to upgrade their credentials, need to bear in mind about doing an MBA in a potential, or likely recession?
The first thing to know is that it can be a wise investment in uncertain times. Demand for MBA programs is usually countercyclical, with applications rising as economic activity slows.
“Traditionally, we have seen an increase in applications during uncertain times. When there is an economic crisis, it provides the opportunity for individuals to go back to school, earn a new degree, and take the time to invest in themselves for the future,” says Sara Vanos, executive director of marketing and admissions for MBA programs at HEC Paris.
So, going back to school during a downturn can give professionals a great opportunity to increase their knowledge and skills -- and gain an edge over competition when the economy starts to improve.
“At a time when there are layoffs, pay freezes and cutbacks, an MBA can be a great time to step back, reset and re-evaluate yourself and your goals,” says Charlotte Russell-Green, head of MBA recruitment and admissions at Cambridge Judge Business School, in the UK.
It’s also a solid opportunity to equip yourself with the essential core management and leadership skills needed to make yourself a strong contender in a competitive job market.
“Although a downturn can be a time of uncertainty, some industries and countries will bounce back quicker than others, so by pursuing an MBA you strengthen your position to be flexible and pivot to different sectors and locations,” adds Russell-Green.
How to secure a competitive MBA place
But as applications rise, so will the competition for a coveted place on a top MBA. What should prospective students be doing to stand out from the pack?
“Anyone applying to a top MBA program should always optimize all application touchpoints and do so proactively, well-before application deadlines. The key is to plan ahead and know your niche relative to the applicant cohort in which you’re competing,” says Stacy Blackman, an admissions consultant based in the US.
She says that applicants must define the industry in which they are competing, identify the ways they are unique relative to that applicant pool, and highlight the differentiating features throughout every component of the MBA application, whether that's the cover letter, CV, essays or interviews.
In addition to looking for overall excellence – well-rounded, high-achieving candidates, who have at least two years of professional experience and have shown career progression, schools take into consideration international exposure, academic background, goals and what applicants do outside of work.
“When assessing professional experience, candidates should have shown career progression and leadership potential and in order to stand out, should give details on projects they have worked on and what they have achieved so far in their career,” says Vanos at HEC Paris.
One of the best things applicants can do to stand out is to attend an admissions event, adds Cambridge’s Russell-Green. “This is a fantastic opportunity to put a face to your name and connect with the people who will read your application. An MBA is a big investment in yourself, so it’s really important to find the right program,” she stresses.
How to secure post-MBA employment
With that said, a recession could affect potential job opportunities, making it important for MBA students to proactively find and secure opportunities while they study. One thing that you can do – even before you start your MBA – is to begin networking.
“LinkedIn is a great tool for this, [as] you can activate your existing network by reconnecting with old colleagues and classmates, you can find people doing the jobs that you’re interested in and potentially conduct informational interviews with them, and you can connect with students and alumni of the MBA program that you’re interested in,” says Russell-Green.
What else should prospective MBA students consider as they think about heading back to school during a downturn?
“You will need to be flexible,” she continues. “Whether it’s a pivot to a different industry or a move to a different location, you need to be prepared for a change in career trajectory as the job market may be uncertain.”
It’s also worth connecting with MBAs who graduated during the crises of 2008 and 2020, as they can give you insight as to what you can expect. “Although periods of downturn can be unsettling, they are also a great time for change and innovation – crisis creates opportunity,” says Russell-Green.