Undergraduate Institutions and B-School Admissions

Without exception, the top U.S. b-schools are associated with the country’s top universities – Wharton with the University of Pennsylvania, Tuck with Dartmouth, Kellogg with Northwestern, and, of course, Harvard with Harvard, Stanford with Stanford, and Columbia with Columbia.

Some MBA applicants wonder if that means that holding an undergraduate degree from a less-celebrated college or university could lessen their chances of winning admission to a top U.S. b-school.

The honest answer to that question is that it could – but not by much, and not in any way that couldn’t be offset by following an appropriate application strategy.

The Ivy League Advantage…

Applicants who hold degrees from Ivy League and peer institutions do have an edge in graduate and professional school admissions. The Wall Street Journal did a survey a few years ago of the top U.S. 'feeder schools' for the top-ranked business, law, and medical schools in the country. The 3 schools that came out at the top of that list were Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

Different factors play into that trend. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and their peers are highly selective schools to begin with. They attract exceptionally ambitious and accomplished students. It is not surprising that those students apply to grad schools in greater-than-average numbers or that they succeed at grad school admissions at a higher-than-average rate. Many of those individual applicants would probably have been successful no matter what undergraduate institution they went to.

Another factor that works in the favor of elite university grads is that companies go to more trouble to recruit students from schools like Harvard and Princeton than they do to recruit students from state universities and small liberal arts colleges. That can give an Ivy League graduate entry-level opportunities that someone coming out of a lesser-known school can only dream about. Those entry-level opportunities, in turn, help position a young professional to be a competitive candidate to the top MBA programs a few years down the road.

In addition, there is also no denying that graduates from the Ivy League and other national universities also benefit simply from the name value of their undergraduate institutions. When an admissions committee member sees a B.A. from Harvard or Yale on an applicant’s records, he or she assumes the applicant has something going for them. And in most cases that’s not an unreasonable assumption. The students who make it through the admissions gauntlet into the top-tier schools are typically exceptionally bright, disciplined, and energetic.

…And Its Limits

That doesn’t mean, however, that a bachelor’s from the right college or university is all that you need to secure admission to a top MBA program. A Princeton alum’s application may get a second look by admissions officers just because of the name on his diploma, but they won’t decide whether to admit or deny him on that basis alone. They will hold an Ivy League graduate to the same standards that they hold all other applicants to. If this hypothetical Princetonian doesn’t have the required GMAT score, work experience, recommendations, or essays, he won’t get in.

The top business schools select MBA students from a wide range of educational and career backgrounds. There are 161 undergraduate institutions represented in Tuck’s Class of 2016. At Wharton, accepted students had attended prestigious universities, such as Harvard University, Columbia University, and Stanford University. Stanford's Class of 2014 hold degrees from 168 different colleges and universities worldwide, including 77 different U.S. institutions.

The bottom line on undergrad institutions and MBA admissions is that having a degree from a top national university is an attention-getter. If you don’t have that going for you, you will have to package your applications in such a way that those things that are your attention-getters – your 'wow' factors – are highlighted. That doesn’t amount to much of a disadvantage. In fact, it’s an opportunity for you to stand out from the crowd.

The Bottom Line

B-schools are really very democratic when it comes to admissions decisions. They don’t care as much about the name of an applicant’s undergraduate college or the prestige of her previous employer as they do about what the applicant achieved there. They are looking for talent, and they know that it can come from anywhere.

Don’t let doubts about the name recognition of your undergraduate institution hold you back from pursuing your dream of getting an MBA. It’s what you have done with your education, and not where you got it, that will make the difference in your business school application outcomes. If you recognize your strengths and present them in the right way, you may well find yourself beating out applicants from better-known schools in the competition for the limited number of seats at the top U.S. business schools.

Note: For a conversation on the reported earnings differential between a candidate with both top-tier undergraduate and graduate degrees and a candidate with only a top-tier graduate degree, please click here.