For high flyers wishing to push their careers to the next level, an MBA from one of the world’s most prestigious business schools can open doors like few other qualifications.

Harvard Business School students cheer during their graduation ceremonies in Boston.
Image: REUTERS/Brian Snyder

But before you settle down behind your rosewood desk in that penthouse office, you first have to get on the course, and that’s no easy task.

The application process

At the first stage you’ll need a stellar resume and some very high calibre recommendations. The requirement for multiple essays as part of the application process has been dropped by many of the big MBA schools, but that hasn’t necessarily made getting in any easier.

“The admissions process should not be a sort of essay writing contest,” a spokesperson at Harvard Business School told the Business Because blog. “But I must confess, I don’t think anyone would call the HBS application process easy, even with just one essay.”

If the first hurdles are passed, you’ll probably have an interview – an hour-long process during which you must prove that you are a cut above the thousands of other applicants who all want the same place you are fighting for.

So now you know what you’re up against, here’s a list of the top 10 business schools in the world (compiled by the Financial Times) and the percentage of applicants who make it through the selection process.

Stanford – Graduate School of Business

6% of applicants accepted

Harvard Business School

11% of applicants accepted

Berkeley University – Haas School of Business

13% of applicants accepted

MIT Sloan Executive Education

15% of applicants accepted

Columbia Business School

18% of applicants accepted

University of Pennsylvania – Wharton Business School

20% of applicants accepted

University of Chicago – Booth School of Business

24% of applicants accepted

London Business School

26% of applicants accepted

Institut Européen d'Administration des Affaires (INSEAD)

31% of applicants accepted

University of Cambridge – Judge Business School

33% of applicants accepted

Applications spike

Despite the intense competition and high failure rate, the number of applications for the leading MBA courses has risen sharply in recent years. Harvard Business School received 9,534 applications for the MBA class of 2016. MIT Sloan has attracted the biggest jump in applications, with an increase of 35% in 2015.

A wider welcome

While competition for places on a prestigious MBA is getting stiffer, the schools are working to make their intake more diverse.

  Women's full-time MBA enrollment percentages in the US
Image: Forte Foundation

Progress has been slow, but the intake of women rose from 32% in 2011 to 36% in 2015. Harvard Business School and Chicago Booth are ahead of the pack with 41.5% female students in their classes.

The rewards for getting onto a prestigious MBA programme are substantial. The chart below, published by The Economist, shows the return on investment for some of the leading MBA courses one year after graduation.

 Good value MBAs
Image: The Economist

The chart shows that the returns on a top MBA may not be immediate. But a recent Financial Times survey shows that three years after graduation, salaries increased 70-145%.

In short, if you get in, you’ll get on.