While applications for business schools are up, administrators and students told Insider that searching for jobs and internships while in an MBA program or post-graduation requires more grit and attention now than ever.  

"The class of 2020 came to Stanford Graduate School of Business in a strong economy, and they were rounding the final lap of their MBA education when the pandemic and economic downturn struck," Jamie Schein, assistant dean, and director of the Career Management Center at Stanford GSB, said. "It was sudden." 

Things have changed for MBA programs, used to have little trouble placing candidates in high-paying, prestigious roles. Organizations such as investment banks and consulting firms typically hire newly-minted MBAs through networking events, but with those on hold and recruiting budgets limited many companies have been forced to delay or rescind offers. Startups and other smaller businesses, meanwhile, are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and hiring less. 

A downward trend in job offers mimics this assumption. The drops are small, especially at top-tier schools and compared to the current US unemployment rate of 6.3%, but significant for programs that pride themselves on job placement.

Three months after graduation, 91% of Stanford GSB MBA graduates in 2020 who were looking for jobs had received an offer, compared to 94% at the same time in 2019. Graduates of the class of 2020 at the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business reported that 93% of MBAs had a job offer within three months of graduation, compared to 97% in 2019. At Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business, 89% of those seeking employment in the class of 2020 had a job offer within three months of graduation, compared to 94% in 2019. 

"Once everyone had a chance to adjust to remote working and recruiters assessed their needs, the annual just-in-time period of the recruiting season concluded at a steady, but the reduced pace," Stephen M. Rakas, executive director of the Master's Career Center at the Tepper School, told Insider in an email. "Naturally, some industries have been hit much harder than others, which has resulted in some students adjusting their plans." 

More than 30% of Tepper graduates last year entered the tech space, which experienced growth as a result of the pandemic. This was also true at UCLA Anderson School of Management, where nearly 32% of members of the class of 2020 accepted jobs in tech — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google are among the top hirers, according to the school's preliminary report on employment.

Tech has been rising in MBA hiring for years, and the upward trend continues at a time when many people are turning to online services. On the other hand, hiring for financial services was down slightly in 2020 at some top business schools.

How graduates and students are managing

Caroline Hart, a 2020 graduate of the UCLA Anderson School, had been a brand strategist for the marketing company Anomaly in New York before pursuing an MBA. 

Hart interned at LinkedIn in San Francisco in the summer before her second year of business school. When LinkedIn made her a full-time offer right before the pandemic hit, she declined because she preferred to land a job in Los Angeles. Hart said she could never have predicted what was coming. 

From March to July last year, there seemed to be no jobs available, she said. "I was competing against MBAs and people who were laid off," she said about the market. "You had to hustle a little harder." She quickly realized that she had to be far more aggressive in networking and consider startups as much as she did larger, more established companies.

As the Fourth of July approached, things started to pick up again. By the end of her job search in October, she'd received three offers and accepted one as director of brand and product marketing at SaaS startup Brainbase.

The process at Brainbase was quick, she said. She interviewed in early September and her first day was October 20. She'd found the role on LinkedIn after messaging the company's vice president of sales Matthew Jenks. The two shared a mutual contact, someone from Anomaly, who sang her praises to Jenks.

Hart shared that she had to compromise slightly on salary, but it was worth it to land at a company she loves. She added that Brainbase was eager to offer options to make up for a difference in salary expectations.

"I know others who have sacrificed a lot more in salary," she said. "For instance, some friends are going below the $90,000 to $100,000 range for a role at a startup." She added that many of her friends are finding themselves accepting jobs similar to the ones they'd had before business school. 

This experience resonates with Francisco Enriquez, who's a second-year student at Stanford GSB and is expected to graduate in spring 2021. 

"Now that companies were recruiting over Zoom, there was less opportunity to show off other skills," Enriquez said. "It's harder to break through the noise and demonstrate value coming from a non-traditional business background. You might not get across your EQ as easily on Zoom."   

Without the benefit of chatting up someone on the way to the elevator or taking cues from body language, Enriquez felt it was harder to get across his personality and fit, he said. For example, he was invited by one potential employer to an event designed to be like a virtual cocktail party, where participants moved between online rooms at 15-minute intervals. 

"Needless to say, the experience of moving across Zoom breakout rooms was much different than that which I might have had at an actual cocktail party, where the conversation is much more fluid and responsive to evolving group dynamics and conversation topics," he said. 

Enriquez worked in public policy in the Texas government before enrolling in business school, but he aimed to work in real estate after graduation. He landed a summer internship with a real estate firm in Washington, DC, and ended up working entirely virtually. 

Over the summer, he scheduled calls with every managing director at the firm and took advantage of the school's alumni network to put himself in a good place post-graduation.

In the wake of the pandemic, Stanford had rolled out "You Never Walk Alone," an effort to match students with alumni according to their interests. Through this program, Enriquez connected with an alumnus who was running a real estate investment company in California, who taught Enriquez how to research the interests of those he wanted to contact and write relevant emails that would get them to respond. Eventually, Enriquez's internship employer offered him a full-time job, and he accepted. 

Allegra Tepper, a 2020 graduate of Stanford GSB, decided after the pandemic hit to focus on school and not dig heavily into her job search until July. 

"Hiring managers were figuring things out in real-time," Tepper said about her personal experience. "You would be going through the process and then they would freeze hiring. False starts like that were not infrequent." 

Like others, Tepper said the competition was fierce because companies were looking for those with more experience who'd been laid off or sought qualified candidates internally. In November 2020, Tepper took a job with Apple as a product manager in worldwide product marketing for the FaceTime product. 

Prospects post-pandemic

For business schools, the pandemic continues, and so does the reality of the job hunt. Salary data shows that they remain high, but there are graduates and students on the brink of graduation who're still looking for employment. 

"Industries still struggling economically such as hospitality and transportation will continue to be somewhatrisk-averse' about hiring MBA switchers," Doreen Amorosa, associate dean of McDonough Career Services at Georgetown, told Insider. "However, I am cautiously optimistic that MBA hiring demand will generally improve as the economy rebounds. This will begin to evolve in the spring when MBA candidates about to graduate will be especially appealing for experienced hiring recruiters looking to fill just-in-time roles."

Business schools are still in the thick of the recruiting season for the class of 2021. Traditionally, schools don't share employment data until the winter after graduation. However, career placement advisers who spoke with Insider said they feel good about the future, even the switch to online recruiting. 

"Currently, we are cautiously optimistic," Rakas said. "Their employment is tracking higher than the class of 2020's pre-COVID statistics last winter. One advantage of all-virtual recruiting is that we're seeing many employers are more easily accessible to a broader set of students. It will be very interesting to see how this trend plays out in the coming years."

Investment banking faced some uncertainty when it came to hiring, Lianne Pinto, a second-year MBA student at the McDonough School, told Insider. Pinto interned with a clean energy company in the summer, and contacts there suggested that she look into full-time work with investment banks in the clean technology sector. 

Pinto managed to get a job as an associate in one of these niche investment banks. After her internship, she leveraged her network and used LinkedIn to find contacts to reach out to. Banks were hiring because of the overall positive trajectory of the clean energy sector, Pinto said. 

In early October, Pinto began applying to MBA associate roles and landed her first offer in mid-November. The process from application to offer took about a month and a half, she said. After graduation, she'll work at Nomura Greentech, a renewable-energy-focused investment bank.

Graduates are hopeful for their 2021 counterparts and their own classmates who are still on the hunt. 

"Be patient," Hart said. "The right job will come along. There are jobs out there. I feel I needed that encouragement."