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Everything You Need to Know About Applying to Business School in the Final Rounds

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Is it worth applying to business school in Round 3 or any of the late rounds? This is the question that MBA applicants have asked time and time again. With final round deadlines roughly a month away, we thought it would be worth exploring this topic in detail.

Why Do Schools Have a Final Round?

Why do schools bother to have a final round of admissions when the acceptance rate is typically so low? Why not just have two rounds of admissions deadlines and call it a day? Before we write off the final round or suggest that it should go the way of the dodo bird, we should remind our readers that MIT Sloan, which for many years did not even offer a ‘Round 3’ for its candidates, has added it for the 2015-16 admissions cycle. So there must be a reason for the existence of a third (or fourth) deadline, right?

Admissions Goals

In order to understand the role that late admissions rounds play, we need to take a step back and look at the full admissions picture from the standpoint of the MBA admissions office. Most programs have three overarching admissions goals:

  • To enroll their best class in terms of the quality of the individual candidates,
  • To craft an incredibly diverse class along the lines of represented geographies, ethnicities, industries, functions, nationalities, outside interests, gender, future goals, and more, and
  • To enroll a specific number of students

Because of these goals, admissions committees face a significant challenge as they build the class.

Final Round Fit

Typically in the final round, admissions committees will seek out two broad candidate types; those that fill specific gaps in the makeup of the class, and those who are simply outstanding by all measures. The bar is generally held high at this stage, relative to the general admissions statistics for the school in question.

By the final round, admissions committees generally know the numbers and makeup of their Round 1 and Round 2 admits, as well as the yield from Round 1 in terms of enrollment deposits. They will also have a number of candidates on their waitlists, many of whom have signaled their commitment to attending the program if admitted. Given this context, Round 3 candidates will be judged in terms of how they compete with the quality of candidates on the waitlist, while also being compared to other candidates in Round 3 that might fill out “gaps” in the makeup of the entering class.

Someone Has to Get In…

It is unlikely that no candidates are admitted from a final round to a leading program, as this would only occur if the yield from Round 1 admits was higher than predicted, the volume of admits from Round 2 was high, and a number of waitlisted candidates have already signaled commitment and compete favorably with Round 3 applicants.

The reality, however, for candidates from over represented groups, such as Indian IT males, or white male financial professionals from New York is stark. Generally, because the class is crafted for diversity along many measures, work experience, geography and so forth, candidates who display similar backgrounds to those already admitted are simply not as “attractive” at this late stage.

In short, your best chances in the late rounds are to either be absolutely incredible in terms of your overall profile and numbers (we’re talking 3.8, 770 here) or to be very competitive (numbers that meet the average for the class) but highly unique (e.g. the non-traditional candidate with a home-run profile and highly feasible career plan).

Risks, Advantages & Costs of a Final Round App

Obviously, in an ideal world, a candidate would avoid a final round application – but if you are reading this, you likely have limited choice, and have been left to seriously consider the reality of a final round application.

As you ponder your chances, keep in mind that despite the challenges outlined above, an application in the final round gives a candidate an opportunity for admission; avoiding the final round (and perhaps waiting for another year) offers a 0% chance of starting b-school this coming fall.

A key question that many final round applicants pose is whether or not a rejection in this year’s application cycle might harm a future application. Typically the answer is no, for a couple of reasons.

  1. Many schools’ acceptance rates for reapplicants are actually higher than first-time applicants (or at minimum they are the same). Schools tend to like the commitment that a reapplication signals. Candidates also learn through the admissions process by applying, so their reapplication is generally stronger than a first-time application.
  2. Another common concern is the need to show significant improvement in an application for a reapplicant. While this is generally true, and makes sense for those applying a year later, the difference in time-frame from a final round application and a first round application (when reapplicants should apply) is a matter of a few months. Admissions committees generally realize this and recognize that sometimes an applicant is denied during a final round simply because there was no room, having nothing to do with the quality of the applicant.

The costs of a final round application are the time invested in the process and, of course, any expenses, which will include fees and travel. While these are certainly worth considering, the truth of the matter is that most of the time spent will serve you well in an eventual reapplication – and the cost of applying pales in comparison to the expense one will incur when ultimately pursuing their MBA.

Who Applies in the Final Round?

Finally, we should take a look at the applicants that tend to apply late to a particular school; this group of applicants tends to fall into four categories:

  1. Those who have been rejected by the schools they have applied to in earlier rounds, so are still seeking a school to attend.
  2. Those who have been admitted by the schools they have applied to thus far, and are looking at higher tiered schools to apply.
  3. Those who do not realize that those who apply late face decreased odds of admission (typically non-traditional candidates who are somewhat out of the more traditional MBA applicant loop).
  4. Those who have determined, only recently, that they would like to seek an MBA, and were not ready to apply during earlier rounds.

While there is no real difference between these categories in terms of the overall quality of applicants, the fourth group (and possibly the third group too) can signal their rationale for applying in a late round, by pointing to their later date for their GMAT score. Thus this group can, to some extent, justify their later application. Applicants from the first two groups may be attractive to the schools they apply to, depending on the individual school. For example, someone who has overshot (category 1) might actually be really attractive to a lower ranking school, even in this late round.

Final Tips

For those of you about to embark on a final round application, you should now have a clear understanding of what it might take to find success. Given the high bar that is set in this round, we would like to call your attention to some of the critical resources we provide on the process that can help you craft a truly outstanding application. Check out our Résumé Guide, our Reapplicant Guide, our Recommendation Letter Guide and our entire suite of School Guides and Interview Guides for all of the top schools.

We should mention that in some instances (UNC / Kenan Flagler and Babson / Olin come to mind) schools will continue to accept applications on a rolling basis after their published ‘final round’ – based on the availability of spaces in the class.

Best of luck to anyone who takes the plunge on a final round application to business school!

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