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Savvy MBA Application Strategy: How Many Apps, Which Schools, When to Apply

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You’ve decided the MBA is the next stop on your career path.

What now?

The smartest applicants are those who take the time to create an informed MBA application strategy—a well thought-out game plan that can help you obtain your goals as efficiently and effectively as possible.

One of the first challenges you’ll face is school selection—strategically choosing which schools to target, bearing in mind the competitive mix of those schools.

In recent years, MBA applicants appear to be trending downward in terms of the total number of schools to which they apply. Where applying to five to seven schools was once considered the norm, today candidates apply, on average, to between three and five. It is likely that a combination of factors are at play here, more information is now available online about schools, and each application is very time consuming.

Making Your Wish List

So what types of schools should make up the list a candidate ultimately applies to? While the answer will obviously depend on the individual candidate, one piece of advice applies to all: only apply to schools that you would be happy to attend, if they were your only choice. There is no point in applying to a school which won’t help you realize your goals.

With that main tenet as a guide, many candidates find it valuable to classify schools into three buckets: reach schools, match schools and safety schools. Applying to at least one school in each of these buckets helps position a candidate to get into and ultimately attend the best possible school that their candidacy will allow.

Say you apply to all safety and/or realistic schools and gain admission to every school. While on the surface this appears like a successful MBA application strategy, that is only true if your mix of schools included the best possible school to reach your goals. It is more likely that you did not aim high enough in terms of your selection of schools; a truly successful MBA application strategy often includes one or two rejections along with acceptances at schools where you will thrive.

Round 1 Versus Round 2

In terms of MBA application strategy, one of the biggest questions prospective applicants wrestle with is whether to apply in Round 1 or Round 2 to the school they most want to attend.

Overall, if you are an outstanding candidate and have had adequate time to prepare your candidacy, then you should apply as part of the first round to your top choice school. If you are a strong candidate, but perhaps are not in the top echelon or would benefit from a little more time and experience in the application process, consider delaying your application to your top choice school until Round 2. In the meantime, apply to a couple of other schools (that you would attend if not admitted to your top choice) in Round 1. There is a learning curve to the application process, often your first applications are not your strongest.

No Material Difference Between Round 1 and 2 For Some Candidates

As many an admissions officer will tell you, there is really no material difference in terms of admissions whether a candidate applies in Round 1 or Round 2, unless the candidate is from an over-represented group.

If you are from an over-­represented group, then there are advantages to applying in Round 1 assuming you are confident in your ability to produce a superb application early in the application process. Over-­represented groups are typically male candidates who are either from India or China or work within common feeder industries or organizations for the MBA pipeline (consulting, banking, large corporations).

This is not to suggest that admissions committees discriminate against these candidates. But they are charged with building a diverse class, which means they cannot afford to have one particular group over-represented in the classroom.

If you are part of one of these over-represented groups, by applying in Round 1, you will know that the admissions committee is starting from zero in terms of choosing applicants from your demographic.

For candidates who do not hail from an over-­represented group, spreading applications over the first two rounds probably makes best sense from a time management standpoint.

Assessing The Relative Advantages 

Deciding which schools to apply to in which rounds requires careful evaluation of the relative advantages of each option. There are advantages to applying to your top school first. If you are admitted to your first choice school, you can avoid Round 2 altogether. This assumes that the Round 1 programs in question will notify with an admissions decision before the Round 2 application deadline, which is now typically the case. Gaining acceptance to your first choice in Round 1 might also give you confidence to apply to additional schools which you had not considered before, because you thought they were out of reach. In this case, applying to a top school as part of the first round may inspire you to extend your list of “reach schools.”

Gaining admissions to your top choice school in Round 1 can also simplify the decisions involved with beginning the MBA program and help applicants get on track earlier for student visa, scholarship and financial aid considerations.

On the other hand, there are also advantages to applying to a candidate’s top school in Round 2, the experience of applying in Round 1 to other programs should sharpen the application for the top school, increasing the chances of admission.

The Takeaway

There are advantages to applying in either Round 1 or Round 2, depending on a range of factors that vary from applicant to applicant.

Advantages of Round 1:

  • Learning the decision sooner helps planning for the future and reduces the mystery of the process if admitted.
  • If the applicant is from an over-represented group (an Indian male working in banking, for example), his candidacy faces less competition and will be considered at a time when more spots are available in the incoming class.

Advantages of Round 2:

  • Your first application is unlikely to be your best application, due to the learning curve of the admissions process. The more you work on your applications, the more effective you will be.
  • You’ll have more time to research, plan and execute, rather than rushing to apply in Round 1.

Round 1 Versus Round 2: Myth Busting

Myth: The acceptance rate is higher in Round 1, therefore it is easier to gain admissions.

Reality: Knowing the admit rate on its own is meaningless, without knowing the quality of the candidates. Often Round 1 has a higher proportion of top candidates and therefore has a higher acceptance rate. Admittable candidates will be admitted at the same rate, whether they are applying in Round 1 or Round 2 (unless they are from an over-­represented group). You should believe the adcoms when they say it does not matter whether you apply in Round 1 or Round 2. The key is to apply when your application is as strong as it can be.

Myth: The quality of applicants in Round 1 is higher than the quality in Round 2, therefore I should apply in Round 2.

Reality: The quality of applicants in Round 1 is generally higher than the quality in Round 2.

That being said, the admissions committees know this and make admissions decisions accordingly to make sure they can select the best candidates for their programs across both rounds. They are also able to use the waitlist between rounds to compare some “marginal admits” from Round 1 to the applicant pool of Round 2, a pool they know nothing about when they are making Round 1 decisions. Another way to look at this is to think about the fact that applying in Round 1 and getting waitlisted puts you right into the second (and if needed, third) round applicant pools—giving you two more chances to make the cut. If you apply later and end up on a wait list, you have fewer opportunities to make the cut.

One final note: Round 3 (or any late or final round) is generally used to fill in gaps in the class. The admit rates are typically much smaller, but so is the quality of the applicant pool in the final round.

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