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Admissions Tip: Should I Apply in Round 1 or Round 2 to My Top Choice School?

Admissions Tip: Planning for Round 2

This is the second in a two-part series on MBA application strategy. In case you missed the first, check it out here.

In terms of application strategy, one of the biggest questions prospective MBA applicants wrestle with is whether to apply in Round 1 or Round 2 to the school they most want to attend. As you might imagine, based on our years of advising applicants to top-tier business schools, Clear Admit has some thoughts on the matter.

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.

“The reason for this is simple,” explains Eliot Ingram, Clear Admit co-founder. “There is a learning curve involved in the application process, and your first application is rarely your best application.”

No Material Difference Between Round 1 and Round 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 diversified 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, Ingram points out. “If you are admitted in Round 1 to your first choice school, then there is often no need to submit applications in Round 2,” he says. This assumes that the Round 1 programs in question will notify with an admissions decision before the Round 2 application deadline, which is typically the case.

“Of course, getting an early acceptance to your top choice school in Round 1 may also give you the confidence to apply to schools you hadn’t considered before in Round 2,” Ingram adds. In this case, applying to a top school as part of the first round may inspire you to extend your list of “reach schools.”

“Either way, getting an admissions decision from your top school as part of Round 1 can reduce cost and uncertainty in the application process,” Ingram says. It 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 later. “If a candidate waits until Round 2 to apply to her top school, then the experience of applying in Round 1 should sharpen the application for the top school, increasing the chances of admission at the top school,” Ingram points out.

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 Vs. 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 “wait list” 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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