How to Choose the Right MBA Application

No matter how accomplished or talented you are, it would be foolish to assume that you could effortlessly gain entry into an MBA class at a reputable and selective business school.

One strategic consideration that every MBA applicant should keep in mind is the importance of application timing. Graduate business schools generally publish a series of application deadlines, giving candidates the flexibility to choose among them. Any application submitted prior to a particular deadline will be compared with others sent by that deadline.

The number of MBA application rounds and the timing of those rounds vary depending on the B-school, but usually MBA programs offer three application rounds, with the first in the fall and the last in the spring.

An Early vs. Late MBA Application Round

Because MBA programs provide admissions offers and scholarship prizes in several stages, the odds of getting accepted and winning a scholarship are highest for individuals in the first wave of applicants – but only if their credentials are solid and their applications are polished. Compromising quality for the sake of speed is a mistake, MBA admissions experts say.

“Apply as early as you can, as long as you’re submitting the strongest application that you can,” suggests Kelly Wilson, executive director of masters admissions at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business in Pittsburgh.

Occasionally “life happens” and prevents a person from submitting MBA application materials in time for a particular round, in which case he or she can try the next round or apply in a subsequent admissions cycle, depending on individual circumstances and personal preference, Wilson adds.

Somebody may realize in the middle of an MBA admissions cycle that they’d like to attend business school and enroll in the upcoming fall, thus applying to B-school later than their peers who have spent a long time contemplating the possibility of an MBA – and that’s OK, Wilson says.

“As people are considering what’s going on in their lives, they may not decide until moving toward Round 3 that they want to take advantage of the opportunity to begin a program in the fall,” she says. “And so I think for some people there’s a long-term planning cycle that goes into the MBA and for others, it may not be as long, and so I wouldn’t be afraid to make a decision in the spring.”

For instance, someone contemplating New Year’s resolutions may realize that they want an MBA degree, and they may be in a hurry to get it, Wilson explains. “Why not throw your hat in the ring for Round 3? A strong application is going to be viewed as such in Round 3 just as it is earlier,” Wilson says. “We have many candidates who come to the MBA program who successfully applied and were admitted in Round 3.”

The Advantage of Applying in Round 1

Nevertheless, if someone is ready to apply for an MBA during Round 1 of the admissions cycle, it is prudent to submit an application then.

“All things equal, I do recommend applying in Round 1,” Dione Chen, founder of the Strategic Admissions Consulting company, wrote in an email. The process of filling an MBA class is similar to an orchestra conductor trying to choose musicians, Chen suggests. A conductor who has already identified an outstanding tuba player may not be interested in getting another, so the conductor may reject an exceptional tuba player who auditions later, she says. In that scenario, auditioning as early as possible is optimal.

The same principle applies within MBA admissions, says Chen, who earned an MBA degree from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business in California. “Every top MBA program seeks to shape the most dynamic, talented and diverse class out of thousands of applicants and have no choice but to turn away as many as 9 out of every 10 applicants who are extremely qualified,” she explains. “A risk of applying Round 2 is that someone similar to you will have already been accepted in Round 1 and the school needs to look for someone different. It doesn’t mean you’re not qualified – you just may not be what they’re looking for.”

Round 1 vs. Round 2 MBA Applications

Some MBA candidates rush to complete their applications in time for Round 1 deadlines and submit sloppy admissions materials as a result of their haste, according to MBA admissions experts.

“To be able to successfully execute Round 1 applications requires planning and being able to dedicate a lot of time and effort to the process,” Petia Whitmore, founder of My MBA Path, an MBA admissions consulting firm, wrote in an email. “That’s not always possible. Sometimes the timing of applying is impacted by external events – family, jobs. Often as the deadline looms, candidates find themselves needing more time to work on their materials than they anticipated.”

Furthermore, a B-school hopeful may be dissatisfied with his or her standardized test score on either the GMAT or GRE and could attempt to raise the score by studying more, explains Whitmore, who previously served as dean of graduate admissions at Babson College’s Franklin W. Olin Graduate School of Business.

“In the end, the most important thing is to ensure you have put together the strongest possible application,” she says. “If that’s not possible for Round 1, a candidate is better off applying for Round 2.”

David White, a founding partner with the Menlo Coaching admissions consultancy in the Netherlands, emphasizes that applying during Round 1 is ideal if feasible.

“When you apply in Round 1, they haven’t admitted anyone yet, so there’s zero risk of being rejected because they’ve already admitted other applicants from your cohort,” White wrote in an essay on his consultancy website. “Furthermore, 100% of the year’s scholarship budget is still available, which means that the chances of winning a scholarship are also higher.”

The argument for applying in Round 1 vs. Round 2 is especially strong for MBA candidates from “oversubscribed demographics,” such as those who work in either the finance or consulting industry, says Shaifali Aggarwal, founder and CEO of Ivy Groupe admissions consultancy.

Nevertheless, MBA hopefuls who need a few months to become competitive at their dream B-school should take that time without thinking twice, suggests Aggarwal, who has an MBA from Harvard Business School in Massachusetts. “In other words, having stronger, better quality applications in Round 2 trumps trying to meet Round 1 deadlines with subpar applications,” she wrote in an email.

Round 2 vs. Round 3 MBA Applications

Round 2 is when the majority of MBA hopefuls choose to apply to B-school, whereas Round 3 tends to be the least popular application round.

Michelle Diamond, CEO of Diamond Admissions Consulting company, encourages MBA hopefuls to apply to B-school in Round 3 only if they have an especially compelling and interesting life story. “Otherwise I recommend they wait until the following admissions cycle,” says Diamond, who earned her MBA at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in North Carolina.

Some people apply to B-schools in Round 3 because they were rejected by more selective MBA programs earlier in the admissions cycle but remained determined to start an MBA degree program in the fall, says Linda Abraham, founder of the Accepted admissions consultancy.

The Downside of Applying to B-School in Round 3

Though it is possible to get into B-school in Round 3, it is by far the most challenging application round since so many B-school seats have already been claimed.

“At this point, admissions committees are seeking candidates who are either exceptional or who may fill a gap for their class profile,” Emily Swenson, co-founder of the JEM Achievement test prep and admissions consulting firm, wrote in an email.

“It may not hurt you to apply during this round if you simply could not be prepared until that late in the game,” says Swenson, who has an MBA degree from the University of Wisconsin—Madison, “but always keep in contact with the school to understand if they will hold it against you if you need to reapply next year.”

Sally Wolf, a New York City-based corporate well-being coach who received her MBA from Stanford, says she would discourage most people from applying to B-school in Round 3 except for extraordinary individuals who can make a case that an MBA class would be incomplete without their presence.

“Everyone is unique, of course, but by the time round 3 applications are read the majority of the class is known, so it becomes increasingly difficult to stand out,” Wolf wrote in an email.

“When I did alumni interviews, one of the strongest candidates I interviewed was a round 3 applicant. She blew me away in every regard. Brilliant. Curious. Humble. Kind. And, additionally, she represented an ethnic group severely underrepresented on campus. I gave her a glowing recommendation and thought for sure if anyone would be admitted round 3 it would be she. And yet she was rejected. We remain connected on LinkedIn and she has gone on to incredible success, with a degree from another top school, but I will always look at her as the applicant who taught me that even with an impeccably strong application, minority background and alumni support, the odds (in round 3) are still stacked firmly against someone.”

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