When to Apply to B-School

By: Jeremy Shinewald of mbaMission

At some point, every MBA candidate pauses to think about when is the best time to submit his/her business school application. Inevitably, we find that two main concerns are common among applicants:

  1. "If I apply in Round 1, will my application get lost among all of the 'uber type As'?"
  2. "If I apply in Round 2, will I be too late?"

In the past, MBA admissions officers have gone to great lengths to calm applicants' jitters, explaining that Rounds 1 and 2 are virtually equal with regard to one's chances of gaining admission. More recently, however, many of these officers have shifted their tone and have begun telling candidates that if they can complete their applications in time to submit them in Round 1, they should do so. Occasionally, a candidate will call us and ask, "Isn't it better for me to apply in the second round, to avoid competing with the best and most prepared applicants who typically apply in the first round?" The answer to this question, in short, is "No!" Candidates, if prepared, should apply early—in Round 1, no places in the class have been given away yet, and the admissions committees are still "fresh" (and are thus reading applications more attentively). Even if a school's Round 1 included "better" candidates, the school would not limit itself to offering a fixed number of places, but would instead accept more of these superior candidates or possibly place strong candidates on its waitlist to reconsider in the second round. So, you should make every effort to apply early, but not at the expense of quality—only apply when you can submit your best. Quality should be your main determinant in deciding whether to apply in the first or second round, with timing only a tie breaker.

Although we encourage candidates to apply early, if they are ready, we would never suggest that someone should give up on their MBA dreams for a year if submitting his/her application in Round 1 is just not practical. Admissions committees encourage early applications but also concede that selectivity differs very little between the first and the second rounds. To support this statement, we offer a small selection of quotes from our exclusive interviews with admissions officers:

"People ask, generally, is it better to apply in the first round or the second round or third round? We definitely advise people to avoid the third round if possible, because space can become an issue by the time the third round rolls around. But we do view the first two rounds as roughly equivalent."- Bruce DelMonico, admissions director at the Yale School of Management

"[We] get about a third of our applications in Round 1, about 55% in Round 2, and the remainder in Round 3….We encourage people to submit their application when they feel that they offer their best possible applications…. So, if you can get everything lined up and completed and you feel really good about it by October 10, then I would encourage you to apply in Round 1. But if it takes you a bit longer, and you want to take the time to look at your application again and maybe have somebody else look at it, then Round 2 is fine, too."- Soojin Kwon Koh, admissions director at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan

Without question, gaining admission at virtually any of the top schools in the third round is more challenging. When mbaMission interviewed J.J. Cutler, the deputy vice dean of MBA admissions, financial aid and career management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, he informed us, "Our ability to make decisions in the third round is different than it is in the first round. So my advice is to always use the third round as an absolutely last resort…. I think if you're serious, and if it's possible, you should apply in Round 1 or 2. Third round is—and we're very clear about this on our Web site—just significantly less optimal for an applicant than Round 1 or Round 2."

Similarly, Assistant Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Beth Flye from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University told mbaMission, "I would strongly encourage (applicants to) apply in one of the first two rounds. Are we going to shun those who apply in the third round? No, not at all."

Indeed, Rose Martinelli, the associate dean for student recruitment and admissions at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, addressed the myth of the impossible third round (R3) in a blog post, telling readers, "Somewhere along the line, R3 inherited the reputation of being somewhat irrelevant in the overall admissions cycle…. The truth is that R3 can be a bit more competitive simply because the majority of applications and acceptances will occur in Rounds 1 and 2. However, I'd like to emphasize that a good portion of our class will be admitted from R3."

Ms. Martinelli then added, "R3 exists for a reason…. Your dream school should be on your radar no matter what people 'are saying'!" Indeed, the third round is not a practical joke that schools are playing on applicants. By the time Round 3 rolls around, most admissions committees have been inundated with applications and are exhausted, yet they continue to review new candidates, and they still grant acceptances. Otherwise, they would just cancel the round and start their vacations. So if you find yourself unable to apply earlier than the third round, you do not need to take a pass on the year. If you feel you are a standout candidate, apply and see what happens...