Business Administration

MBA Application Deadlines Ultra Guide: Requirements, Timeline, Checklist & Tips

MBA Application Deadlines Ultra Guide: Requirements, Timeline, Checklist & Tips
Use your application to tell a compelling story about yourself and why you will represent a valued addition to any MBA cohort. And whatever you do, don't forget to submit your application on time! Image from Unsplash
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella March 19, 2021

Qualifying for an MBA program is demanding, but applying can feel even harder. This ultra guide can help your admissions experience flow smoothly.

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If you're thinking about earning an MBA, you probably know it can lead to excellent job opportunities and high salaries. You probably also know that getting into a top program is a lengthy and difficult process.

MBA applications and enrollment have soared during the pandemic. According to the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), 33 percent of MBA programs reported "significant growth"—with increases of at least 20 percent—in applications during 2020. As more people apply, the competition for top programs becomes even more fierce than usual (and it was already pretty fierce).

Further complicating the admissions process, students must choose among full-time, part-time, in-person, and online MBA programs. Each has its benefits and drawbacks, application deadlines, and admissions requirements. Before applying, applicants need to ask themselves questions like "Which do I value more: in-person networking or a flexible schedule?"

There's so much application information that you may need a corkboard and spool of red string to keep everything straight, or an MBA Application Deadlines Ultra Guide: Requirements, Timeline, Checklist & Tips. Simplify the process by understanding similarities and differences among the three main types of MBA applications. This article covers:

  • MBA programs: in-person full-time, in-person part-time, online
  • Admissions requirements
  • Admissions timeline
  • Admissions checklist
  • Admissions tips
  • How to optimize your admissions chances

MBA programs: in-person full-time, in-person part-time, online

While significant differences exist among full-time, part-time, and online MBA programs, all three have commonalities. Students improve their business management skills and pursue networking opportunities through management-focused coursework. Graduates typically qualify for business leadership positions.

What all MBA programs have in common

Though there's no universal curriculum, most MBA programs include core classes on:

  • Accounting
  • Business ethics
  • Economics
  • Finance
  • Leadership
  • Marketing
  • Operations
  • Project management
  • Quantitative reasoning and statistics

Recently, MBA programs have started placing more of an emphasis on analytics and statistics, especially as data and business become more intertwined. What does a typical MBA curriculum look like? Online students at University of Tulsa complete courses that include:

  • Computer Information Systems
  • Corporate and Business Strategy
  • Financial Management
  • Leading and Managing Organizations
  • Marketing Management
  • Operations Management
  • Preparing, Understanding and Using Financial Statements
  • The World Economy

Most MBA programs allow students to specialize, regardless of format. Specializations can include:

  • Entrepreneurship
  • Finance
  • Healthcare management
  • Human resources
  • Information technology
  • International business
  • Operations management
  • Organizational behavior
  • Risk management
  • Supply chain management

In-person full-time MBA

This is the traditional MBA format. If you attend one of these programs, it likely means taking about two years off work to complete the degree. Full-time MBA students are typically younger than part-timers.

According to Poets and Quants, full-time programs prefer young (in their 20s) students "because they have just the right amount of experience in the world of work to make valuable contributions in class yet are not entirely set in their ways."

Full-time in-person MBA programs typically look for applicants with a minimum of two to five years of work experience. Per US News & World Report data from 2020, students enrolled in full-time MBA programs averaged a little over four years of work experience. In contrast, their counterparts in part-time programs averaged nearly seven.

Networking is a significant draw of full-time programs. Students get more face-to-face time with professors and classmates, plus opportunities to attend lectures and events. Many programs assign students to cohorts, which fosters networking and a greater sense of camaraderie than an online program typically provides. Students complete group projects and gain experience working with others to prepare for professional settings.

Naturally, much depends on the program you attend; top schools have the best networks. For instance, Massachusetts Institute of Technology boasts over 136,000 alumni. Part-time and online programs also offer networking opportunities, but it's a primary focus of in-person learning.

In-person part-time MBA

Part-time MBA students are typically more experienced than full-timers—nearly seven years in the workforce after an undergraduate degree. Part-time MBA programs accommodate working professionals, in part explaining the reduced focus on inter-program networking.

Because they're older and have more responsibilities, part-time MBA students usually need to work harder to balance work, school, and life responsibilities. The upside is they have an opportunity to apply new skills in real-time.

Students in part-time programs often have different graduation goals than full-timers. Many are looking for advancement in a current position. Still, part-time programs offer recruiting events, webinars, and career services for those who want to take advantage of those opportunities.

Completing a part-time MBA can help students change fields or specialize. For example: a health management specialization can help graduates with a more traditional business background prepare for healthcare administration positions.

Two other things to keep in mind regarding part-time programs:

  • Employers may be willing to pay, or help pay, for a part-time MBA if the student can work while studying
  • Part-time students usually attend a local school, rather than one across the country or internationally.

Online MBA

Today's online programs are often at least as good as their in-person counterparts, especially at top schools. Students share many of the same experiences in both program formats. Howard University, for example, offers online students opportunities to study abroad and meet recruiters.

Like part-time programs, online MBAs attract working professionals and focus less on networking than full-time programs—though there are many opportunities. According to Poets and Quants, online MBA students usually have the most experience of all the formats—over nine years, on average. Some programs attract candidates with as many as 15 years of experience; because students are so far along in their careers, they focus more on refining skills than networking.

There are several reasons to choose an online MBA, especially if you already have experience. Online programs may provide the same education for a lower price. The per-credit tuition is usually similar, but going to school online does not require students to move or travel, translating to potentially significant savings. Another major benefit of attending an online program is you aren't limited to schools in your area or travel radius.

Employers may help pay—or pay entirely—for employees' online MBAs. Online students typically have access to recorded lectures, which can be viewed at their convenience, and assignments with more flexible deadlines. All these features make it easier for students to continue working as they learn.

Finally, while online programs may not have as many unstructured networking opportunities—for example, talking to classmates after lectures— they can make up for the deficiency with options like virtual networking events and week-long on-campus intensives. Attending an online program allows students to get the best part of an in-person program without the sacrifice.

Still, networking looks different in online programs, and may require creativity. It's essential to connect with professors and classmates via email, LinkedIn, or school message boards. Group projects take on more importance, as those are organic opportunities to meet and connect with classmates. You may find it beneficial to set up group outings to in-person networking events outside of school with classmates who live in your area.

Admissions requirements

Before diving into the differences between full-time, part-time, and online MBA admissions requirements, it's useful to examine some common prerequisites. These rules are not quite universal—for instance, more programs are becoming interview-or test-score-optional—but they provide a reasonable summary of what you can expect on an application.

Requirements typically include:

  • Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) scores__: Top schools usually look for scores above 700; results in the 600s can qualify you for a highly respected program.
  • Interview: The interview provides an opportunity for the school to get to know you and the only opportunity to make your case face-to-face. Though interviews can differ greatly, expect to speak about your work history, interests, goals, and experience.
  • Letters of recommendation: Bolster your application with quality letters of recommendation from employers or past professors who can speak to traits like work ethic, intelligence, and skillset.
  • Personal essay: This is your chance to highlight the most compelling aspects of your candidacy and sections of your resume that might get glossed over. It can also be an opportunity to discuss how you've overcome specific challenges; you may take this opportunity to spin negatives into positives. Tailor your essay to the chosen school; programs may require multiple personal essays or statements.
  • Resume: Your resume should clearly and concisely highlight not only your work experience but also your personal and professional accomplishments. It's essential to showcase achievements like scholarships and fellowships or activities that highlight your leadership and character, according to Poets and Quants.
  • Undergraduate transcripts: You must include an official undergraduate transcript with your application, plus transcripts from any graduate program you've previously completed. Many schools will accept unofficial transcripts during the preliminary screening process, but you will have to submit official copies before a final decision is made. If you have unpaid library fines at your alma mater, get ready to pay them.

Remember, the application process can differ substantially, even among programs with similar content.

In-person full-time MBA

Historically, in-person programs place a greater emphasis on undergraduate GPA and test scores.

For this reason, it's harder to get into the full-time MBA at schools with multiple-format options. Part-time University of Chicago students were able to get in with GMAT scores in the upper 600s in 2017. Full-time students had an average of around 720, according to a Poets and Quants article. This may not sound like much, but it's much harder to get your GMAT score from the 90th to 95th percentile than from the 60th to 70th. If the school cares about standardized tests, not having a top score can stall your application.

In-person part-time MBA

First and foremost, part-time programs usually have much higher acceptance rates than their full-time counterparts. New York University Stern's full-time program admitted 23.2 percent of applicants, while the part-time program admitted 68.1 percent in 2019, according to Poets and Quants. The acceptance rates for the Ohio State University - Main Campus part-time and full-time programs were 65.1 and 36.1 percent, respectively, for the same year.

Full-time programs also place a greater emphasis on undergraduate GPA, even at top schools. According to 2019 figures from Poets and Quants, full-time Texas A & M University - College Station students had a 3.33 GPA, while part-timers had a 3.19. The ratio at University of California - Berkeley was 3.67 to 3.4, and at Northwestern University, it was 3.6 to 3.41. This is not the case for every program. Many have similar numbers, and a few, such as Georgetown University, even have part-timers with higher GPAs than full-times (3.34 versus 3.36).

These differentials aren't necessarily indicative of relaxed standards for part-time programs but, rather, of different priorities. Full-time programs rely on test scores and GPA because they have little else to go on; students aren't professionally experienced enough yet to impress with their achievements. Part-time students have typically spent more time in the professional world; they have demonstrated those abilities that test scores and GPA suggest.

Online MBA

The application process for online MBA programs is more like part-time than full-time programs. Many online programs, such as the one at Southern Methodist University, are test optional, meaning students don't need to submit GMAT scores. Test optional programs usually emphasize other aspects of an application (typically work experience). SMU also only requires an unofficial undergraduate transcript. While that's not a huge deal, it is convenient.

Acceptance rates for online MBAs are also more comparable to part-time programs, and even higher in many cases. Indiana University - Bloomington accepted 82 percent of applicants in 2020, according to Poets and Quants. At the "low end" of the spectrum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill admitted just under half of all applicants (49 percent).

Admissions timeline

You may have the greatest recommendations and personal essays ever, but they are useless if you don't submit your application on time. Each school sets different deadlines. Generally speaking, Full-time MBA programs offer three rounds of admissions deadlines. Round one is in September or October, round two is in January, and round three occurs in April. Online and part-time programs typically have looser deadline requirements. Many admit students at multiple entry points throughout the year, allowing students to start in the fall, spring, or summer terms. If you're anxious to get started on your MBA and don't want to wait until the next fall to start, you will find plenty of online MBA programs to accommodate you with an earlier start date.

It's advisable to apply in the first round unless you need to substantially improve your GMAT scores or another area of your application. Schools have a blank slate in round one. They have more scholarship funding available and can admit applicants from multiple backgrounds. Round two is used to home in on specific candidates, meaning if you have a computer science background and the program already admitted six other students with a similar skill set, you may be out of luck. Round three is typically for the final spots and is generally reserved for those with unique backgrounds and extenuating circumstances.

Here are some examples of the admissions process at high-profile schools—each has a place in the top 25 of US News & World Report's list of best full-time, part-time, or online MBA programs. All dates come from the 2020/2021 MBA admission cycle, meaning they may not be the same next year.

In-person full-time MBA

MBA programs traditionally have three rounds of application deadlines per class. University of California - Los Angeles College of Business and Economics utilizes the traditional three-round structure. The application deadlines and admissions dates are:

  • October 2 and December 18
  • January 8 and March 26
  • April 16 and May 21

It's essential to write specific deadlines on your calendar because there can be differences even among programs with similar structures. Like UCLA, Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management has three deadlines, but round one is nearly a full month earlier. The application and decision schedules are:

  • September 16 and December 9
  • January 6 and March 24
  • April 7 and May 12

Stanford University Graduate School of Business uses a schedule that's nearly nearly identical to Northwestern's:

  • September 15 and December 10
  • January 6 and April 1
  • April 6 and May 20

There are exceptions to the three-round rule. Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business offers four rounds of application deadlines and admissions decision dates:

  • September 28 and December 10
  • January 4 and March 18
  • March 29 and May 6
  • Rolling from April 1 to June 1
  • Rolling from May 10 to July 1

Dartmouth is also part of the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, which is a highly regarded diversity network. Deadlines for students applying through the Consortium are:

  • October 15 and December 10, 2020
  • January 5 and March 18

Not every student applies through the Consortium, but it's worth mentioning to illustrate that some programs offer fellowships or scholarships with different or additional deadlines.

Some institutions, such as The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business, set different deadlines for domestic and international applicants (who also typically need to submit Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) scores to demonstrate English language proficiency as part of their application). The first three rounds, and their corresponding decision dates, are open to all applicants:

  • October 13 and December 17
  • January 5 and March 25
  • March 30 and May 6

Domestic students (meaning citizens and permanent residents) can also submit during a fourth round:

  • May 11 and June 17

In-person part-time MBA

Some schools, such as UCLA, may utilize the same deadlines for the part-time program as for full-time. UCLA applicants submit once and then can be admitted to either the full-time or hybrid program, which combines some online components and in-person classes. The hybrid program is designed for working professionals; it requires four campus visits per quarter.

UC Berkeley Haas School of Business also offers the traditional three deadline and decision options:

  • November 10 and February 5
  • January 12 and April 6
  • March 16 and May 21

Many part-time programs have rolling admissions, meaning that students receive a decision a certain number of weeks after submitting their application, rather than on a specific day. Applicants to the University of Chicago Booth School of Business are notified within four to six weeks. Booth offers two part-time options (evening or weekend) and two terms (summer or autumn). The application deadlines are:

  • April 2
  • June 11

Northwestern's part-time program also has three application deadlines, but that's where the similarities to its full-time program end. Students apply on a rolling basis, meaning they receive a decision between six and eight weeks after submitting. There are also three start-dates for classes—spring, summer, or fall. The application deadlines and start dates are:

  • January 6 and the week of March 30
  • March 31 and the week of June 21
  • June 9 and the week of September 20

Online MBA

As a rule, online MBA programs offer the most start dates and admissions opportunities.

Boston University's Questrom School of Business admits two classes per year, one in January and the other in August. There were two 2020 applications rounds for the January program:

  • September 16
  • November 4

And three for the August program:

  • November 4, 2020
  • January 20, 2021
  • March 24, 2021

The online MBA at the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management has a whopping six start dates:

  • Spring 1: January 11
  • Spring 2: March 8
  • Summer 1: May 1
  • Summer 2: July 5
  • Fall 1: August 30
  • Fall 2: October 25

The program website reports that each application deadline is approximately one month before the corresponding start, meaning students hear back in a matter of weeks, which is about as rolling as an admissions process can get.

The UNC program has start dates in January, April, July and October, each with two opportunities to submit. For example, the July start date had a priority deadline of March 22 and a final deadline of April 19.

Lastly, the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business applicants typically hear back within six weeks of submitting an application, which coincides with multiple admissions rounds. For classes beginning on August 9th, the deadlines are:

  • February 25
  • April 15 (this round is the last opportunity to earn a scholarship)
  • June 3

Admissions checklist

Though a great starting point, not every checklist is as simple as:

  • Essay(s)
  • GMAT (or GRE if your school allows)
  • Interview
  • Resume
  • Transcript

For instance, international students usually need to submit TOEFL scores and potentially apply for a student visa.

The very first thing you should do is familiarize yourself with the admissions requirements for each school to which you're applying. Because each application and timeline can be so different, you'll likely make more than one checklist. There's nothing worse than getting ready to hit send and realizing that you didn't complete the entire application or the deadline passed. Good questions to ask yourself while building an admissions checklist include:

  • Are there program-specific essay requirements?
  • Does the program offer scholarships? Is there a separate application deadline? Ask the same questions about financial aid.
  • Do I need to pay an application fee?
  • How many recommendation letters do I need? Do any need to come from an employer?
  • How much, if any, work experience do I need?
  • Is the interview optional?
  • Is there a preferred way to submit my transcript? For instance, USC recommends official e-transcripts.
  • Is the school test-optional?
  • When do I need to alert the program of my attendance and place a downpayment?
  • Will attending an admissions event boost my chances?
  • Will I need to change my work schedule to attend? Is that something I need to discuss with my employer?

Admissions tips

There's no perfect way to apply to an MBA program, but these helpful tips apply in most instances:

  • Apply in one round: It's easier to keep filling out new applications once you've started the process. Additionally, it's best to get every decision back simultaneously, so you can decide on a school and not need to scramble to fill out round two applications if you don't get into your desired program.
  • Prep thoroughly for the interview: This means familiarizing yourself with the program and the interviewer, if possible. You should also prepare questions for them and have answers ready when they ask you things like "what's your biggest weakness" and "why do you want to attend?"
  • Be clear about your reasons for applying: This includes discussing your career goals and interests. Programs want students who know what they want from an MBA program but are open to new experiences. Balance is important.
  • Begin early: This is just good life advice in general, but it's helpful to begin your application early to allow time for it to grow and change. Let things percolate.
  • Don't forget about soft skills: Programs love to admit excellent communicators, not just people who are good at the technical aspects of their jobs. Make sure you discuss subjects like communication ability and collaborative nature.
  • Focus on leadership: Business programs want to admit students who are already leaders and can grow in a leadership role. Play up that aspect of your application.
  • Letters of recommendation are not an exact science: Ideally, you will get a gushing letter of recommendation from the most accomplished person in your field, but sometimes it's more effective to get a recommender who knows you well and can personally attest to your abilities. You also do not want three letters that say the same thing—make sure you ask a diverse group of people.
  • Package your work experience section carefully: Take on as many leadership positions as you can at work, and highlight them on your resume. Be confident and able to discuss your accomplishments. Network at your job in a personable way and think about who you can ask to write a recommendation letter.
  • Tailor your essays: Even if you are using the same essay to apply to multiple schools, make sure it doesn't sound like boilerplate. Better still, write a unique essay for every school to which you apply.
  • Use your essays to showcase your personality: Personal essays should not just be a list of accomplishments. They are an opportunity to stand out and give life to your resume.

How to optimize your admissions chances

Following the recommendations set out in this guide can help optimize your chances of getting into a top program, especially if you really wait until you're ready to apply. For instance, you may have excellent GMAT scores and grades but only a year of quality work experience. Waiting and preparing a little longer may boost your chances.

Before applying, you should conduct an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. Every applicant has shortcomings; knowing your own can pay dividends. If you have excellent work experience, letters of recommendation, and interview skills but bad GMAT scores, you may want to focus more on test prep than anything else. Figure out the point where your returns begin to diminish and then strengthen another area of your application.

If possible, apply early decision to your top school. It showcases your desire to attend, which can help push your application over the top, and may help you qualify for scholarships.

It may be tough to hear, but you can do everything right and still get passed over. Getting into an MBA program, especially a top one, is challenging. It requires skill, but also luck. Admissions committees can pass over even the most worthy applicants, especially if they already have people who are similar to you. The good news is that if you don't get in on your first try, you can always try again.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

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