As you probably know, there are typically three (and occasionally four) rounds of MBA application deadlines spaced throughout the year for top programs (to make it easier for you, we’ve compiled a list of the most recent MBA deadlines). During which round should you apply? There are strategic advantages to consider when timing your application.
The amount of time you have to devote to the process is, of course, one factor to consider. If you start late, you may not have enough time to submit a thorough and well-considered application during round 1. But that's just one of many factors.
You should also consider the acceptance rate of individual schools during round 1 and round 2. This is where it gets more tricky: there is no easy 'round 1 vs round 2 mba acceptance rate' formula. We will get into why that is below, as well as what you need to consider in order to figure out which round is right for you.
There are a surprising number of factors to consider in timing your application, including:
The short answer to this is yes, but that's an overly simplistic answer. To understand why applicants tend to do better in round 1, you need to know how admissions committees select applicants.
You might think that MBA admissions committees (adcoms for short) admit students based on cold, hard numerical data: highest GPA, GMAT score, current compensation, and similar figures. While GPA and GMAT are certainly important considerations, they're only a part of the picture. Adcoms worry that merely looking at the numerical profile of an applicant may result in admitting too many similar applicants. Lack of diversity in an MBA program causes significant downstream problems: groupthink in the classroom, lower job placement numbers (if students are all in the same industry), and a less rich and productive MBA experience overall.
This means that admissions committees are only ever going to admit a certain number of applicants from each cohort. Now, how exactly cohorts are broken down varies school by school, and the process allows for some flexibility. However, in the end, MBA programs seek diversity of opinion and backgrounds, and a good way to achieve that is by admitting a diverse group of applicants.
This means that an admissions officer’s criteria are twofold: are you qualified to attend the program, and has the school already admitted enough students with similar profiles to you? You can probably guess why round 1 is a more fruitful application period for most MBA hopefuls: no one has been admitted yet, so there is more room for people of every profile in round 1.
By round 2, adcoms are trying to fill in the blanks in their incoming classes— hoping to get applicants who are both qualified and different from those already admitted. Incidentally, in round 1, the available un-allocated budget for scholarships is also larger.
This may have you wondering why adcoms can’t simply plan ahead. Don’t they know who will be applying in each round? While some prognostication is possible, there are always unknowns that make planning ahead complicated. For example, the rallies in Charlottesville, VA in 2017 greatly reduced the applicant pool for round 2 at University of Virginia Darden. To hedge against future uncertainty, MBA programs may grab a "great" applicant in round 1 rather than wait for an "amazing" applicant in round 2.
There are two reasons to apply for a round 1 decision. First, and most obviously, you should apply for a round 1 decision if you are prepared. If, in looking at the list of considerations in the first subsection, you find no good reason to delay, then it is always better to apply in the first round: a better chance at a scholarship, more flexibility in who the adcom can pick, and even a possibility of being admitted with a lower GMAT score.
The second reason you should absolutely apply in the first round is if you are in a group that is over-represented in MBA applications. For example, if you are an Indian man in the tech industry, it is imperative that you apply in round 1, before too many other Indian men in tech have already been admitted.
You should apply in round 2 if you can make substantial improvements to your profile by waiting. In considering the list from the first subsection, it is worth looking into whether more time would improve your chances. Let’s get into some of the specifics.
If you don’t have time to raise your GMAT score and also improve the rest of your application significantly, you should postpone. Studying takes time and energy as does working on your essays. It may be the case that you simply don’t have time to do both and also apply in round 1. Both are necessary for a successful application.
If you haven’t had the chance to network with the schools you’re considering, you should postpone to round 2. Meetings students, staff, and alumni at your target programs is an essential part of preparation for an MBA application. At the very least, you should do extensive research on the specifics of the programs you are interested in. If you can’t get your campus visits finished by the summer, chances are you will be unable to do the necessary research to complete a winning application in time.
Additionally, if you have a promotion or other major work experience coming up in the near future, you should postpone. A major promotion or a shift in your responsibilities, especially one that demonstrates that you are on the path to your MBA career goals, will be invaluable in your application. If you are confident that one is on the horizon, you will likely have a better chance of getting in during round 2 after it has come to fruition.
If you have looked into the GMAT Club and the Clear Admit Decision Tracker, you may be wary of applying during round 2. The data there can seem very clear that a round 1 application is always better. These data are made less reliable by a few different factors that are worth noting:
Applying during round 3 (or during the final round, which, depending on the school, may be round 4 or round 5) is often a risky proposition. While it is generally much safer to apply during round 1 or 2, there are two cases in which it might be safe to apply during round 3.
The first case is if you are from an underrepresented applicant pool, whether because of demographics or because you work in an unusual or exciting field—say, as a successful entrepreneur. For these applicants, round 3 may be a safe time to apply. In general, if you are an otherwise promising applicant, round 3 will work if you are from a cohort that adcoms are desperate to increase in their programs.
The second case is if you are applying to a less-competitive school. The top 10 schools get more than enough applicants to fill out their classes with highly qualified students. However, some lower-ranked schools struggle to fill their classes completely with top-notch applicants. As a result, if you are highly qualified and have a solid profile and application, you may find luck applying to a slightly lower-ranked school during round 3.
From a division of labor standpoint, it may seem like good sense to apply to your reach schools in round 1 and then meet MBA application deadlines for your more attainable schools during round 2. Given how much work goes into applications, studying, and the GMAT, this may even seem to be the most prudent course of action. But it is usually a mistake. The best decision is typically to send off all your applications during the same round. There are several reasons for this.
All in all, you can improve your application and capitalize on your strengths by making smart decisions about the round in which you apply. It isn’t just about the numbers. It’s also about the type of profile you have and whether or not you can improve it during a later round.
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David White is a founding partner at MBA admissions consulting firm Menlo Coaching. His 15-year tech career included executive roles at startups (Efficient Frontier, acquired by Adobe) and publicly traded companies (Yahoo, Travelzoo), during which time he hired, trained and developed dozens of young professionals. He has been coaching MBA applicants since 2012 with a special focus on developing the right career goals.