MBA Application Advice: Should I Apply for Schools in Round 2 or 3?

MBA Application Advice: Should I Apply for Schools in Round 2 or 3? main image

With round one (R1) interview invites for most of the top MBA programs having come out, this is a time where successful and unsuccessful candidates, as well as those who for planning reasons did not submit an application, face the question of whether or not to apply in rounds two or three or to defer their MBA plans by one year.

Ultimately, the right thing to do will depend on the situation you find yourself in.

Scenario 1: Your R1 Applications were Unsuccessful

Most R2 application deadlines fall in early January. At the same time, R1 decisions may not be known until early to mid-December. This means that even if you have R1 interviews, depending on how many programs this is with and/or how you think interviews went, you might be considering expanding your school list and put in R2 applications. 

At this stage, presumably your test scores are set, your recommenders briefed, and your resume is in top shape. The heavy lifting on figuring out your career goals and personal story should also be done. Whether you already know the outcome of your R1 applications or not, this may be the right moment to reflect on your initial school selection.  

Expanding your original selection to now include lesser-ranked schools may also mean expanding your geographical scope. Applicants who initially focused on the US may find it worthwhile to explore options overseas, in particular in Europe.

European and Asian MBA programs are overall less selective than their US counterparts. As admissions data is generally not publicly available for schools outside the US, this claim is hard to substantiate, but it is safe to say that even at the very best non-US schools the odds of getting an interview should be roughly 50 percent across the board. 

Also, non-US schools are mainly focused on the Financial Times ranking, which does not give any weight to the average GMAT of a program. As a consequence, non-US programs can ‘afford’ lower average GMATs for their cohorts. All other things equal and with some notable exceptions, it is perfectly possible to enter a top program with a GMAT below 700. School averages remain a rough guide to what expectations are, and it is very obvious that averages are significantly lower than in the US. 

Finally, non-US programs put more emphasis on international diversity, which may well play in your favor. US applicants are particularly attractive to non-US schools, as they typically struggle to be noticed in the very saturated US market.

On the more challenging side of things, applying outside of the US may well imply that you revisit your career goals. Shifting geographical focus will impact your post-graduation employment prospects. Classrooms may be global, but labor markets are regional at best. 

If switching to Europe or Asia, you will have to have a strong story supporting your career goal in these markets, or be able to demonstrate how you will leverage your network and the school’s resources to secure an attractive offer in your market of origin. Researching the school’s employment reports and studying the reach of their alumni network should be key steps in making that shift.

Scenario 2: Your MBA Plans are Recent So You Weren’t Ready to Apply in R1

There are many reasons some candidates may have come up with the idea to do a full-time MBA only at this point in the year, after R1 applications have concluded. This may be a sudden shift in professional setting, an inspiring conversation with a mentor, or any other outside influence. These things happen. 

This means that essentially you are confronted with two choices: apply in R2 (January for most schools) or round three (March, April) to start classes in September of the same year, or delay your plans by one year to start in 2022. 

If this is you, let’s consider the one obvious bottleneck in the process: the GMAT (or GRE). If you have not already taken the test, or are about to take it, you may well want to focus your energy on that. If you have not started preparing, it may well be too late to get a competitive score by January, not to mention the work that needs to go into the applications themselves. 

While the odds of admission do not vary greatly between rounds one and two at most schools, round three should be expected to be very competitive. Even with a very good test score, it is not obvious that you should apply in round three rather than round one of the following year. Barring any hard factors, my advice would be to defer your plans and make sure you put in a very strong R1 application.

Scenario 3: Your MBA Plans are Recent But You’ve Already Taken the GMAT

If you have your GMAT already, then it is still perfectly possible to apply in round two. There are, however, two time-consuming tasks that you may want to focus on immediately. First, brief your recommenders, as these tend to be very busy professionals and their ability to meet deadlines is somewhat out of your control. 

Secondly, network with the schools. All schools offer a number of digital events and opportunities to reach out to current students, all of which you will see referenced on our schools page. Most schools care about your level of engagement, so it is important that you start networking right away. While this is not exact science, my recommendation would be to attend at least one virtual event per school you wish to apply to and speak to at least three current students or alumni. This takes time, so do not leave it to the last minute.

Regarding your application essays, provided you are willing to commit to writing time in your schedule, you should be fine. What you are unlikely to have plenty of time for is introspection. Depending on the maturity of your motivation to do an MBA, and on the nature of the schools’ essay prompts, this may well be a challenge. 

My advice here would be to schedule some time with peers or a mentor, to discuss your career goals and post-MBA plans in depth. In order to prepare for the more personal essays, set time aside to speak to close friends and family to understand the themes and values that are important for you and which you want to highlight in these essays.

Overall, applying in round one is preferable but if you are able (see above) to put in a strong R2 application, the relatively small increase in selectivity may be a risk worth taking in order to execute your MBA plans swiftly. After all, these rounds exist for a reason, and that is to recruit students. 

The drop off in chances with later rounds can be significant however, so unless you have very stringent time constraints or are from an underrepresented demographic, you may well want to wait for R1 to roll around again.

Written by Pascal M.

Pascal is a Senior MBA Admissions Coach with Menlo Coaching. Prior to that he was the Director of MBA Admissions at IESE Business School, and Career Coach for Financial Services. His previous career included roles with Citi in London, where he was actively involved in MBA recruiting, working as an EU civil servant in Brussels, and an early career in financial auditing in Paris. Pascal is passionate about helping people reach their full potential and is currently becoming certified as an Executive Coach by Columbia University.

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