Which MBA Application Round Should I Apply in?

Experts discuss the best round to submit your MBA application

Those applying to the world’s best business schools face a litany of choices. From deciding which admissions test to take — GMAT or GRE — who to flatter for references and, of course, which schools are the best fit, such decisions can make or break your MBA application. Another critical question to answer is: which round should I apply in when submitting an application to a top North American business school? (Read our piece on the upcoming application deadlines.)

“The schools would say this isn’t true but the reality is different,” says Chioma Isiadinso, founder of the Expartus admissions consultancy in New York, “It matters which round you apply in.” 

While most of the top schools have different “rounds” of applications, others accept pitches on a rolling basis. Depending on your school of choice and the MBA program’s start date, application deadlines differ. Understanding the process is the first step to securing a place. 

Most round two application deadlines — such as for Harvard Business School and The Wharton School — have already fallen in January, although there are exceptions. Those applying in round three are usually required to file their paperwork in March or April — NYU Stern and Yale School of Management are good examples. And for rounds four and five, the cut-off date is typically in May or June. Round one begins again in October 2018. 

Schools stagger there application deadlines to cope with the influx of applications — an elite school like Stanford Graduate School of Business will receive several thousand every year — giving them time to make more informed admissions decisions, and ultimately build a stronger cohort. Staggering a class also provides an opportunity for candidates to prepare applications for multiple schools — a lengthy process. 

Conventional wisdom has it that applying earlier can help a candidate gain entry to an MBA program, as the longer you leave it, the less space there will be. “The best time to apply is when you have your strongest application, and all the seats in the class are available,” Isiadinso says.

For international candidates, applying early also gives you more time to organize logistics and visas, if you’re admitted. However, some candidates may fare better applying later in the process. 

“At the beginning, it’s an open book,” says Suzy Laurent, member of the admissions committee at IMD in Switzerland. “But by the end of the application season we have a feel for the cohort and try to fill in gaps; we look for diversity. We want to make sure the group we create learn from each other.” 

Those from more traditional backgrounds applying in the later rounds can also raise eyebrows, Isiadinso adds. “If you’re an investment banker and apply in the third round, people will ask — why did you wait? Are you truly committed?”

Candidates know this, which is why there is usually an influx of applications in round one, according to Isiadinso, who previously worked in the Harvard admissions office. But rushing an application to gain early-mover advantage can cause issues too.

“Where candidates run into problems is when they have shoddy or mediocre applications because they are hurried,” she continues. “Even a larger pool of candidates is offset by the extra time to turn the application from a B+ into a solid A.”

Applicants can also face difficulty when they have missing pieces of the admissions puzzle, such as a strong GMAT or GRE score. Isiadinso says: “In this world of the ever-higher GMAT average score, someone with a score below 700 might decide to hold off and take the GMAT one more time before applying to business school.” 

Delaying for too long could also hinder your application, of course. A big factor to consider is schools’ average age benchmark. Chioma suggests that it can be more difficult for a candidate to secure an MBA place if they are over the average age of an MBA student at a particular school. 

And you could also revise an application to the point where anything meaningful is lost — schools are already concerned about the authenticity of essays. 

Ultimately, Chioma says, there is no right or wrong answer when deciding which round to apply in: “It’s a balancing act.” 

Seb Murray
Written by Seb Murray

Seb is a journalist and consulting editor who has developed a successful track record writing about business, education and technology for the international press.

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