Choosing which programs to apply to is one of the first steps you will take when you decide to pursue an MBA degree. Alongside that difficult decision, you must also prioritize the schools on your list. This prioritization will determine the schedule of your entire application cycle, because it decides which application deadline you are going to aim for, and therefore the timing of every step of the process.
Typically, in a U.S. MBA program, there are three rounds you can apply to—one in the early fall, approximately September, one in the mid-to-late fall or even early January, and a final round in early spring. Some schools have 4th or even 5th rounds, while still others have rolling deadlines. The deadlines for each round for various schools can vary widely, so you must collect this information early for each program you are interested in (deadlines for 2020-21 will be released in the next month or so!). Once you’ve done that, you’ll know when you need to schedule standardized tests, contact your recommenders, and start writing essays.
Applying to round one sends a message to the adcom, loud and clear: their program is one of your top choices. It follows, then, that you should be applying at R1 to, well, your top choice programs. And we don’t mean your favorite 20 programs. We mean a handful of programs that you are absolutely in love with.
Many people believe you have a better chance with a round one application, but historical data shows that it is true only for a few top programs—HBS, MIT, and CBS, in particular, had notably higher rates of acceptance in round one over the last four years. The real advantage you are snagging with a round one application is the chance to send a message to the adcom about your commitment to the program.
The most important thing to note about round 2 applications is that this is the deadline that sees the MOST applicants. That means the pool that you are competing against is likely bigger than in the other rounds, and may be more competitive. However, before you panic, remember that most schools don’t have a vast difference in acceptance rates between R1 and R2, and in fact many have higher rates of acceptance in R2. So clearly many of these schools are also ACCEPTING more people in round 2. While there is no hard and fast rule, there is a general pattern: top 15 ranked programs tend to have higher R1 acceptance rates, while programs outside the top 15 (which still includes many excellent ones!) tend to have equal or even higher rates of acceptance for R2.
Another advantage to keep in mind with R2 is that you may benefit enormously from the extra time you take to carefully prepare your application. Round 2 gives your recommender the time they need to write a glowing letter and you (and your admissions consultant!) time to double and triple-check forms and essays. If you decide to apply to R1 despite not quite having all your ducks in a row, you will certainly eliminate any benefit you might have gained from being an early applicant. It is always worth taking the time you need to craft a strong application. For this reason, R2 is a solid place to be for the bulk of the programs you apply to.
You may have heard some negative rumors about Round 3, and unfortunately, there is some truth to these. With a few exceptions, acceptance rates for R3 are generally lower than in the first two rounds. When you apply in R1, you are sending the adcom a positive message; when you apply in R3, you are saying exactly the opposite: “you are NOT my priority,” or “I was too disorganized to get an app in for R1 or R2.”
For this reason, you should only be applying in R3 for a couple of very particular reasons. First, if the program you are applying to is one that you have a very good chance at being accepted at and you want to have that backup on hand in case you receive bad news from your first choice programs, then R3 might be the right choice. Second, if you had some exceptional, catastrophic event happen in the fall that prevented you from getting your applications in, you can apply in R3 and include an explanation (usually in the additional, optional essay section). As with all extenuating circumstances, this needs to be convincing and worthy of the adcom’s consideration—not “my dog ate my homework.”
However you plan your applications, be sure to give yourself plenty of time to create an application that represents your best effort. Know your deadlines well in advance, and plan accordingly.
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