MBA Admission Criteria - Timing your application

If you don't apply early, you probably won't be going to a top school. There is so much competition among schools for the best candidates that admissions officers can't afford to pass on good applicants in the early rounds. Consequently, there are very few open spots remaining after the January deadlines. Although there are opinions to the contrary, I still believe it's best to apply in the first round, especially if you feel you're a strong candidate. Most schools have three application periods, but some have as many as five.

The problem with the first round is the quality of its applicants. There are a lot of "sharks" in that round. They aced the GMAT, got good grades in college and have great work experience. To top it all off, they managed to get their acts together and finish their applications in time for the first-round deadlines.

You don't necessarily want to be compared with those applicants, so it's tempting to skip the first round in hopes of finding more slobs like you (and me) in round two. It sounds good, but there's a problem with that strategy. There will be more than twice as many applicants in round two as there were in round one; and they will be competing for fewer open spots.

How Many People Apply in the First Round?

A typical top program might have 600 to 800 applicants in the first round. Stanford has only about 230 spots to fill while Anderson has about 320, Kellogg has about 500 (fall admission only), and Harvard has a massive 850 (also fall admission).

Although Stanford has 230 spots, it will typically make about 290 offers. That's because not everyone offered a spot accepts it (even at Stanford!).


You may already know about "yield," the percentage of applicants who actually accept offers made by their schools. Harvard has the highest yield at about 87 percent. After that comes Stanford at about 80 percent. Then the numbers drop pretty significantly. Kellogg, for instance, has a yield of only about 60 percent, which means it must make 830 offers to fill a class of 500 students.

So if I know that Kellogg will make 830 offers for the fall term and that only about 600 people will apply in the first round, I might be willing to swim with the sharks and try my chances early. The second round at top schools may have more than 2,000 applicants, all competing for the leftovers. I don't like those odds. It's too easy to get lost in the shuffle. If I apply early, I know I'm going to face some stiff competition, but at least I know there are a reasonable number of spots still available.

So apply whenever you like, but try to get your application in before the January deadlines. And remember that it will take two months to collect your undergraduate transcripts, complete all the application forms, write your application essays, and get your boss to finish your letters of recommendation. I know that sounds surprising, but I encourage all the people I work with to apply to at least six schools; and even with my hounding, it usually takes them two months to get through that many applications.

Exceptions to the First Deadline Rule

There are a number of exceptions to the first deadline rule. I'll list just a few of them here:



CBS has an early application period (usually mid-August to mid-October) that you should take advantage of if possible. If you apply during this period, you will be notified of the school's decision in about eight weeks, which means you could know that you've been accepted at Columbia before having to apply to any other school. (Just over half of the applicants I encouraged to apply during the early round last year were admitted). The Bad News:  Accepted applicants have to put down a non-refundable deposit of $2,500 to hold their spots.

Wharton and any Other School that Operates on a Pure Rolling Schedule:


If your school processes applications on a pure "rolling" basis (no cut-off dates), it's probably best not to apply immediately after the school begins accepting applications. I guarantee you the sharks will have their applications in on the first day. If you wait about four weeks, the admissions people should have read through the sharks' applications. You'll be able to avoid the toughest competitors but still be early.



Because the Anderson School has four application rounds -- not three as most schools have -- I think it's best to apply in the second round, which is typically in December. You will still be early, but you will manage to avoid the first-round sharks. (Also, over the last few years Anderson has accepted a higher percentage of applicants from the second round than from the first!).

What if I Want to Retake the GMAT But My Deadline is Coming Up?

I run into this problem all the time. "If I apply now I won't be able to retake the GMAT, but if I wait until I can take the test again I'll miss the upcoming application deadline." It's a judgment call that depends on both your GMAT score and the deadline you're considering skipping. If your GMAT score is already in the mid 600s, apply at the upcoming deadline. A few more points won't help as much as making an early deadline.

If, on the other hand, you scored 600 or below and you are fairly certain that you will go up on the next test (and you will accept only a top school), you might want to skip the deadline. But waiting until February or later to apply is usually a bad idea. There are few spots available after the January deadlines, so think hard before blowing them off.

A Possible Strategy for Handling This Situation

A few of my students have come up with a good way to handle this situation. (I learn all my tricks from my students.) They wanted to retake the test, but didn't want to skip a deadline to do so. They solved the problem by submitting their application on time and then retaking the test before the application could be processed (which typically takes eight weeks).

If their scores went up on the new test, they would call the school and ask that the application be held until the new scores arrived (which takes only two weeks). If, on the other hand, their scores went down, they simply didn't send the new scores and tried their luck with their original scores (which had been sent with the application).

This worked incredibly well two years ago, when the computerized GMAT was first introduced. The schools made accommodations for everything having to do with the new version of the test because they anticipated problems. Last year, however, a couple schools weren't quite as accommodating and wanted people to stick with the score they reported when they submitted their application or slip to the next deadline if they wanted to use their new score.

So call your schools first if you are thinking about employing this "straddle strategy." Make sure they will accept a later score while honoring an earlier deadline. (Harvard won't.)