The 12 Steps on How to Apply to Business School Series – Step 2: Plan your Timing

April 30, 2015 | by Matt Symonds

On average, leading business schools organize three or four rounds of admissions in the 12 months before matriculation (with the exception of Columbia Business School and a small handful of other schools who have rolling admissions and review applications as they’re received). Common sense suggests you should apply only when you’re ready, but let us explain how things work behind the scenes and the reality of how places are allocated from one round to the next.

Most US schools publish application details for the coming year in June/July, including any changes they may have made to the essay questions. Beyond a handful of deferrals from the previous year, all the places for the following year are available in Round 1. When we ourselves managed admissions offices, we saw many of the best applications in the first two rounds and made offers accordingly. This means that 40-50% of places may be awarded in Round 1, and a further 40-50% in Round 2. There have been times when we’ve headed into the final round knowing that there were only limited places remaining, and would still receive hundreds of applications. We would read them all carefully; looking for the hidden gems, but usually the quality of applicants in the final two rounds was lower. Included among them would be what we described as “Hail Mary” applicants – a reference to a desperate long pass in American football that has little chance of success.

That’s why you should be thoughtful about planning for your deadlines. Decide the schools to which you want to apply and in what order. The application process is a long one; it requires you to prepare thoroughly for the GMAT admissions test, write essays, work with recommenders, and create an overall presentation that reflects who you are. Therefore, particularly for US schools, our advice is to maximize your chance by applying for one of the first two rounds. The early bird may indeed catch the worm. Also, remember that you cannot control the quantity, quality, or profiles of your competitors. Second-guessing whether there will be more IT specialists, investment bankers, or particular nationalities competing for places is pointless. Focus on your application, which is in your control.

The other thing to remember is that many applicants will use Round 1 to submit applications to the most competitive business schools. Last year, Harvard Business School received over 9,540 applications for its 936 places. Stanford, meanwhile, received over 7,100 applications for its 809 spots. Applicants reckon they can use Round 2 as a fall back, should they need to apply elsewhere. As a consequence, a number of excellent schools below the top tier see a spike in applications for the second round.

Some find it unmanageable to submit thorough applications to multiple schools in Round 1. We generally suggest that students divide up their list so that they have time and energy to give their full attention to each school. Wait until Round 2 if the extra time will allow you to deliver a more thoughtful application. Admissions directors are not easily duped. They can tell the difference between an application that was thrown together to make the deadline and one that was given plenty of thought.

Finally, you would not believe how many times we’ve seen files that have the candidate’s date of birth as the date of application. Or ones in which they have copied text from one application to another and forgotten to change “LBS” to “HBS”. Develop a schedule, stay organized, and plan to submit your application a few days in advance of the deadline, having proofread everything several times. That way you can avoid spoiling your application by a silly mistake made in the final stressful hours.

The next step of this series will look at self-reflection and how to position your candidacy.

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