All aspiring MBAs must decide how many and which business schools to apply to; the key is to be aware of where you are in the application "window"—or where you are in life in general.
The vast majority of MBA students are in their mid-20s to early 30s. Only a small portion comes directly from college, and only a few attend full-time business school in their late-30s or 40s. But even within the prime eight-year window—from 24 to 32—applicants should consider five issues when deciding where to apply.
[Read about the safety net deferred MBA admissions can provide.]
1. Age: Many applicants in their mid-20s decide to apply only to their first two choices, figuring that if they don't get in, they can reapply down the line when they have more experience. While this approach may work for some younger candidates, it's not recommended for applicants who are a bit older. Instead, older candidates should apply to a wider array of schools to ensure that they will at least have the option of attending business school next fall.
Of course, the best scenario involves an intelligent mix of "reach" and "safety" schools that will yield a choice of MBA programs for the applicant. Unfortunately, some candidates get on a misguided "Harvard or Stanford … or nothing!" kick that doesn't serve anyone's interests.
2. Career path: Some MBA aspirants hold positions where they can continue for many years, but others work in areas, such as consulting or investment banking, where policy or tradition encourages young employees to get further education.
In environments where one can continue to advance unfettered, a candidate might consider applying solely to his or her top choice programs. However, candidates coming from companies with two- to three-year analyst programs, which don't allow for much upward progression, should probably cast their nets wider and assemble a bigger portfolio of schools.
[Learn more about applying to business school.]
3. Career track satisfaction: Several MBA applicants, who feel locked in roles that are too technical or too narrowly defined, have told me they want to apply to just a couple of very highly ranked programs.
However, when people hope to transition to either an entirely new role or industry sooner rather than later, they should apply to a broad range of business schools. There are incredible programs throughout the top 20 in the b-school rankings (and even beyond) that can provide the classes, career programs, and alumni networks that aid this kind of transition.
4. First timer or reapplicant: A candidate who is going through his or her second round of business school applications should almost always apply to more schools. If the candidate is applying a couple of years down the line after dramatically improving her experience base, then she might add two or three new schools to the mix, but should still target her top programs from a few years before.
However, if the candidate is applying the very next year without significant changes in role, experience, or extracurriculars, he should pursue a different base of schools, with perhaps one or two holdovers from the previous year.
[Read about how prospective MBAs may face tougher applications.]
5. Family considerations: Taking two years to get an MBA is not just a business decision—it's also a life decision. Sometimes, the interests of boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, or children are critical factors in making the decision of if, when, and where to apply. These considerations are much more complex and varied than the factors listed above, so it's difficult to work through them in depth here.
For instance, some students want to get through business school quickly so they can start a family afterward, while others may view business school (with day care, low travel requirements, etc.) as a great environment to begin to build up their brood.
Candidates should talk with family, friends, and mentors (and potentially an MBA application adviser) early in the process to determine where they are in this window for business school. It's an absolutely critical step in managing this multi-month application process thoughtfully.