I field questions every admissions season from clients about when to submit business school applications. They ask if they have a better shot in round two rather than round one, or if it's even worth submitting in the final round.
Schools regularly address this question on admissions blogs, but seldom provide insight beyond the standard advice of applying whenever you can put forth the strongest application.
I polled several consultants on my team and while there may be no definitive answer, I believe you'll find their feedback informative.
Applying in round one: First-round applicants tend to be extremely well-prepared candidates who have known they want to go to business school for awhile. They have spent considerable effort preparing for the GMAT, cultivating extracurricular activities and seeking out leadership opportunities either at work or in volunteer settings.
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Early applications show serious interest and planning. In this round, you may have the greatest statistical chance, since you're only being compared to the current candidate pool.
In fact, a former Chicago Booth School of Business admissions committee member says the committee accepted 65 percent of Booth's students during this round.
For applicants to second-tier schools, the top 20 to 40, applying in the first round conveys that the school is a top choice and could result in a scholarship, says a former committee member at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business.
Applying early also allows you to submit applications to other programs in later rounds if you're not admitted in round one. Programs with an early action or early decision round, such as the Tuck School of Business and Columbia Business School, value the commitment shown by applying ahead of the crowd.
An ex-Tuck admissions committee member shared reports that showed early action applications were up 30 percent this year. Since Tuck's class size is so small, earlier truly is your best shot.
Likewise, a consultant formerly with Columbia admissions says if you're committed to Columbia Business School, you should absolutely apply in the early decision round, as it's the only school with a binding decision. Columbia will also frequently offer applicants a spot in the January start if September is full.
In the end, there are more slots available in round one and more opportunities to be placed on the waitlist if that's the route the admissions committee decides to take, says a former Duke Fuqua School of Business admissions committee member.
On the other hand, a lot of strong applications come in during the first round, says one former Wharton School admissions staffer. According to an ex-Kellogg admissions committee member, you're more likely to be wait-listed for this round versus round two.
If you need to demonstrate your commitment to improving your quantitative profile by taking additional course work, or believe you can perform significantly better on the GMAT, you probably should wait for a later round.
Applying in round two: Second-round applicants have the advantage of visiting campus in the fall, which can help tremendously when it comes to drafting compelling essays and demonstrating that all-important fit with your target schools.
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The general population tends to apply in this round, so it may be more favorable for candidates with less-than-perfect backgrounds, says the former Kellogg admissions committee representative. If you're accepted in this round, you'll have plenty of time to start preparing for this next phase of your life, from leaving a job to moving.
This is when most of the seats fill up, explains a former Wharton admissions committee member, so accepted candidates have a chance to participate in a welcome weekend and make a sound decision on a school. On the flip side, rejected applicants will have time to start strategizing their applications for the next year, notes one ex-Chicago Booth admissions member.
Round two receives the highest number of applications, which makes competition fierce as candidates are compared with the round two pool as well as the accepted candidates from first round. Your application may not stand out as much if you have a common profile, warns a former Wharton admissions committee member.
The increased volume may also mean longer processing times, and some schools might wait-list applicants they never had a chance to interview. Also, says an ex-Kellogg admissions committee, applicants are less likely to be wait-listed or get in off the waitlist.
Applying in round three: Round three is the trickiest time to apply, as almost all b-school seats have been filled and programs are waiting for stellar candidates who will help round out the class profile. While schools encourage students with a solid application to apply in the final round, they candidly admit it is uber-competitive and often counsel including an optional essay to explain why you've waited.
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While it's better to submit a strong application in the final round than a weak one in round two, applying with a generic background is far less compelling at this point. It was almost impossible to find a consultant to endorse applying during this round.
One former admissions employee explains that people best suited for this round have a highly unique background that would truly add to the class. A former admissions committee member from the Haas School of Business says there were admission spots available at the end because by that time, the school knew who had already accepted offers elsewhere.
Aside from the potential drawbacks of having no choice but to interview on-campus and miss out on welcome weekends, our ex-Chicago Booth insider reveals that programs say this round is reserved for wait-listed candidates and the "superhuman," such as, for example, the Olympic gold medalist from Cameroon. Statistically speaking, one's chances are slim.
The bottom line: There are many outside factors that come into play when it comes to making admissions decisions. It can depend on who reads your file, their mood and what other applications they read that day, notes the former Haas representative.
Everything else being equal, I would always advise a client to apply as early as possible to any program, so long as you aren't sacrificing the quality of your application.