MBA Application Deadlines: When to Apply to Business School

Anyone who hopes to get into a top MBA program should start working toward that goal as soon as possible, experts warn, noting that it is unwise to try to rush through the admissions process.

A year and a half to two years is the optimal amount of time for gearing up to apply to business school, says David White, founding partner with Menlo Coaching in the Netherlands.

“Although some MBA applicants may succeed with last-minute applications, the ideal timeline begins long before the application deadlines with tasks like building your extracurricular profile, getting the tests done in advance, and spending time to network with MBA programs through info sessions and other events,” White wrote in an email.

Hafeez Lakhani, founder and president of Lakhani Coaching in New York City, explains that it is best to take one step at a time when applying to business school, without attempting to multitask. Single-minded concentration on each part of the process is more likely to lead to success than a juggling approach that requires someone to keep several balls in the air at once.

When an MBA candidate focuses on test prep, then, he or she ideally will not have to worry about anything else, Lakhani says. Preparing for a standardized test requires long-term effort and a significant amount of practice, he suggests.

[Read: What an MBA Degree Is and What You Need to Know.]

Why It Is Best to Start the Process Early

There are several reasons why beginning the process early is ideal, according to experts.

First, some aspects of an MBA candidate’s profile — such as his or her academic record, professional achievements, leadership experiences and community service contributions — cannot be developed overnight.

Second, each of the multiple components of an MBA application, ranging from the essay to the recommendation letters to the resume, is important in its own right, so it is essential to pay attention to the quality of each. Certain parts of the application, such as the essay section, require reflection and revision, tasks that take time.

Third, because an MBA candidate’s GMAT or GRE score will be scrutinized if submitted, it’s essential to thoroughly prepare for whichever standardized test chosen, if either. MBA hopefuls may avoid submitting a test score if they apply to a test-optional MBA program or receive a test waiver.

Finally, because the MBA admissions process involves a lot of energy and effort, it’s easy for MBA candidates to experience burnout if they attempt to do it all too fast.

“The MBA application process is quite in-depth and iterative; it requires a lot of thought and introspection,” wrote Shaifali Aggarwal, a Harvard Business School graduate who is the founder and CEO of Ivy Groupe, an MBA admissions consultancy. “As a result, MBA hopefuls should start early and work systematically to ensure that they have enough time to think deeply about their backgrounds, goals and why they are seeking an MBA. In doing so, they will be able to translate their story into compelling applications that they can submit in a timely fashion.”

[Read: What It Takes to Get Accepted at a Top MBA Program.]

MBA Application Deadlines and Rounds

Business schools typically offer several application rounds, cycles when applicants can submit their applications — usually around three or four. As a general rule, the earliest round is when schools have the most spots, making it the time period when admissions odds are most favorable and scholarship dollars are most plentiful.

“The very last round is not recommended for MBA hopefuls given that there are so few spots available at that point and not much merit scholarship money left; therefore the final application round tends to be a very difficult one,” Aggarwal explained in an email. “International students need to consider timing around visas also, which can make the last round even less viable for them.”

MBA admissions officers caution, however, that it is a mistake for candidates to submit application materials that are subpar simply to get them in faster.

[READ: How to Get Into Multiple Top Business Schools.]

“Admissions committees would always prefer your best application, rather than your quickest,” Jason Garner, director of graduate admissions at American University’s Kogod School of Business in the District of Columbia, wrote in an email. “You should apply for the round when you feel that your application is strongest. There are some benefits to applying early — you will have your decision sooner and can start planning, and in earlier rounds there may be more space and scholarship available. That said, your best chance at admission and scholarship is still your best effort, not your earliest application.”

Business schools usually tell applicants when to expect admissions results for a particular application round. When MBA hopefuls are accepted to business schools, they are given time to attend events for admitted students and ask the school questions before reaching a decision about whether to attend.

MBA Application Timeline: How, When to Apply for an MBA

Below is a guide to the many tasks involved in the MBA application process and the best schedule to follow to ensure that each task is done well.

A Year or Two Before Applying to Business School: The Sooner the Better

Step 1: Assess whether an MBA is a good fit.

Although it is common for people who are unsure about their career goals to apply to business school, prospective students should apply to MBA programs only if they have a clear answer to the question of why they want an MBA and how an MBA will help them in the future. The case to pursue an MBA is strongest for workers who hope to become leaders in industries where executives usually have MBAs.

Step 2: Think about unique qualities you could bring to B-school and whether you need to improve in certain areas.

MBA program administrators tend to be most impressed by candidates who are engaged in their communities and possess meaningful professional achievements, experts say.

Moreover, since business schools are looking for charismatic individuals with the potential to become influential executives, they look for signs of uniqueness, according to experts, which means it is a mistake for applicants to try too hard to imitate or emulate others.

“Everyone has a unique and powerful story,” Megan Stiphany, a former senior associate director of admissions at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and senior MBA admissions consultant with Stacy Blackman Consulting, wrote in an email. “It’s incredibly important to focus on conveying an authentic version of yourself as opposed to trying to deliver what you think the committee wants to hear.”

Furthermore, B-schools are eager to enroll people who have strong math skills, since those abilities are important in business.

“You can’t do much about your undergraduate grades, but if you had grades lower than a B in a quant class, it would be worth considering taking an online class (and getting an A!) to demonstrate classroom proficiency,” wrote Caryn Altman, a former admissions officer for Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Illinois who is now a senior MBA admissions consultant with Stacy Blackman Consulting.

December to March: Nine to Six Months Before the Fall of the Admissions Cycle

Step 3: Research schools and decide which ones to focus on.

Prospective MBA students should investigate the academic credentials of admitted students at various business schools in order to gauge their own competitiveness in the MBA applicant pool and set realistic goals, according to experts.

They should also compare the various MBA programs where they would be competitive and could submit a viable application, focusing on the schools that best align with their career goals.

Business school hopefuls should apply to a mix of business schools, including at least one reach school, at least one safety school and a school where their test scores, grades and work experience match the typical student, except in rare cases where only one school matches a prospective student’s requirements.

Applying to a variety of business schools increases the odds of acceptance to an MBA program, assuming that each application is carefully constructed, experts say, but applying to an excessive number of schools often results in sloppy applications.

One great way to assess whether an MBA program is a good fit is to visit it in person or virtually, depending on what is feasible. A campus visit can help prospective students assess whether an MBA program is worth the investment, experts suggest.

Step 4: Begin preparing to apply to round one.

Since round one deadlines are typically in September and preparing a quality application takes time, it is best to start pulling all the pieces together at least six months in advance, according to experts.

Step 5: Choose recommenders and request recommendation letters.

Business school hopefuls should be thoughtful about whom they select to write on their behalf, experts warn, noting that a lukewarm recommendation is not worth having.

Since an MBA candidate’s reference writers are likely very busy, it’s important for a candidate to give them plenty of time to craft a letter.

In addition to increasing the odds of getting a quality endorsement, asking for a letter well in advance demonstrates respect for the recommender.

Step 6: Start preparing for the GRE or GMAT and determine which test is better.

MBA applicants should take diagnostic exams for both the GRE and GMAT so that they can compare their performance before choosing which standardized test to study for, according to experts.

Also, because most MBA programs will accept either a GRE or GMAT score, business school hopefuls should give themselves enough time for test prep to switch exams if necessary.

“I have seen candidates improve their chances dramatically by trying a different exam,” wrote Sherry Holland, a senior MBA admissions consultant with Stacy Blackman Consulting and a former assistant director of admissions at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in North Carolina.

Prospective business students should spend at least 100 hours preparing for whichever entrance exam they elect to take, and they should aim for a score that is at or above the median among admitted students at their target schools, experts suggest.

July: Three Months Before Round One Deadlines

Step 7: Take the GMAT or GRE.

It is prudent to take the GMAT or GRE at least three months prior to the round one deadlines to ensure that a retake is feasible if it is warranted, according to experts.

Step 8: Start drafting the essay and resume portions of the MBA application.

Prospective MBA students should plan on completing multiple drafts of any MBA essay they write, continually tweaking it, experts suggest. Submitting a first-draft essay to business schools is a very bad idea, they add.

The essay should express the author’s personality and clearly communicate his or her reasons for wanting to attend business school, and it also needs to have a cordial tone throughout, experts suggest.

Meanwhile, an MBA resume should highlight soft skills that are essential for business executives, such as leadership, communication and teamwork skills. It’s also important, experts say, to show evidence of meaningful personal growth.

Step 9: Revise the application over and over.

Business school hopefuls should be meticulous about polishing their application before they submit it. Once the MBA application seems complete and ready, it’s prudent to take a final look at it a few days later, according to experts.

September: Round One of Admissions

Step 10: Submit applications to your preferred MBA programs.

Round one deadlines usually fall in September. That is when B-school hopefuls should apply to the MBA programs they are most interested in, assuming their application is ready, since that is when admission odds are best and when applicants are most likely to be chosen by a reach school.

Step 11: Prepare for admissions interviews at round one schools.

MBA programs that are interested in candidates usually extend interview invitations to those candidates. Interviews are an extremely important component of the MBA admissions process, since business schools use them as a way to assess candidates’ communication skills and emotional intelligence — two attributes that are helpful in business.

Not all applicants to an MBA program will receive an invitation to interview, and those who do not can usually expect to be rejected. Schools generally invite strong applicants to interview within a month of the application being received.

October to Early January: The Lead-Up to Round Two

Step 12: Assess round one results and decide what to do in round two.

Depending on whether an MBA hopeful has gotten into his or her dream MBA program and received ample financial aid, he or she should decide whether to apply to another B-school in round two. If a round two application is necessary, the MBA candidate should reflect on what may have gone wrong in round one and attempt to bolster weaknesses in his or her admissions profile, whether that means rewriting admissions essays or improving test scores.

January: Round Two

Step 13: Submit any round two applications you intend to send.

Mid-January is usually the timing for round two application deadlines. This is when most MBA hopefuls apply to B-school, since most applicants do not choose to submit their applications by the round one deadline, experts say. Sometimes prospective MBA students decide to schedule a test retake between rounds one and two, and they also occasionally visit B-school campuses during this time since school is in session.

March-April: Round Three

Step 14: Submit a round 3 application if necessary.

Round three, which typically occurs in March or April, is the application round where it is most difficult to get admitted and when scholarship dollars are scarcest. Applicants who did not perform well in round one and two may be better off waiting until the next application cycle unless they have impeccable credentials.

Step 15: Pay a deposit at your chosen MBA program.

Business school deposit deadlines are often toward the end of April, though MBA candidates can sometimes get an extension if they request one, which allows extra time to choose between MBA programs.

When deciding between business schools, MBA hopefuls should consider the various concentrations or specializations that those schools offer, experts recommend. Prospective MBA students should also assess employment statistics at business schools to determine whether those schools are worth the price in time and money.

The Summer Before Business School Begins

Step 16: Prep for your MBA program.

Orientations and meet-and-greet events can help an admitted MBA student feel more at home at their future business school, experts suggest. Many B-schools offer summer prep programs for admitted students.

[Read: 5 Ways to Prepare for the 1st Year of Business School.]

Students who want to get in the B-school mindset before class starts may choose to read business books during the summer. Individuals who would like to develop MBA-related quantitative skills can consult the website, which provides self-paced lessons.

Admitted students should not allow themselves to be overwhelmed by insecurities. Those who are feeling nervous about whether they are ready for B-school should keep in mind that they spent a significant amount of time becoming the sort of well-rounded candidate that an MBA program would want to admit.

Searching for a business school? Get our complete rankings of Best Business Schools.

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