Should You Wait Until Round 3?

If you’re scrambling to get your Round 2 business school applications complete, take a breath and ask yourself, “Am I maximizing my chances of success by applying in Round 2?” As usual, the answer is, “It depends.”

No two business school applicants are in the same situation, so the answer we give is never quite the same. One applicant might have lost his job recently. He hadn’t been planning on applying to business school this year, but his sudden unemployment now makes MBA programs look that much more appealing. Another might be in a quandary because she just took the GMAT again and still can’t get above a 650. She had been planning on nailing the GMAT this month and spending a couple of weeks on her essays and letters of recommendation, but now she wonders if she’d be better served by taking the GMAT yet again and applying in Round 3 in March or April. Still another applicant just rolled out of bed last week and decided that he absolutely must have a Harvard MBA. That happens a lot!

Let’s be clear: Round 3 is NOT an automatic black hole where applications go to die. As we wrote earlier this year, top business schools know that great applicants can come in any round, and many schools have very specific reasons (such as U.S. schools needing to stay competitive vs. international programs) for paying close attention to the Round 3 applicant pool.

Still, since in Round 3 your chances of success are very much impacted somewhat by what happened in the previous rounds — Did your first-choice school admit more students than it originally had planned? Are yields higher than historical averages? — you can’t help but wonder if you’re going to get fair shake in Round 3. Ultimately, however, how well you do in Round 3 depends far more on you and your application than on what numbers the admissions office saw in previous rounds.

Round 3 partly has a tarnished reputation because of applicants who throw together their applications at the last minute (rather than having to wait eight months before applying in next year’s admissions cycle) and end up getting rejected. “See,” they say, “I knew I wouldn’t get in. Round 3 is impossible.” But most of them would have been rejected in the previous rounds, too. They threw together half-baked applications, and got predictable results. We could have saved them a lot of time and money.

If you apply to a top-ranked business school with a flaw that really concerns you — e.g., a low GMAT score, or a weak undergrad transcript with nothing to compensate for it, or sloppy essays, or I-hope-he-spelled-my-name-right letters of recommendation — then you can safely assume that flaw will also concern MBA admissions officers enough to keep you out. In that case, we almost always strongly recommend that an applicant wait, takes steps to improve things, and then apply in Round 3 (or next year) when things are in order.

Many applicants act as if they view their applications as lottery tickets: “I’ll take a shot at Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Kellogg, Booth, Stern, Sloan, Anderson, Yale, and Tuck… One of those is bound to hit for me.” Or, they say, “My odds of getting into a top school are low? I’ll just apply to more top schools then. That will boost my odds.” But applying to more schools with a bad application will only generate more rejections. Coming back to a school as a reapplicant isn’t a terrible thing, but if you’re creating an application now that virtually assures you of having to apply again next year, then don’t bother submitting it.

Do it right the first time. Even if that means applying in Round 3. A great Round 3 application beats a good Round 2 application every time.

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