This is inevitably the time of year when many applicants ask, “Should I hurry up and get my applications in by the Round 2 deadlines, or should I take some more time and apply in Round 3?” As stressful as Round 1 deadlines are, Round 2 deadlines give applicants the extra fear of “If I don’t make this deadline, I’m doomed!”
Before you read any further, let’s get one thing out of the way: Applying to business school in Round 3 is NOT automatically a bad idea. MBA programs always go to great lengths to let applicants know that they have three rounds for a reason, and that they do indeed accept people in Round 3. Yes, the numbers do support the argument that, all things being equal (which they never are), you’re better off applying earlier, but GREAT applicants always get in to every top business school every year. And if you’re not a GREAT applicant, then should you apply? Or keep working at it until you are one?
Our answer is almost always, “Keep working at it,” which brings us back to the topic at hand, which is whether you should apply by the Round 2 deadline or make some moves to strengthen your candidacy and take a stronger shot in Round 3. If you have a significant weakness in your profile that 1) you believe will give admissions officer pause and 2) can be improved upon or compensated for within the next several months, then there is a very good argument to be made for waiting and applying in Round 3. Obvious examples include a low GMAT score, a weak undergraduate transcript, or a lack of certain experiences on the job. In those last two cases, you may be able to make up some ground within two or three months (by taking a college course and seeking out a new opportunity at work, respectively), although it often takes some luck for things to fall into place and for the timing to work out.
There are many other types weaknesses that are just as critical, but which may be harder to fix, at least in a short amount of time. The most common examples here are a lack of meaningful community service, a big hole in your work experience that you will have to deal with no matter what, or a serious lack of any good candidates who will write your letters of recommendation. These all take much more work (and time) to overcome, and in these cases we often advise that an applicant wait until next year before applying. When they don’t want to hear that, or have a good reason for wanting to take a shot now, we’ll advise that they aim lower in terms of the programs to which they’re applying.
Some still march ahead with what we call the “lottery ticket approach” — they know their odds of getting in to a top-ranked school are low, but they apply, anyway. We don’t recommend this approach, but we are willing to welcome them back as reapplicants when they (almost always) apply again next year!
To sum up: If your candidacy has a significant weakness that can’t be overcome in two to three months, you need to assess how big of a weakness it is. The bigger it is, the more we recommend waiting until next year. If it’s something that will hurt your chances, but can be fixed in two or three months, then we often recommend waiting until Round 3. These are all shades of grey — the answer is “it depends” more than anyone would like — but that’s essentially the decision tree we go through every day with our admissions consulting clients at this time of year. Just remember that, as impatient as you may be to get into a top-ranked business school, this is something that can set you up for success for the next half a century, so take the time to do it right now!