Should You Apply to Business School in Round 3?

At this time of year, we get the “Round 3 or wait?” question from a lot of applicants. As usual, the answer we give them is, “It depends,” although we do have some very strong opinions on the matter. Applying in Round 3 is not automatically a bad idea, but there is definitely a “buyer beware” aspect that you should consider. In this case, what you’re buying is a few minutes of an admissions officer’s time, and the price you pay is the application fee plus all of the blood, sweat, and tears that will go into your application.

Of course, what answer we give largely depends on who the applicant is. One applicant might want to apply now because he was recently laid off. 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 call us 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 more time for her GMAT prep and applying in the fall, with a (hopefully) higher GMAT score. Still another applicant just rolled out of bed last week and decided that the one thing he’s really wanted all his life is Harvard MBA… He just never realized it until now!

To 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 can’t help but be 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.

If you have a unique profile or are targeting a business school outside of the top 20, then your chances in Round 3 may not be bad at all. Or, if you want to attend a part-time or EMBA program then the “rounds” concept may not even be relevant, depending on the school. If none of these descriptions fit your situation, then you may want wait until next year. If you’re already on the “old” side for a typical applicant (e.g., you have more than five years of full-time work experience now), though, and there’s not a high likelihood that you will take a significant step forward in your career in the next eight months, then that’s one more reason to apply now, in Round 3.

Round 3 partly gets a bad reputation from those 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 Round 3 wasn’t the problem… their applications were what held them back. We spend a great deal of our time here at Veritas Prep talking applicants out of such kamikaze missions, and the same goes for the “Round 3 vs. next year” decision.

In short, if you apply to a top-ranked MBA program with a flaw that you know is significant — 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 bother 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 next year, when things are in order.

Waiting is always a good idea if you can apply with a significantly better application next year. But, if you feel you have a strong application now, and you don’t expect to have a significantly stronger story in eight months, then applying in Round 3 is not such a terrible idea. Just keep in mind that there are factors outside of your control. Just like in real life.

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