Admissions advice: Which MBA application round should you apply in?

BY Jason ArmestoJuly 12, 2021, 10:00 PM
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Given how competitive MBA programs are, applicants are always looking for an edge. So when it comes to the various rounds to actually apply to business school, it’s natural to wonder how timing may help or hurt your admission prospects. 

While not always the case, it’s common for business schools to offer three application rounds for their full-time programs, even though there is only one start date for classes (typically in August or September). That means you could have three different deadlines to choose from when applying—generally in the fall, winter, and spring. Some people might feel compelled to turn in their application as soon as possible, while others may be tempted to use up all the time they’re given. But the right answer can vary from one person to another. 

As prospective students consider which deadline is the best choice, it’s important to understand the differences between application rounds and how they could affect your MBA ambitions. 

Why schools offer multiple application rounds

Having more than one application deadline can be beneficial for schools and students alike. From an administrative standpoint, offering multiple rounds allows admission committees to expect an influx of applications at certain points throughout the year instead of receiving a barrage all at once.

“It’s a way to manage the application and intake process,” says Naz Erenguc, director of admissions at the University of Florida’s Hough Graduate School of Business. But she also notes that the rounds are “a function of how people come to this decision at various times.” 

For example, the University of Florida offers three different application rounds for full-time MBA students.

Working professionals may not consider pursuing an MBA until after a deadline has already passed. By offering multiple rounds, schools give those candidates a chance to apply by the following deadline instead of having to wait for the next yearly admissions cycle. 

The perks of early applications

Which round should you apply in to increase your chances of being accepted? The answer to that question may be less complicated than you realize.

“Typically, the sooner you apply the better,” says Chris Wszalek, executive director of graduate admissions and student recruitment at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management. “The earlier you’re getting your application in—you’re potentially competing against fewer candidates. It just increases your opportunities for scholarships and admissions.”

In round one, schools are laying the foundation of the incoming cohort, so there are not only plenty of seats available but there’s also substantial financial aid to help defray costs. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, as Wszalek notes that Whitman will offer scholarships throughout each round. Still, he says, “generally every school will have more financial aid and scholarships available earlier than later.” 

There’s an additional benefit to applying early even if a candidate isn’t accepted: feedback. 

Erenguc says the University of Florida and some other programs will offer early applicants feedback, which candidates can then use to strengthen their application for the following cycle, or for a different school entirely. While that may seem like a small consolation prize after being rejected, Erenguc believes the feedback is mutually beneficial.

“If we can secure the right student that we feel will be a great ambassador for us for years to come, then we want to make sure we can work with that candidate so they have the best possible chance of securing their spot in the program,” Erenguc notes. “Applying early gives us the time to have that communication,” she says, adding that this option may not be so viable as the round three deadline approaches, when the class is “pretty much full.”

Great applications trump timely applications

While applying in round one or two has multiple advantages, rushing through an application in order to meet those early deadlines is most likely a mistake. Just because there are more seats available in the early rounds doesn’t mean the admissions committees will be more forgiving with their selections. In fact, quite the opposite may be true. 

“When we’re looking at candidates in round one, we can be choosier,” Erenguc says. “We expect if you’re going to be applying by round one that you have all your ducks in a row, to put that best foot forward.”

Wszalek agrees. “I think sometimes candidates get too focused on having to meet those first two rounds because there’s clearly an advantage,” he says. “But if you’re not going to be putting your best foot forward then it doesn’t matter which round you apply in.” 

Candidates should strive to submit the strongest application they can muster even if that may mean missing the round one deadline. For instance, if a student is debating between applying in round one with a mediocre test score or trying to improve his or her score for round two, Erenguc recommends the latter.

Is applying during round three worth it?

Considering that most seats are claimed and most financial aid is awarded by the time round three arrives, you may wonder if you should just wait until the next cycle. Reach out to the admissions office to determine if the program looks negatively at reapplying, and if not, then there’s no harm in giving it another shot. It’s always possible that a spot could open up. 

“If ultimately you can only put your best foot forward by round three, that’s okay, but we have to be transparent about the fact that come round three, space is going to be more limited,” Erenguc notes. “Having said that, if you’re a fantastic fit we’ll always try to work with candidates in making space for them.”