How Many Business Schools Should You Apply To?
Maria |
October 26, 2022

Applying to several business schools is a wise move because it spreads out your risk and, presumably, increases your chance of being accepted. But as we all know, and you probably already know if you’ve been doing your homework, it’s more difficult than that. While the first things a candidate may think about are things like cost, rating, and location. There are many other things they should give consideration to, including, most importantly, their own self-evaluation.

Although the answer to the question “How many business schools should I apply to?” will undoubtedly vary from applicant to applicant, it is still crucial to pay attention to what the experts have to say.

So listen in! Because our hosts from Business Casual will discuss why MBA applicants would be well served by concentrating on applying to business schools where they’d be a good fit rather than setting a target to send out a specific number of applications.

Episode Transcript

[00:00:07.440] – John

Well, hello, everyone. This is John Byrne with Poets of Quants. Welcome to Business Casual, our weekly podcast with my cohosts Caroline Diarte Edwards and Maria Wich Villa. We’re going to address a question that every applicant to business school confronts. How many schools should you actually apply to? Obviously, there’s no magic number for anyone, but we’re going to talk about whether the old strategy of having a couple of safety schools, a couple of reschools and a couple of schools that are more or less in the pocket still applies to people in this admission season. Caroline, what do you think? How many business schools should, in fact, an applicant apply to?

[00:00:51.640] – Caroline

It depends on lots of things. Right. So it depends how far in advance the Canada is preparing. It’s easy to apply to more schools if you start the process well ahead of time. So, beginning of September, I spoke with a candidate who suddenly decided he wanted to apply to a couple of extra schools and it was like two weeks before the deadline. He hasn’t started anything, so that’s not very realistic. Schools are very adept at figuring out if you’ve thrown an application together at the last minute, you might think that you fold them, but believe me, you won’t. Right. Because they are very skilled at reading between the lines. And so if your application is not well thought through, just don’t bother. It’s better to wait, it’s better to apply when you have given the application time to develop and mature. Otherwise you’re just short changing yourself. And then it depends when in the season you’re starting. If you are starting in Round One, then you could feasibly apply to potentially two, three, four schools in round one. Really? Four schools? You need to be working well in advance, several months in advance if you’re going to do that well.

[00:02:07.660] – Caroline

And then you could apply to a similar number of schools in Round two and then potentially even round Three for some schools. Right. So some candidates may be able to do good applications for perhaps up to ten schools in one season. But it does depend on how far in advance you’re starting the process and whereabouts in the season we are in school.

[00:02:30.460] – John

This feels like overkill to me. Is it?

[00:02:33.030] – Maria


[00:02:33.480] – Caroline

So it’s also important to have done your research and apply to schools where you genuinely feel like there’s a good fit for you. Right. And so ten schools might well be pushing it. There may not be ten schools where the community is a great fit for you. The overall program is ideal for you. So it’s true that you might not find ten different schools that correspond to exactly what you’re looking for. I think most candidates can find four or five schools that resonate with them and would be great options for them. That shouldn’t be too difficult, as long as you keep an open mind. Sometimes candidates get way too fixated on certain brand names or such location, and again, you know, might be shortchanging themselves because they’re ruling out options without really seriously considering the value that some other schools could bring to them.

[00:03:32.610] – John

Right, and I wonder your typical client would apply to how many schools would you think?

[00:03:38.730] – Caroline

Well, it depends where they’re applying. So I personally work a lot with candidates applying to INSEAD, and it’s quite common that candidates applying to inched may apply to a couple of other schools, but it often doesn’t go much beyond two or three other schools because in Sierra is quite a unique experience and it’s obviously a very international school. It’s a one year program, you have a campus exchange opportunities, et cetera. So I think if you’re applying to the international schools, your list might be shorter than if you’re applying to the US schools where there may be more options that could bring you similar benefits.

[00:04:19.770] – John


[00:04:20.160] – Caroline

So I would say for the US schools, our clients are typically applying to four or five schools, and sometimes they may do that work with us, and then they may apply to additional schools by themselves because the work that we do with them on a handful of schools will give them a fantastic foundation that they can then work from to apply to additional schools by themselves.

[00:04:43.690] – John

Maria, what’s your take on this?

[00:04:45.690] – Maria

Well, I agree. I think people should pretty much apply to as many schools as they think they can comfortably juggle. Under no circumstances should you only apply to two schools or three schools, especially if those schools are Harvard, Stanford and Wharton, unless you’re totally fine with being a reapplicant in the future. That’s what I tell people when they’re like, no, I’m only applying to Harvard and Stanford because those are the only two schools I’m interested in. I’m like, yeah, cool. They might not be interested in you, though. So some people are sometimes like, no, but you don’t understand me, I really want to go to Stanford. And I’m like, oh boy, I bet they’re excited to hear that. It’s a question of they want you. So anyway. Look. If you’re sort of younger in your career and you think. I’m just going to shoot my shot and see what happens and I’m okay. Reapplying in the future. Then sure. Apply to only a couple of schools. But if you’re serious about getting in this year. In this cycle. I do like to see people apply to at least four to six schools and you know.

[00:05:41.910] – Maria

The amount of work that you have to do. Sometimes you can find schools that have similar essays. Some schools make it definitely easier for you to apply to them than others. So schools that might have easier essays or schools that might have a robust, for example, student ambassador program where it’s very easy for me to set up a call with someone and ask them all my questions and learn about the school pretty quickly. It’s a lot easier to apply to a school like that for schools that may be a little bit more opaque or schools that may have more complicated essays. I think one of the things we were talking about was, is there such a thing as a safety school versus a comfortable school versus a slam dunk school? And I think it depends on which tier of schools you’re talking about. So if you’re talking about schools, I don’t know, let’s just throw a number out there ranked sort of 15 to 30th or below that area, then I think you can be a little bit more comfortable with, okay, if my GMAT score is very competitive, if my work experience is competitive, then I have a pretty good shot.

[00:06:44.230] – Maria

I don’t think there’s anything as a guaranteed, guaranteed slam dug pretty much for anyone. But as you get into the more elite a school is, the higher the bar it sets for proven leadership and proven accomplishment. And so given that, I think it’s impossible for pretty much anyone to say, oh, this is going to be, oh, Wharton is going to be my safety school, like, yikes, it probably isn’t. And I’d much rather have you apply to lots of schools now, and then later on say, oh, I wasted all this time because maria told me to apply to extra schools, and I got into Wharton anyway, and I wasted all my time. I’d rather have you be grumpy at me for that, then only apply to one school and not get in, and then now find yourself a year having to wait an entire other year to now reengage. And I also think part of what leads me to say this is that I do think that the schools are looking for also for fit. So it’s not this linear thing where, well, if you get into one school that’s higher ranked, you’re definitely getting into a school that’s lower ranked.

[00:07:47.550] – Maria

You know, Columbia has been they have a rolling admissions process, and they have been issuing acceptances and rejections for the past several weeks, and people who have gotten interview invites to harvard and to booth have been gotten rejected from Columbia. So it’s not necessarily on this, like, linear scale where people say, well, columbia is going to be my safety school. Well, I don’t know about that. So I think that a lot of it is that sincerity does come through. And as Caroline said, if you just throw together a quick, yes, I want to come to your school because your school has classes and I want to learn business and your school teaches business. If it’s like that, then it doesn’t matter if you’re not getting in because you couldn’t even be bothered to put in the effort to get to know us. So I think that it’s better I don’t think you should apply to 400 schools, but I also think that you should apply it’s better to spread out your risk. But every time you do spread out your risk, make sure you do a bare minimum of research, student outreach, really looking deeply at what the school offers and unique things that it has to make your application there as specific as possible.

[00:08:55.390] – John

OK, so let’s say someone is going to apply to six schools and they’ve given themselves enough time to apply to six schools. Should they in fact pick two reaches, two targets and two safety schools? Or is it not as simple as that? Maria.

[00:09:12.150] – Maria

I don’t know if it’s quite as simple as that because it depends what those six schools are. So because so many people do tend to at least start this process, most people starting the process think, oh, I’m going to apply to Stanford, Wharton and Harvard. And then frequently they do a little more research and they realize, oh, maybe that’s not great use of my time. But let’s say that most people start off with that as their list, then the other schools should definitely be you have to ask yourself, really, why am I doing this? What is it that I’m hoping to get at the end of it? If it’s, let’s say I want to transition to a job in the technology space and I want to work at Amazon, then look at the other schools that can equally just as well get you that job at Amazon. If you want to work in real estate, look at other schools. Yeah, Columbia Wharton is a really good school for real estate. Columbia is really good. But you know what, NYU can probably get you similar opportunities in real estate. So I think that’s when it’s up to you, the more work you put into researching the schools that are more likely to get you where you want to go, that’s going to pay dividends.

[00:10:15.700] – Maria

Because not only is that sincerity going to come through, as we said before, but also when you make your case to the school of why that school is a good fit for you, your logic is going to be a lot more airtight because you’re going to say, well, you guys specialize. NYU has a fintech specialization and that’s exactly where I want to go in my career. If I’m an NYU officer and I’m reading that, I’m thinking, wow, my school actually can help this person get where they want to go, versus if it’s a more generic argument or if it’s somebody who’s looking for something that maybe my school is not so good at. So I get why we want to make this as simplistic as possible. Yes, look at the GMAT score and then deduct 20 and then whatever, put it through this formula and that’s your safety school. But I think your safer schools should be schools that have higher acceptance rates, but that still offer something that logically makes sense for you. Because if the story doesn’t make sense, then even you might be surprised that even your safety school, your quote unquote safety school doesn’t let you in.

[00:11:18.190] – John

Yeah, I mean, I would think that any school that rejects 75% or more of its applicants every year has to be considered a rich school for most candidates, no matter what your GMAT’s, GPAs or background is. So that would include Stanford, Chicago, Booth, Wharton, Northwestern, Kellogg, Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Berkeley, Yale, and Duke in Michigan and NYU. Stern and then any school above 25, I would say, could be a target school for many people, like Virginia, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, UCLA, maybe USC. And any school that’s accepting 40% and above might be a safety school. Of course, all of this changes based on your own individual attributes. So if you’re scoring an average score on the GMAT, which is something like 570, this goes out the window entirely, because those are not going to be your reach, your target, or your safety schools. For European candidates. Caroline, you mentioned that many only apply to a couple of schools, in part because there are fewer options in Europe, and in part because someone may want a particular cultural experience. If you’re in love with France and Paris, you’re going to apply to, say, if you’re in love with Spain, you might apply to Ise and Ie and so on.

[00:12:54.210] – John

And if you’re a real global candidate and totally committed to an international career, you might go to NZ in London. But what’s your sense of the choice of Reach, target, and safety schools?

[00:13:10.500] – Caroline

Yeah, I think within that subset of international schools, I mean, there are some options, right. In Seattle, London Business School are often reaches for many candidates, but there are many competitor schools who have sought to I mean, frankly, they’ve sought to emulate the London Business School formula right. With very international cohorts and an international platform for recruitment. So Oxford, Cambridge, HEC, Ie I would put those in the category of great options for candidates who might not quite make it into in Seattle, London Business School. I would say also that your personal timing makes a difference. So I encourage candidates to start this process if they’re not sure about when is the best time, when is the optimal time for them to apply it? Is it two years into their career? Is it three years into their career? Is it four years into their career? It’s better to err on the side of applying a bit too early than a bit too late. And if you are on the early side, then you could take the risk of just applying to your reach and target schools right, without having any safety schools, because you know that you could go through another cycle next year and reapply to those schools and add some other schools to your list.

[00:14:41.590] – Caroline

So I think that whereas someone who is reaching their late twenty s a very advanced stage of 28, 29 and applying to business school remember those days. So if they are a little bit further advanced in their career. They may want to spread their bets more widely in that season because they might have reached a point when it’s the optimal time. They’ve got their best chance now, and a year later they might not look like such a fantastic candidate to some schools. So in that case, they might want to really think very carefully about that set of scores. As you said, reach, target realistic and then some safety skills. But if you’re applying earlier, then you could just focus on those more competitive schools.

[00:15:36.570] – John

The other issue here, and I think you raised it earlier, Caroline, is the round strategy. So if you’re going to actually say, okay, I’m going to apply to some reach schools, some target schools, and some safety schools, wouldn’t your reach schools naturally be in round one?

[00:15:52.990] – Caroline

Well, yes, although you’ve got to keep in mind that a lot of other schools get a deluge of applications in round two and they’re well aware that those people really had their heart set on more competitive schools and have been rejected and now turning their attention elsewhere. That’s often the case that candidates will do that. But just be aware of how you manage around two applications because schools are very conscious that many of those candidates have applied very much as a sort of second option, second choice, and have not put a lot of time and effort into researching the school and considering that fit with the school, and they will have a very careful eye out for that. So you almost need to show the love more to your round two schools than to your round one schools because they are somewhat suspicious of your motives in round two.

[00:16:51.040] – John

What about the psychology of applying? Okay, we know that in sports, people who are very successful begin to manifest the results. In other words, they actually think about being incredibly positive about the outcomes on the field in a way to motivate them and to throw all of themselves into the game. I wonder if in fact, the strategy of saying, okay, I’m going to pick a couple of read schools, a couple of target schools, and a couple of safety schools is a detriment to the level of confidence and positivity that you need to get into one of these super elite schools.

[00:17:31.030] – Maria

Maria no, because if you’re strong enough to get into one of these elite schools, you’re probably going to get in regardless. What’s more of a detriment is thinking that Stanford is a slam dunk and then not getting in and then applying to some other similarly competitive schools around too, and then not getting into them. So there’s bound to be disappointment all around, but I’d rather have that disappointment be I didn’t get into my first choice school, but I got into a great school versus I didn’t get into any schools. And just a quick note on the rounds, round one versus round Two. I think one thing that I would definitely not recommend is every once in a while I encounter someone who says, well, I applied to my safer schools in Round two. And then based on how that if I have really good results, then that will give me the confidence to apply to the more elite schools in Round one. The only tricky thing with that is that the deposit deadlines for the Round one schools are going to happen before you get your notifications from the Round two schools. So you might have a school that you’re excited about, but not like super excited about, and then you get invited to interview for your dream school in Round two.

[00:18:39.120] – Maria

But, uh oh, now you have to pay a $3,000 deposit and commit to attend your Round one. So just think about that. That’s a very sort of you’re like, what deposit deadlines? What does that have to do with my application strategy? But every year around March, I get a ton of emails from people. I was so excited, I got into this one school in Round one, and I’m waiting to hear back from the dream school, what do I do? And I’m like, you’re going to have to pay the money or risk ending up with nothing. So just be aware of that as a strategy. Don’t try to do just safety schools because then you might end up with nothing.

[00:19:16.610] – John

And a lot of people who apply to Columbia, for example, on early decision and end up having to pay a very high deposit may reevaluate that if they get into a Harvard of Stanford or Wharton later on, which I’m sure both of you have seen candidates in that very same position. And Columbia demands a very large deposit on those early decision admits they do.

[00:19:40.860] – Maria

Because they know that a lot of them might get into another school and turn them down and so they get their pound of flesh. And I am fine with Columbia doing that. I am perfectly fine. If these people are applying and saying that it’s their number one choice and they’re not going to fly anywhere else and then they end up doing it, go for it, Columbia. Get as much money from them as you can because at least you end up with a little bit of money from these folks.

[00:20:05.670] – John

So my takeaway here is that it’s really up to the individual and when the individual begins to prepare their applications, but in general, it seems like most people do four to six applications. In general, it’s a good idea not to only go to the super highly selective schools because it’s so selective and in some cases random, because so many people are highly qualified in those applicant pools to get in that you can’t just it’s not a gimmick, it’s not a no brainer. You just can’t expect to stroll into any of those super elite schools where the acceptance rates are my God, under 15%, it’s really hard. And you’re right, if you do apply early, you have the opportunity to be a reapplicant. And we know from data that’s been disclosed by the Harvard Business School in the past that really decent number of reapplicants actually get in the Harvard Business School, some of whom actually applied more than twice. But you better have a good story to tell on the second or third go around. And for sure, I’m thinking that in some cases, maybe it’s not a good policy to have the old undergraduate strategy of safety target and reach schools.

[00:21:29.160] – John

Because for some people, if you already earned a good amount of money, let’s say you work for a venture capital fund or a private equity firm, or you’re in hedge funds and you’re pulling down close to 200 grand or more, that should probably impact your choice of schools. I mean, obviously you don’t want to quit a job like that and go to a T 15, T 20, T 25 business school for an MBA. You’re going to aim pretty much for schools that might be in the reach category. Isn’t that right, Maria?

[00:22:02.950] – Maria

Right. But that’s why I think a little earlier I mentioned asking yourself, what is the outcome I want from my time in business school? If it’s a short term outcome, lots of schools might be able to get you that short term outcome, and maybe only five can get you that outcome, maybe only two can get you that outcome. So if you’re looking at it from that perspective, then yeah, if the outcome is, I want to, I’m in venture capital, for example, and so I need an elite MBA, you might be better off just not getting an MBA. There are lots of people who just simply don’t get MBAs who are high achievers and use those two years instead to advance their careers and they end up in just a senior positions, if not more senior than people who took the time off for business school. So, yes, in that situation, don’t bother applying to the other school because your alternative is so much stronger. But if your alternative is, no, I really want to go to business school, my alternative is I want to staying in my engineering job, that really doesn’t appeal to me.

[00:22:56.650] – Maria

I don’t want to do it anymore. Then you do have to be more prudent and spread your risk around.

[00:23:02.140] – John

Yeah, makes total sense. Caroline, makes sense to you as well, right?

[00:23:06.340] – Caroline

Yes, absolutely. It’s always an individual choice, right. And it’s important to invest a lot of time in reflecting in this process, as Maria said, to think about what are your short term goals, what are your longer term goals, and really invest significant time in getting to know the schools beyond the superficial level of.

[00:23:32.440] – Maria


[00:23:32.830] – Caroline

Colleague has been there and I’ve heard such great things about it and it’s a fantastic brand name, right? You really need to sort of get under the hood of the program and understand all the different elements. And it is a complex decision with many different variables and you should think very carefully about what are the variables that are really important to you before you put all that effort and money and time into the application process.

[00:24:01.760] – John

Yeah, totally. Well, there you have it. Don’t apply to one or two places if you want to get an MBA or apply to one or two places if you’re not sure about the MBA, you’re making a lot of money and you could advance very nicely in your current career, in your current place. It may not well be worth it. Alright. Hey, thank you for joining us. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. You’ve been listening to Business Casual, our weekly podcast.

How Many Business Schools Should You Apply To?
Maria |
October 26, 2022


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