MBA Application Round Strategies
Maria |
September 14, 2021

The MBA application process is far from straightforward. Most programs have THREE sets of application deadlines and determining which to apply in is not an easy task. 

For this episode of Business Casual, our hosts are going to explain the logic that lies behind round strategy along with the different factors that may affect this year’s MBA application at large, especially now that we are in the middle of the pandemic where the set up is drastically different from what we have become accustomed to.

  • When should you submit your application? 
  • Do acceptance rates differ by application round?
  • Is it better to apply in the first round? 
  • Are you at a disadvantage if you apply in R2, typically the largest round for most programs? 
  • Does the round you apply in affect your chances of a scholarship?
  • Is there a certain round for which you should apply? 
  • Which round would be best for an international applicant to apply in? 
  • Is round three like playing the lottery, where the chances of winning are nearly impossible? And if you apply in round three, what can you expect?

Episode Transcript

[00:00:07.330] – John

Hello, everyone. Welcome to Business Casual, the weekly podcast of Poets and Quants. I’m John Byrne with Poets and Quants with my cohosts Maria Wich Vila and Caroline Diarte Edwards. Caroline, of course, is the former director of admissions at INSEAD and a cofounder of Fortuna Admissions. And Maria is the founder of Applicant Lab. So it’s that time of the year again when people are starting to hit the submit button on their computers and letting fly their applications in round one. Harvard just had its round one deadline this past week, and now, like tumbling dice, they’ll fall one after the other, and one school after another will have round one deadline, some early action or early decision. And then, of course, we’ll go into round two in January. Most schools have a round three. Some even have four or five rounds. So we want to talk a little bit about round strategy. When is it best to submit your application? Do you have an advantage if you apply in round one? If you apply in the largest round, which is typically round two at any given school, are you at a disadvantage if you want a scholarship?


[00:01:20.160] – John

Should you apply in a certain round? If you’re an international applicant, which round would be best to apply to? Is round three playing the lottery, where the odds are basically impossible to get in? And if you are a Johnny come lately and you apply in round three, what can you expect? So let’s talk a little bit about this. Maria. You have a lot of videos on your site because it’s kind of like a do it yourself application process where you help people along. I know you do some personal counseling as well, just as Caroline does. But I wonder, do you have a video on round strategy actually just created one that covers this.


[00:02:04.700] – Maria

Yes, I say that I think the round strategy depends upon whether or not you are from an overrepresented group. If you are from the Eager Beavers, which tend to be the consultants, bankers, and in many cases, Indian engineers, I do think that you need to apply in round one, mostly because those are the folks who have been preparing for this for possibly years. In the video, I’ve got a little picture of my son or of a son from when he graduated, I think, from preschool. And so I put a little thought bubble over his head, like time to start studying for the GMAT, because I think some people really do start this process insanely early. I think those folks, since they know that they’re going to apply to business school years in advance and they, in fact, choose career paths that are more likely to lead them to business school, they’re more likely to apply in round one. And my hypothesis is that if you’re an admissions officer and you know that round one is when you’re going to see most of the consultants, most of the bankers, et cetera, that you are, due to human nature, more likely to pick most of your consultants and bankers in that round.


[00:03:14.110] – Maria

And the analogy I make is that it’s like if you’re making fruit pies and you know it’s peach season, you’re going to buy all the peaches when it’s peach season, and then you’re going to wait till the next season to buy apples for Apple pie because it’s Apple season. And so similarly, if round one tends to be management consultant season, that’s when you’re going to get most of your management consultants. So if you are from one of those groups, I do think there is a definite advantage to applying in round one. Aside from that, though, I do usually tell people, look, if you’re just not ready to go in round one, even if there is a disadvantage to applying in round two, you have to weigh is the disadvantage for round two worse than the disadvantage I’m going to get if I submit a really half baked application? So the ideal is to submit an amazing application in round one. But if that’s not possible, you submit a half baked application in round one or a stronger application in round two. And all else being equal, I do tend to say, like, I would rather have you apply with the stronger application, even if it means that round 2 may be a bit more difficult.


[00:04:11.940] – John

Because at least then you’ve got a fighting chance in the logic behind the first advice, which is if you’re a consultant or a banker, you should be applying round one, because that’s when the bulk of those apps come in. Is that basically after round one, most of those seats are filled. So while no school admits to having a, quote, just look at their class profiles year after year after year, within one or two percentage points, the same percentage of consultants who come in, the same percentage of bankers are from tech backgrounds. So basically, if the round one applicant pool is just chock full of consultants and bankers, you can assume that most of those seats are going to be filled after round one. Right.


[00:04:57.710] – Maria

I’m going to defer to Caroline, who actually did this for a living, as opposed to me speculating and reading the tea leaves. But yes, Caroline, what’s the deal?


[00:05:06.570] – Caroline

Well, I agree that, as you say, Maria, a lot of those candidates are applying early anyway because they’re on that track. Right. And they often know well ahead of time that they want to apply business school at a specific year, and therefore, they’re often very well prepared. They’ve taken the test, they’re ready for round one. And so definitely those common profiles are more common in the earlier rounds. I think that overall it’s better to apply early if you’ve got that sort of common feeder profile. But I do think it’s very important to apply when you’re ready. Right. And it’s still the case that too often, all sorts of profiles just rush things at the last minute. And even if you have taken the GMAT a year in advance, things can come up in a month, running up to the round one deadline. You could be staffed on a project where you’re working 90 hours a week and you just haven’t got the mental bandwidth to pay the attention that you need to your application. So I would advise candidates to not overly stress about round one versus round two for the top US schools, because it’s different, again for the international schools, because they’re often more rounds.


[00:06:18.390] – Caroline

But for the top US schools, you should be looking at round one or round two rather than round three. But between those two rounds, yes, it’s nice to apply in round one if you can. There are also other benefits to that. You get an earlier decision. If you don’t get in, you’ve got time to figure out a plan B, you’ve got more time to figure out your financing, logistics, et cetera, et cetera. But otherwise, don’t rush it and apply when you’re ready. I would also say that the benefit of applying round one is that it’s a fresh season, and at that point, the schools will be making forecasts about what they expect to see how many applications they expect, given their sense of the market and what they saw in the previous season, and how they see things evolving. And therefore they will plan how many spots they want to allocate in that round one, and they will plan how many offers they want to make round by round. But sometimes they might get their predictions wrong, right? It can happen that there’s more of a squeeze in later rounds than they anticipated. So at least with round one, it’s an open field, it’s a fresh season.


[00:07:32.190] – Caroline

They’re also bringing fresh energy to the process. They haven’t already plowed through thousands and thousands of management consultants already that season. So you’ve got the benefit of a fresh start in the process, and therefore perhaps more consistency in the offer rates than you may get later on in the season, because sometimes things change during the season. Look what happened in spring last year. Schools weren’t expecting to get a surge in applications at the end of the season, and then the pandemic hit, so things can change as the season moves on.


[00:08:09.620] – John

True. Do you think the accept rate in round one is higher than it is in round two, which is typically a larger round.


[00:08:17.580] – Caroline

So in general scores, we’ll try to keep the offer rate fairly consistent across those two rounds. My impression, though, in the last season was that the offer rate was higher in round one and in round two. So we fortune. We saw candidates getting more offers in round one and in round two. And I think that was unusual because it was such a strange year and the schools were very concerned about the volatility in the pool how things were going to evolve. They had been stung in many cases with lower yields. Right. In the previous season because of the pandemic. So they were overextending themselves on offers because they were concerned that yield might be weak again. But then that didn’t happen last twelve months ago. I think it was definitely easier to get in round one than round two, but that wasn’t a normal year. And I don’t think that the schools necessarily want to they don’t want to be admitting people around two who they would reject in round, or admitting people around one who they would reject in round two. Right. Because it’s really the interest of the school to take the best from the whole pool, not just admit a bunch of great people around one, and then you’re turning away people later on who are just as good, if not better, than some of the people that you accepted earlier.


[00:09:42.280] – Caroline

So they are trying to juggle it so that they keep the competition fairly equal.


[00:09:47.550] – John

You’re right. I mean, lately this has been really weird because of the pandemic. So in the incoming classic Cambridge judge. And I’ll just point this out because this is an amazing fact. 28% of this year’s incoming cohort were deferred students. So let’s think about that. If you applied in latter rounds at Cambridge judge, what was your chance with the class already filled up because of deferrals. So you got to know that applying early had to be an advantage to you no matter what at a school like that. And there are a lot of schools that had fairly significant numbers of deferrals. Harvard had so many of them, in fact, that it enlarged the class and admitted the largest class in its history, over 1000 people. So it is a little bit wacky. And then you have the uncertainty that exists today with the Delta variant surging in the US, the economy is still somewhat strong, companies increasing pay of people to hold them longer or to recruit them. So that job prospects for highly promising young people are quite good, actually. So it’s a very uncertain picture. And I think that’s why it’s hard to really predict at any given school at any given time, particularly now, exactly how it’s all going to play out.


[00:11:20.900] – John

Let’s look at MIT. Last year, MIT in round one had a 95% yield rate and they went out into the market and they essentially admitted that they had in round one, admitted well over half of the class. And now, Caroline, you heard something rather interesting recently about MIT in one of their admissions webinars.


[00:11:46.590] – Caroline

A colleague had attended one of the school’s webinars and one of the staff mentioned that they advised candidates to play in round one rather than round two, which I thought was interesting because normally the schools aren’t that pointed about that’s true guiding candidates towards an early round. I mean, they’re often quite open about round three being very tight.


[00:12:12.090] – John

Stanford discourages people from applying to round three, discourages anyone from round two because that tends to be the biggest round.


[00:12:20.810] – Caroline

Yeah, I thought that was interesting. I think that it’s really better for the schools to just remove the stress. Round one versus round two. Right. And because at the end of the day, it’s better people apply when they’re ready, it’s better for the schools to keep the level of competition fairly equal across rounds, because then they’re getting the best of the pool, not the best, just from one round. And don’t pressure people to feel that they have to apply essentially twelve months in advance before going to business school. Otherwise it’s going to be a disaster. Right.


[00:13:01.770] – John

That almost sounds like you’re in favor of a rolling admissions policy, kind of like Columbia Business School has after the early decision deadline.


[00:13:09.590] – Caroline

Well, I mean, I didn’t see that we created four rounds. And of course, there’s two classes per year, so there’s eight rounds per year. Right. With the goal of giving people that flexibility so that they can apply when they’re ready, when it’s the right time for them, when they feel best prepared, and also understanding that often candidates are applying to multiple schools and therefore they’re trying to manage the timing.


[00:13:35.570] – Maria



[00:13:35.830] – Caroline

It’s very tricky if you’re applying to one school and then the other deadline is going to line, and then you’re having to make a decision on an offer from one school without knowing the outcome from another school. So it’s helpful to the candidates to have multiple rounds because it just gives them that flexibility to apply when it’s the best time for them and when they can sort of most effectively manage the process and the decisions on their side.


[00:14:03.140] – John

True. Why do you think Harvard only has two rounds now, Maria?


[00:14:07.120] – Maria

I think because round three was a waste of time for everyone. So I just feel like you’ve already probably got the class. All of these schools could easily fill their classes three or four times over with the people who apply. So it’s not like, oh, we’re hurting for people like, oh, no, are we going to have enough people interested in coming to our school? Of course they do. So I just think why extend things out? And then what if somebody does get in round three? But then, oh, no, my student loan wasn’t approved. My visa wasn’t approved to move to the and of course, a lot of the schools are very open that if you are international, you do need to apply in an earlier round. But even then, it feels like a lot of work for not a lot of payback.


[00:14:51.470] – John

Yeah. I always used to think that Harvard was actually missing out on some very good candidates who’d be going to rival schools by eliminating a round three. I guess that’s probably not true because it’s now been four years since they dropped around three, and have gone with two, and the acceptance is the same. Their yield at 89%. 90% every year is pretty much the same as well. And then you even have the wild card, two plus two candidates who ordinarily don’t really come. After two years of experience, it could be anywhere from two to five. So that’s a bit of a wild card, filling up seats in every single cohort at Harvard Business School. But obviously the dropping of that round three hasn’t hurt them one bit. Now at INSEAD, with the four rounds twice for the two different intakes, eight rounds are there rounds that tend to be bigger at INSEAD is round two, as it is at most US goals, the bigger round or not.


[00:15:57.580] – Caroline

So the earlier rounds are bigger. Round four is typically a bit smaller, but the first three rounds varies. They’re all large rounds, and then there’s a tail off in round four. So it typically pans out. And it’s true that, I think at all the schools, the average quality of candidates in a final round is generally a bit lower. Right. Than the quality in the earlier round. So that’s also why Harvard probably dropped their round three, because they weren’t seeing the same quality of candidates coming through in that final round as they were seeing in round one and round two.


[00:16:33.420] – John



[00:16:33.840] – Caroline

And so the offer rates will definitely be lower in the final round. But that’s also partly because of the quality of the candidates in that pool.


[00:16:43.190] – John

What do you see in terms of scholarship offers? Do you see that a higher percentage of people admitted in round one get scholarships than those admitted in latter rounds?


[00:16:53.550] – Caroline

Well, it depends on the school, but I think if you’re looking for scholarship support, then definitely you should apply earlier rather than later. And some schools specifically direct candidates to do that, to apply earlier rather than later. They’re looking for that financial aid.


[00:17:09.840] – John

Yeah. And just like seats that run out, money runs out. I’ve sat in scholarship award committee meetings as an observer, and you get very excited about the round one candidates you’re seeing for the first time for that new cohort, and you might be a lot more generous to make sure that you lock them in and they don’t go elsewhere. And suddenly when you go into round two, the treasure chest of money to induce you to come is significantly reduced, no matter how well you plan for it. So that is definitely true. The earlier you apply, the more likely I think, you will be in getting some scholarship help. And for internationals, the earlier you apply, the better it is because you’ve got a lot of paperwork and details to take care of, to get a student visa, to come to the United States, to plan here, to get housing and just get settled. And if you’ve never been to the United States or have never been to Europe, if you’re coming from another part of the world. I think it’s helpful to get there early and just get that cultural transition underway before you actually have to go into a core curriculum and face the most demanding part of an MBA program.


[00:18:30.630] – John

In terms of the rounds, do you think that in fact, I mentioned before that maybe it sounds like rolling admissions is even better. But the truth is people respond to deadlines. And for both of you who assist and hold the hands of many candidates every year who are applying, I would imagine that a deadline is a useful tool to get this stuff done. And I’m not talking about those hurried, crazy, frantic nights when people are churning, churning, churning to meet a deadline. I’m just saying a date in the calendar when you know everything is due helps motivate and organize you in a way that a rolling admissions policy wouldn’t. Am I right?


[00:19:20.410] – Caroline

Absolutely. Yeah.





[00:19:21.880] – Caroline

Go ahead. No, I was just going to say it’s also helpful to have the decision deadlines. Right? I mean, it’s nice for candidates to know, okay, if I apply by this date, I will hear from the school on this date. If I’m getting invited to interviews and if I interview, then I will hear by this state whether I’m admitted or not.


[00:19:38.870] – John

I do that. And really, it’s a pet peeve of mine for schools that don’t. Now I wonder if the schools that don’t do it just don’t want to hold themselves accountable for a deadline because there are schools that tell you, okay, we’re going to notify you on this date if you’re going to get an interview, and then we’re going to give you your final decision on this date. And I like the certainty of that.


[00:20:02.860] – Caroline

Yeah, I agree. It takes stress out of the process for candidates because they know when to expect here for the school and they’re not sort of checking their email or their phone every minute of the day for several weeks.





[00:20:18.720] – Caroline

They know when they need to pay attention.


[00:20:21.020] – John

And this is an obsession. All you have to do is go on any of the community boards that GMAT Club or Reddit. And what you’ll find there are people who say, hey, is there anyone heard yet from Blank? And someone will say, yeah, I just got on the waitlist, or yes, I just got someone will say, well, I haven’t heard anything. Does that mean I’ve been rejected?


[00:20:43.750] – Maria

The conspiracy theories that people use to try to rationalize what I’m assuming is a pretty much a random like, okay, I’m in the Pacific Northwest and I work in biotech. And so what does that mean?


[00:20:56.830] – John

Come on, bottom line advice on round strategy. Maria, what is it?


[00:21:07.150] – Maria

Apply as early as you can realize that if you are from a feeder group, as Caroline so eloquently put it, that you probably should apply in round one. But even then, if you’re going to submit a half baked application, in round one versus a more robust one in round two. I would tell you to overall go for round two because at least you might get in. You might have a slight advantage for submitting early, but you might negate that advantage if your application is sloppy.


[00:21:37.310] – John

Right. Caroline, do you have anything to add to that?


[00:21:40.040] – Caroline

Yeah, no, I absolutely agree. And I do think people stress too much over this and over sort of reading the tea leaves on the perfect timing, and it’s impossible to know for sure how it’s going to play out. Right. Because you might find that in the end, the offer rates might be higher in round one or vice versa. It plays out slightly differently every season. So at the end of the day, apply when it’s the right timing for you and get prepared early. And the longer term view you can take of this, the better. The other thing that we haven’t talked about is that the benefit of applying early is if you don’t get in, it gives you more time to apply to other schools. If you wait until round two to apply to any school at all, then you might find yourself coming up short for the season. Right. So there is a huge benefit implying for round one because you have the useful information whether you’ve got into some schools or not, whether you need to apply elsewhere. Because I do think sometimes people underestimate, they’re sorry, they overestimate their chances of getting into schools and then are surprised when they apply to two or three schools in round two, and they’re taken aback that they don’t get in to one of those schools and then they’re disappointed that they have to effectively wait another year.


[00:23:11.520] – John

Right. I’ll throw another wrench into this, too. I’m assuming that if you apply to a really top school, this is where you really have to try to get into round one if you’re ready and are able to basically put your best foot forward. But what about a second tier school? Is it all that necessary to apply in round one? Probably not. Although if you apply in round one to a second tier school, they’ll feel like you really want to go there and your chances of an admission might be quite high. What do you say to that?


[00:23:43.470] – Caroline

Yeah, I do think sometimes round two can be tricky in that the schools may be wondering, are you applying because you’ve been dinged elsewhere? Right. Are we really your number one choice? How motivated are you?


[00:24:00.590] – John

No one wants to be sloppy seconds.


[00:24:02.880] – Caroline

No one wants to be the backup plan. Right. And I think that could be difficult for candidates to sometimes communicate that motivation and make that come across clearly, because for sure, all schools are seeing in round one candidates who are more specifically motivated for that school than in round two. In round two, people start to sort of throw out scattergun applications in desperation because they haven’t got where they wanted in round two and so schools are left wondering, okay, which pool do you fall into? Are you applying because you are genuinely motivated in round two? Was absolutely the right time for you to apply or are you applying now out of desperation because you didn’t get into Harvard Stanford water in round one? I think it’s even more important to communicate your motivation for the school in round two because of that dynamic.


[00:24:56.870] – John

Absolutely. All right. So for all of you out there, there it is. If you are ready to put your best foot forward in round one and that deadline is coming up, do it and give yourself the opportunity to apply in round two in case you don’t get what you want in round one. Meantime by applying early, more seats in the class are going to be empty. More scholarship money is going to be available and I think there’s a general belief that the best candidates tend to apply in round one. So I would think that the Edmund rate is slightly higher around one than it is in subsequent rounds at most schools. But that can change according to the season, the quality of the applicant pool at any given time and all the other external trends out there, whether it’s a pandemic, whether it’s the economy, job prospects and whatnot all have a factor in this. So Caroline and Maria, thank you once again, again for all of your insights. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants you’ve been listening to, Business Casual our weekly podcast.


MBA Application Round Strategies
Maria |
September 14, 2021


New around here? I’m an HBS graduate and a proud member (and former Board Member) of AIGAC. I considered opening a high-end boutique admissions consulting firm, but I wanted to make high-quality admissions advice accessible to all, so I “scaled myself” by creating ApplicantLab. ApplicantLab provides the SAME advice as high-end consultants at a much more affordable price. Read our rave reviews on GMATClub, and check out our free trial (no credit card required) today!