Applying in Round 3: Your Winning Strategy

Judith Silverman Hodara, a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions.

Judith Silverman Hodara, director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions

Let’s be honest: Mention applying for your MBA in Round 3 (R3) and prepare to raise eyebrows. After all, it is commonly known that top programs have selected the bulk of their classes by end of March, so odds appear far less favorable for those who are considering applying for the last deadline. At the same time, not going for it now means waiting until next fall when the admissions cycle begins anew, and there may actually be some “pros” to getting your application in now.

This is the time of year when applicants seek our advice on whether or not to apply for their MBA in R3. Our response at Fortuna Admissions is often, “it depends.”

For starters, a great deal depends on your conviction that now is the right time for you, along with your ability to be convincing and compelling to your target schools. The level of competition is higher in R3, and for M7 schools, admission is rare unless you have a truly exceptional or uncommon profile. Round 3 is still a viable option for schools beyond the top 10, although they receive a lot of apps from candidates who have been dinged in round 1 or 2 by higher ranked schools. If you’re in that pool, know you must work extra hard to communicate your conviction and motivation in R3. No school wants to be the afterthought, and adcom is practiced at quickly distinguishing a sincere and strategic applicant from someone making a last-ditch effort after being rejected in earlier rounds or someone who has decided that they are not enjoying their current job and need a change of scenery.

So if now is your moment, or you’re still on the fence, here’s what you need to know for making the most of the R3 opportunity:

Ensure time to shine. The MBA application process requires considered reflection and thoughtful preparation, no matter when you choose to take it on. Perhaps you’re seizing the opportunity to apply now because pursuing an MBA earlier rather than later will make a critical difference in your career ambitions or in lieu of your current work situation. Age can be a concern, as being older than the average age for the program doesn’t improve your chances. First, it’s essential to take the time be introspective about your motivations for pursuing an MBA, what your career plans are post-MBA, and what makes you a strong candidate. If you’re strong in your conviction, can you credibly say that your application will be at its best in this round? Are you prepared to dedicate the energy required to think through your essays, select your recommenders and prepare the requisite materials with both focus and gusto? Your efforts now can change the course of your career—and your life. Make sure you don’t rush your decision or have it be a reaction to other things going on in your life.

Position your Excellence. Given our team’s experience in Admissions Director roles among the top 10 schools, we know that programs are looking for specific profiles to round out their incoming class for those few remaining spots in the final round. If you’re targeting schools in the M7 for example, R3 is no longer “general” – so unless your background aligns with what adcom is specifically seeking at this stage, it can be wiser to hold off until next year. While you can’t forecast the ideal R3 candidate, you can hedge your bets by examining each program’s published student profile data to see how you compare. Extraordinary applicants have more than stellar data points like GMAT scores and undergrad GPAs. You’re much more likely to stand out in round 3 if you’re hailing from a non-traditional industry such as, say, microfinance in developing countries or you are coming from an unusual academic background. Or perhaps you’ve earned exceptional distinction in your field.

If your profile is more conventional (e.g., you’re coming from finance or consulting), you’ll need to give positioning greater consideration. What are you passionate about? What can be taken from your interests and extracurriculars that sets you apart? Does your background offer unique insights you can weave into your application? Which experiences might differentiate you from others who share similar credentials? How might you distinguish yourself in a sincere and strategic way through your career vision and longer-term plans? This is not the time to say that you want to become a management consultant at McKinsey, Bain or BCG – the schools have had their share of those applicants already. Can you think outside of that paradigm?

Weigh the benefits of other programs. It can be advantageous to look outside the US. For one thing, there are several international programs, such as INSEAD, who have a higher percentage of spots available in later rounds than their stateside peers. You may still be eligible for scholarships and loans at this stage (same goes for on-campus housing), but know that there may be fewer financial aid options available. In fact, INSEAD and LBS have four rounds; other of the European schools have up to five or six rounds; HEC has rounds pretty much every month.

Alternatively, think about applying to a part-time or Executive MBA program. Broadly speaking, there’s less competition for these programs and some offer multiple start date options. Both are strong options for older applicants, as part-time programs are geared towards 24-35 year olds and EMBAs towards 30-42 year olds (average age for a fulltime MBA is 27). With an older cohort, you will be in class with students who are bringing a lot of industry horsepower to the table. They may have different aims from someone in a regular full time program; you will want to ensure that this is really a good fit for you and that the community will give you what you need.

Create a backup plan. Given the factors involved in R3, its not uncommon for worthy and distinctive candidates to get rejected. Make sure you have a Plan B you can get behind, whether its continuing on with your current employer or pursuing select opportunities that move you closer in the direction of your dreams. Can you think about ways in which you may want to enhance your profile for a reapplication?

Don’t let the nature of R3 deter you from applying, nor reapplying if you don’t make the cut this time around. It’s important to know that getting dinged in R3 won’t impact your chances of getting admitted in round 1 or 2 of the following season. The thing to avoid is what I call the “hail Mary” pass from rushed applicants. Hastily prepared or repackaged materials smack of desperation; so make sure you really have thought through your value proposition as well as taken the time to ensure that all of the details are in place.

If you put forth your best work and still get dinged, it’s an opportunity to reassess your efforts and think about what you can do to boost your chances when the admissions cycle begins anew. Post-application analysis is a valuable process in itself and can offer new insights and perspectives; many re-applicants present themselves better the second time around.

All told, the challenge of R3 likewise poses a prime opportunity for certain applicants. As Dartmouth Tuck’s adcom quipped in its program blog, “Tuck has had a Round 3 for a long time and frankly, we wouldn’t bother if it wasn’t worthwhile.” The trick is taking stock of your conviction, candidacy and ability to make a compelling case before entering the ring.

by Judith Silverman Hodara

Judith is a director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former director of MBA admissions at Wharton. Fortuna is composed of former directors and associate directors of admissions from many of the world’s best business schools.

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