How many schools should you apply to? The answer will depend on your unique situation and needs, and is a key element in your application strategy. Having a clear idea of how many schools you’re targeting before you start the application process will help you plan ahead and stay organized.
Rule of Thumb
Your specific situation – your profile, demographics, goals, etc. – will determine how many schools you apply to in each category: stretch, competitive, and safety. For example, a “typical” applicant might apply to about five to seven programs: one to three stretches, two to four competitive programs, and one to two safeties. This strategy gives you a shot at your dream schools, a decent chance of acceptance at competitive programs, and a strong likelihood of acceptance at your safety.
Exceptions to the Rule
There are exceptions to every “typical” case, however – and, once again, the answer depends on your unique situation. Consider the following:
For example, some applicants will want to apply to more schools because of a demographics factor. If you’re older than the average – meaning that getting in this year is essential, since next year would put you (more) above the typical MBA age/experience range and deeper into EMBA territory – you might consider applying to more programs. On the flip side, if you’re fairly young and can’t see the benefit of taking time out of your career unless it’s for HBS or Stanford (or any other dream school), you should apply to those only, since you know you can reapply next year, widen your net, and not worry about age.
COMPETITIVENESS/TYPE OF PROGRAM:
Another factor has to do with the type of program you’re targeting. If you would only attend an elite school – and you know that it isn’t worth it for your career goals for you to go to any other – then you should apply to as many programs as possible that fit your criteria to maximize your chances of acceptance.
A third situation affecting the number of schools you might choose to apply to occurs when you’re truly unsettled on geographic location: it might make sense to apply to more programs so that you have multiple options. Conversely, if you are limited geographically and know that you absolutely must stay in a particular region or city, you may have a shorter list of target schools.
And if you’re applying with a significant blemish in your profile – such as an honor code violation, a firing for cause, etc – you should apply to more schools than you otherwise would need to.
You should also take time into consideration: if you know you won’t be able to devote more than a couple of hours a week to working on your applications, target fewer programs than you otherwise would, so that your applications are quality applications that represent you well.
And remember: the number you choose isn’t set in stone. We’re talking about a clear idea of how many schools to list, not a straightjacket. As you work through the application process, you may add more programs or change the ones on your list. It’s natural for your list to evolve. That’s fine.
Factors That May Cause Your List to Evolve
When might you want to change your targets and the number of schools on your list?
Well, for one thing, you might realize that your assessment of your own competitiveness was off, and that you need to take a step back and reassess. Maybe you didn’t receive any interview invites Round 1 from schools where you expected to be competitive. Or maybe you’ve done much better at programs you regarded as major stretches, and that makes you realize you could be competitive at other highly ranked programs. Either way, it might be time to revisit your list of target programs.
Another situation that could cause you to revise your list: a shift in your professional needs. If your goals change, you’ll probably want to take a second look at the schools on your list.
Similarly, your personal needs or plans might change. Do you have new geographical or family concerns? These issues will also shape both the content and size of your list.
Finally, you might simply learn more about a program that you didn’t think about initially, and realize that it should be on your list. You can simply add it or replace another program depending on all the other factors raised above. The choice is yours.
However your list evolves throughout the process, the goal is to start with reasonable choices in terms of quantity and quality, choices that reflect your situation and enhance your chances of acceptance.
An MBA is one of the most significant investments you can make in your future. That’s why planning ahead and applying to the right mix of schools is so important. If you miscalculate, you could risk getting dinged – or stagnating at the wrong program for you. Avoid these costly mistakes by reading Best MBA Programs: A Guide to Selecting the Right One.
Linda Abraham is the founder of Accepted, the premier admissions consultancy. She has coached MBA applicants to acceptance for over 20 years. The Wall Street Journal, US News, and Poets & Quants are among the media outlets that seek her admissions expertise.
More from Linda Abraham: Deciding Where to Apply to Business School