Applying In Round 3: What The MBA AdCom Is Looking For

The question my Wharton colleagues and I asked each other at round three (R3) decision time during my tenure as head of admissions was, ‘Who are we missing?’ Meaning, who don’t we have, and who do we want?

That’s because Wharton, like other elite business schools that receive thousands of impressive candidates, fills the majority of its seats after the first two rounds. Part of what makes R3 so tricky for the applicant is that admissions teams at the world’s top MBA programs, tasked with building a diverse class, will often be screening for very, very specific candidates. No longer are they saying to one another, ‘here’s a great candidate!’ but something like, ‘here’s someone who brings something extraordinary to our incoming class.’

Of course, the precise candidate MBA programs want to attract (or, gaps they’re hoping to fill) can’t possibly be anticipated year over year.

First, don’t despair! Round 3 exists for a reason, and it wouldn’t exist if there weren’t any spots left. (Case in point being that Harvard Business School killed its R3 last year, a transparent signal to applicants that it was no longer worthwhile it to keep a third round open.) But HBS is the only b-school to receive more than 10,000 MBA applications in a single cycle. Many other top programs expect to pick up a handful of rockstar contenders who waited to submit their applications until R3 for a variety of compelling reasons. (You just don’t want your admission reviewer to have to speculate.)

Dartmouth Tuck says it well in its measured but encouraging admissions blog on the topic of R3: “Tuck has had a Round 3 for a long time and frankly, we wouldn’t bother if it wasn’t worthwhile. All applicants are taken seriously by the admissions committee no matter which round they choose. The BIGGER question is whether the applicant is taking the opportunity seriously.”

Taking the opportunity seriously means being a sincere, strategic and self-aware R3 applicant. “R3 requires as much engagement and thought than R1 and 2 – if not more. Can you put together a powerful MBA application now, or should you wait until the next cycle?” writes my Fortuna colleague Matt Symonds in his article, Applying In Round 3: What Are Your Chances? “No school wants to be the afterthought, and admissions reviewers are savvy about distinguishing a sincere applicant from one who’s making a last-ditch effort after being rejected in earlier rounds.”

Last year I had a client with a very strong profile eager to pull together an R3 application after dazzling burst of self-awareness in mid-February. And while I think she’ll be a great candidate for the MBA, I encouraged her to redirect her efforts toward a round one application where she’d have a better chance of admission. Why? Not only would she have a much stronger platform given a more conventional background and skillset, she’ll have ample time to put together the best possible application.

“I would consider round three if you are an exceptional applicant – high scores/GPA, rapid career progression, something else that makes you spectacular. You should already have been in touch with schools and done thoughtful outreach; perhaps you’re just waiting on an appropriate test score,” says my Fortuna admissions colleague Brittany Maschal. “I don’t think it is appropriate or a good use of time for 90% of applicants, but because it’s so small, it could actually be a good round to be in for that diamond-in-the-rough-type candidate.”

“The odds may be against you, but do NOT get discouraged if you don’t get in,” says Fortuna’s Heidi Hillis, former Stanford GSB alumni admission interviewer. “If a candidate goes into the round knowing the odds, it can be a great exercise and preparation for a R1 app for the following year. It can help them identify any weaknesses and have the time to really position themselves for round one.”

That said, it’s not so long between R3 deadlines in March/April and R1 deadlines in September. While the next intake date may feel far away, the actual application deadline is not. Given this reality, consider whether you’re creating false urgency and unnecessarily rushing your application.

Fortuna’s Jessica Chung, former Associate Director at UCLA Anderson, puts a fine point on this: “If you plan to re-apply the following year if you don’t receive any R3 offers, you’ll need to keep in mind that you’ll be considered a re-applicant and your profile will be considered in the context of how you’ve grown and further developed since the last application, which can only be a few months between applying in R3 and re-applying if you plan to hit R1 deadlines.”

But if now is your moment and R3 is for you, the question you want to answer confidently for yourself is, ‘what am I going to add to this program that’s likely to be uniquely distinctive?’ The key here is to approach Round 3 grounded in realistic expectations. “Given that the majority of the class has likely been filled from the previous rounds, take a good hard look at the class profile and culture to see how you can bring something unique to balance out the class at this stage,” adds Chung.

In other words, the cake is already done. What are you adding to the cake that’s going to enhance it? Answer that for yourself, and you stack the odds in your favor.

For more specific tips on submitting a successful R3 application, along with additional factors to consider, view this related article by my Fortuna colleague Matt Symonds.


Fortuna AdmissionsJudith Silverman Hodara is a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Wharton head of Admissions. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 12 of the top 15 business schools.