At Menlo Coaching, we’ve worked with MBA applicants who prepare early — as early as their freshman year of college. After all, taking the right steps in college can lead to great jobs that set you up for MBA success later.
We’ve also worked with major procrastinators, like the applicant who camped out in our office during the Christmas holiday and finished 11 applications in 11 days by working from 10am until 2am each day.
Although our procrastinator was admitted to an M7 school with a generous scholarship, this does NOT mean that it’s an ideal strategy or that it was guaranteed to work from the start. It was very stressful for her, and it worked only because she had a huge, eager network of MBA friends willing to drop everything during their own Christmas holidays to speak to her for hours about their MBA programs.
So how can you plan an MBA application timeline that will reduce your stress levels and make acceptance most likely? Break it down into two big decisions:
- When you’ll apply — which year and which application round
- When you’ll work on each part of the business school application process
How much pre-MBA work experience do you need?
To determine the right year to apply, begin by considering the fact that MBA students at top business schools, on average, have between 4 and 5 years of pre-MBA work experience when they enroll (P&Q: Average Age & Work Experience at Top MBA Programs). Within this average, some categories often enroll earlier, such as sponsored management consultants, and other categories often enroll later, such as military veterans.
Why do business schools do it this way?
- Business schools want students to have interesting experiences to share in classroom discussions.
- Many post-MBA employers prefer 5+ years of pre-MBA work experience.
- Students with 4-5 years of experience are likely to have a few leadership experiences, which prepares them well for further leadership development.
Younger and older MBA applicants
This doesn’t mean that you can’t be admitted earlier or later, but if you apply with only one or two years of work experience, it’s tough to make the case that you’ll add a lot of value to the class. This is especially true if you come from a “standard” background like banking.
And if you apply with 8+ years of experience, and aren’t coming from a military background, then there’s a risk that you either had slow career progression (not good), or that you’ve already been promoted beyond most post-MBA roles, which makes it hard to prove that you still need the MBA.
Which MBA application round should you target?
Most top MBA programs have three application rounds:
- Round 1, with application deadlines in September/October
- Round 2, with application deadlines in January
- Round 3, with application deadlines in April.
A few business schools, especially European ones, offer four or five application rounds, or early decision options. You can see the deadlines for the Top 25 US MBA programs and top European programs at MBA Application Deadlines.
Note that deadlines are fairly stable from year to year — even if the current year’s deadlines haven’t been officially released, they’ll very likely be similar to the previous year. So, it’s still possible to plan out your MBA application timeline, even if your targeted schools’ deadlines are not yet public.
The Round 1 advantage
Submitting your application in Round 1 is best if you have time to prepare for it. In Round 1, every seat in the class is open. However, as you go into Round 2 and Round 3, the risk increases that your target MBA programs have already admitted students who they consider “similar” to you based on your professional / regional / academic background. Business schools want to admit a balanced class, and you may be declined if they’ve already admitted similar students.
Applying in Round 1 is more important for candidates from groups that are over-represented in the MBA applicant pool, such as applicants from India or China, or non-diversity applicants from traditional sectors like banking and consulting. There are so many strong applicants in these categories that a school is more likely to “fill up” these categories in Round 1.
Although you can object that business schools know how many applicants they’ll receive in each round, and will hold some spots open, be aware that MBA programs are very conservative in their decision making. They will not reject an “A” applicant in Round 1 in the hopes that an “A+” applicant will walk through the door in Round 2.
Round 2 as a backup option
Despite the above arguments, applying in Round 2 with a strong application is much better than applying in Round 1 with a rushed application. If you need extra time to raise your GMAT score, to visit campuses, or to prepare high-quality application materials, you should consider applying in Round 2 instead.
What are the steps in the MBA application process?
At a high level, the items on the MBA application timeline are:
- Taking the GMAT, GRE or Executive Assessment
- Selecting your target MBA programs
- Meeting your target MBA programs through info sessions and campus visits
- Preparing your written applications: essays, resume and application forms
- Securing recommendation letters
- MBA admissions interviews
How can you plan the right timeline for these parts of the MBA application process?
GMAT: Start Early
For the reasons described at P&Q: What is a good GMAT score?, every extra point on your GMAT score will enhance your chances of being accepted. Thus, it makes sense to start as early as you can so you have enough time to get a great score, not just a “good enough” score.
The GMAT is valid for five years, so if you’re still in time to do so, get it out of the way when you’re a senior in college!
For the rest of you, it’s ideal to finish the GMAT three months before you apply, which leaves you enough time to devote to the other parts of the application process. Most applicants would benefit from starting the GMAT study one year before applying.
For extreme procrastinators, you can still submit a new GMAT score to your target programs in the window between the deadline for the written application and the interview invite notifications. Business schools won’t promise to take the new score into account, but often, they will.
MBA Campus Visits: When School is in Session, Please!
Getting to know your target MBA programs is a big part of making a strong application, and a campus visit is by far the best way to do this, because you can not only meet students and admissions officers, you can sit in on a class and experience the teaching first-hand. This is something you will want to consider thoroughly and factor into your MBA application timeline accordingly.
If I had a nickel for every MBA applicant who told me that she would visit campuses in the summer, I would be a rich man. But does it make sense to do campus visits in the summer? No! Because the students are away for their internships, meaning that there is no opportunity to meet them or to sit in on a class.
So, plan to do the campus visits in the fall or the early spring of the year before you would apply in Round 1, or in the fall of the same year you apply for Round 2.
- This means you may have to make campus visits during the time that you’re still studying for the GMAT.
- A few MBA programs (e.g. Tuck) offer student-initiated interviews, but only if you visit during the same academic year that you apply. So, in these cases, you should delay your visit to the fall even if you’re applying in Round 1.
Unsure about which programs are worth visiting? Learn more by visiting our guide to the top MBA programs, which includes all of the basic class profile and employment statistics, plus video interviews of students and admissions officers.
The Written Application: Essays, Resume
Although most business schools release their applications in May or June, the topics covered by these applications are highly predictable:
- Your career goals, and how the MBA will help you achieve them
- Your personal story
- How you will make a contribution to your classmates and the MBA program generally
Although some MBA applicants can prepare good applications within a couple of months, others will need to spend a large amount of time researching their post-MBA career path, target schools and potential campus contributions before they can write a great application. For example, conducting informational interviews with people who are already in your target post-MBA roles can help you to articulate your career goal effectively.
Writing about yourself is difficult for most MBA applicants, and attacking this part of the application slowly and steadily will always help you to produce your best work and to reduce the stress involved in the application process.
And don’t forget the application forms! Although the essays and resumes are the hardest and most time-consuming parts, many applicants are surprised that the short answers required on application forms require significant thought, and go well beyond basic demographic information.
Letters of Recommendation
It is nearly impossible to convince your recommenders — who are busy managers — to start months ahead of time on their letters. So, this part of the process can be left for closer to the deadlines. Ideally, you’ll brief your recommenders on the required letters, and discuss the examples of your work together that they might cite, a couple of months ahead of the deadlines.
They’ll probably wait until the last minute, anyway! But do your best to make the task easy for them by preparing them well and giving them advance notice.
If you have the luxury of starting more than a year ahead, you can sometimes gain advantages by taking steps to strengthen your relationships with recommenders (even though you’ll leave the process of writing the letters for later).
Usually, interview invites are sent 4-6 weeks after written applications are submitted, and interviews are scheduled shortly after that. Just like with the written applications, the most likely questions are highly predictable:
- Tell me about yourself
- Why an MBA?
- Why our school?
- Behavioral questions about successes, failures and teamwork
As outlined in the article P&Q: The Questions Behind MBA Interview Questions, the true aim of interview preparation is to get you ready to connect with your interviewer on a human level, not to memorize the “correct” answers to these questions.
Plan to start MBA interview prep as soon as you’ve finished submitting your written applications.
The earlier you start on your applications, the higher chances you have to succeed. Contact us as soon as you know that you want to pursue an MBA and want to maximize your chances of success. We love working with applicants who prepare ahead!
David White has been recognized as a top reviewed MBA admissions consultant by Poets&Quants in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and is a founding partner at MBA admissions consulting firm Menlo Coaching. His 15-year tech career included executive roles at startups (Efficient Frontier, acquired by Adobe) and publicly traded companies (Yahoo, Travelzoo), during which time he hired, trained and developed dozens of young professionals. He has been coaching MBA applicants since 2012 with a special focus on developing the right career goals.