Round 3 MBA Strategy Amid Global Markets Plunge: 5 Factors to Consider

The carnage on Wall Street and financial markets around the world, coupled by the plunge in oil prices, is dramatically changing the short-term professional prospects and increasingly unlikely bonuses of rising Wall Street analysts. With oil heading to $30 a barrel, the majors may start laying off again as they did four years ago, and with manufacturing and the airline industry in a tailspin those who imagined business school in their future are wondering if that time is now. 

In the past few days, my Fortuna Admissions colleagues and I have been fielding calls from prospective MBAs hoping to throw their hat into the ring for this admissions cycle, in anticipation of a major shake-up across their industry. 

The thinking goes, pursue business school as global markets stumble and graduate a year or two from now when Covid-19 has been tamed and companies are hiring again. Sounds like a shrewd strategy. 

The rub, of course, is that candidates who hope to seize the moment are looking to apply in round three when the top tier U.S. schools have filled the majority of their seats for the incoming class in earlier rounds. But many will also be looking at top programs with a January class start – such as INSEAD, Columbia, HEC Paris, RSM and IMD – which can be more viable options for the qualified applicant. 

Is it worth applying in Round 3 or a European Round 4? It depends. Much like the rest of the MBA application process, there are no definitive rules. You’ll need to consider several factors, including your profile and the schools you’re applying to, before forging ahead. If you’re weighing whether to apply now or hold off until next fall, here are five key factors to consider, along with our team’s advice for positioning a successful round 3 application.


1. Is your top target school among the US M7? The typical thinking is that it may be best to hold off until next year, with so few places available at this stage. But this is a year unlike any other, with travel restrictions among a number of factors that are making yield management from Rounds 1 and 2 very challenging, from Philadelphia to Palo Alto. Round 3 is usually no longer a “general” applicant pool as top tier schools at this point are typically looking to fill specific profiles. R3 is still a practical option for schools beyond the M7, although be aware these schools receive a lot of apps from candidates who have been dinged in earlier rounds by higher-ranked programs.

“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,” writes my Fortuna colleague Judith Silverman Hodara, former Wharton head of admissions. “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.’”

2. Do you have a truly exceptional profile? As Judith implies above, extraordinary applicants bring something unique to the MBA classroom beyond academic excellence and stellar GMAT scores. Do you bring an unusual academic background, noteworthy distinction in your field or experience in a non-traditional industry? By R3, many schools are seeking to enhance diversity, so look for ways to emphasize the unique qualities and characteristics that may set you apart from other high achievers. If yours is a more typical profile, give considered thought to how you can bring something unique to balance out the class.

“I had a successful R3 admit to an M7 school who really astounded me by positioning a mushroom hunting hobby as evidence of his relentless dedication and creativity,” says Judith. “His storytelling about elusive edible fungi, and ability to express his character and acumen through forest foraging skills, was both memorable and convincing to the MBA admissions committee.” 

3. Can you position yourself as a sincere & strategic applicant? A great deal depends on your ability to be convincing and compelling to your target schools. R3 requires as much engagement and thought as rounds 1 and 2, if not more. Can you put together a powerful and coherent MBA application now? If not, do not submit one that isn’t going to be your best effort. No school wants to be the afterthought, and admissions reviewers are savvy about distinguishing a sincere applicant from someone making a last-ditch effort amid career anxiety about impending layoffs.

In her role as associate director at UCLA Anderson, Fortuna’s Jessica Chung confirms she saw many terrific, highly qualified candidates apply in Round 3. “The ones who did stand out, and made an impressive case, were those who portrayed an authentic and genuine enthusiasm for the school and took time to strategically include unique attributes that can enhance the Anderson community,” says Jessica. “It was quite obvious when applicants made the mistake of rushing the application, as they failed to articulate more than a superficial knowledge of our program and their motivations for pursuing an MBA at Anderson.”

4. Are you considering a top tier school outside the US? Programs such as INSEAD and LBS have a higher percentage of spaces available in R3 than their peers in the U.S. In fact, INSEAD and LBS have four rounds, while other of the European schools have up to five or six rounds. While you may still be eligible for aid, know that there tend to be fewer scholarship or financing options available in final rounds.

“Many schools advise candidates against applying in the final round. INSEAD, on the other hand – which has ranked among the top three MBA programs in the world for the last four years by The Financial Times – works hard to keep the level of competition fair across all rounds,” says Fortuna’s Caroline Diarte Edwards, former head of INSEAD Admissions. In her article, Applying to INSEAD: Advice for 6 Typical Profiles, Caroline clarifies, “It makes sense really: INSEAD wants the best of the entire pool and doesn’t want to reject someone in the final round who would have been admitted in round 1 (or accept someone in round 1 who would be rejected in round 3 or round 4). They achieve this through making an informed guesstimate of expected application volume by round, and through the use of the waitlist for borderline candidates. That’s good news for anyone still hoping to matriculate at a top MBA program.”

5. Are you applying for an Executive or part-time MBA? There tends to be less competition overall for part-time and EMBAs, and some offer multiple start date options. So if you apply in a later round, your chances of admissions may be slightly lower but not greatly so. These are strong options for older applicants, as EMBAs are geared toward 30-45-year-olds and part-time programs to 24-35-year-olds (average age for a fulltime MBA is 27). The key is to ensure that the community will give you what you need and that this is really the best fit for you.

“There are several unique reasons you might pursue the EMBA over a traditional MBA, especially if you’re a seasoned professional with considerable experience under your belt,” says Fortuna’s Bill Kooser, former Associate Dean at Chicago Booth. In an article on deciding between the EMBA or MBA, Bill notes, “When deciding between options, the most important thing to discern is what you want to get out of your advanced business degree. EMBA programs will provide a tremendous opportunity to work with high performing professionals from all over the world, develop a very strong network, and hone those basic business skills to enhance your career in general management.” 

All told, the challenge of R3 also poses a prime opportunity for certain candidates. In a recent admission blog aiming to dispel myths around round 3, Yale’s Assistant Dean for Admissions Bruce Delmonico encourages serious applicants not to be dissuaded. Says Delmonico, “…for many of you, applying in our Round 3 deadline in April is actually perfect timing. After all, the deadline does exist for a reason—we admit many excellent students in Round 3!”

If you’re convinced that an R3 or R4 application is for you, be sure to engage the admissions office or student ambassadors at your target schools as soon as possible. Attend a campus visit if you can and reach out to current students for informational interviews who share similar backgrounds or goals.

“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 you go into the round knowing the odds, it can be a great exercise and preparation for a R1 application for the following year. It can help you identify any weaknesses and have the time to really position yourself for round one.”

Applying for R3 can work out in your favor – the trick is being honest about your candidacy, conviction and ability to make a persuasive case. And, just in case, it’s always wise to have a back-up plan.

Fortuna-Admissions-LogoMatt Symonds is Co-Founder of MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and Co-Host of the CentreCourt MBA Festival. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.



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