Schools That Give Round 3 MBA Applicants The Best Shot

Applying to a highly selective business school in the third or final round in MBA admission cycles is often thought of as a “Hail Mary pass,” typically made in desperation, with only a small chance of success. After all, by round three, most of the class seats are already spoken for and admission officials are trying to achieve diversity goals to round out an incoming cohort than merely fill those few final seats.

Generally, the final application deadline for any incoming class is often thought to be the toughest round, no matter where you apply. While application volume varies from school to school and from cycle to cycle, generally the third round amounts to not much more than 10% to 15% of a school’s application pool. But there are schools where R3 candidates may well stand a better shot at getting in. Which ones are they?

We recently asked that question of all the leading MBA admission consultants in the world, including the founders and CEOs of the largest firms. Some 42 different consultants and firms completed the survey for a response rate of 35.3%.  Their answers are surprising and, sometimes, unexpected. Altogether, the consultants singled out 19 MBA programs, including 17 highly prominent U.S. business schools and two leading European options, INSEAD and London Business School.


The best bets, according to our survey, are the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, INSEAD Business School, and New York University’s Stern School of Business (see table below). One in seven admission consultants believes that those three schools give applicants the fairest shake in the final round. Right behind those three is Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, which had ranked first the last time we did the survey four years ago in 2016 when nearly one in four consultants said Tuck was the procrastinator’s best bet.

Noticeably absent from the list of schools singled out by the admission consultants are Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, both of which were off the list of best R3 shots in 2016 as well. Some schools, of course, come very close to discouraging round three applications, even while keeping the door open for them. Stanford, for example, even tells applicants that if they plan to apply in round one or two, they are “strongly encouraged” to apply in the first round. “Over the last few years, the number of applications we receive in round two has increased, making it more competitive,” explains Stanford.

The survey of admission consultants also brought insights into the quality of the early 2020-2021 applicant pool in what many consider to be among the most competitive admissions cycles in many years as well as how long candidates tend to wait before they actually submit their applications. More than a third of the consultants say the applicant pool is of higher quality than last year, while only 15% believe the candidates they are helping are not nearly as solid as those they worked with a year ago (see chart below). Some 10% of the consultants actually believe this year’s crop of MBA applicants is the best they have ever seen.

The survey also found that more applicants are considering non-U.S. MBA programs in Europe and Canada, a consequence of anti-immigration rhetoric in the U.S., the high cost of the MBA degree from a U.S. school, and uncertainty over obtaining work visas after graduation (see below chart). Some 61% told Poets&Quants that their clients are showing greater interest in MBA programs in Europe and Canada, while 34% said there was no change. Only 5% believed their candidates have shown less interest.

We also asked the consultants what percentage of their clients submitted their MBA applications within four hours of the final deadline set by their business schools. According to the survey, Some 35% of the consultants said that 5% or fewer of their applicants waited until the last minute to apply (see chart below).


When it came to third or final round chances, there are obvious explanations for why you might take a shot. “There are plenty of legitimate reasons a student might apply in Round 3 – life or career changes, such as moving countries or companies might inspire a later-than-expected application,” says Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions. “Or perhaps a student came to the decision somewhat late in the cycle and doesn’t want to wait a whole extra 18 months to matriculate.” The COVID pandemic is also another complicating factor, one that swelled final rounds at many business schools in the past admissions cycle.

The schools at the top of the list–Darden, Stern and INSEAD–tend to be the best shots in part because of the cascading effect in the MBA application game. Most competitive applicants aim very high, often applying in earlier rounds to an M7 school. But MBA admissions is such a random game that a high percentage of exceptional applicants are turned down or released from a waitlist. So it leaves a lot of exceptional applicants come on the market later. The schools that anticipate those applicants tend to leave a few more seats open to scoop the best of them up.

Admissions consultants believe that Darden, NYU, INSEAD, and Tuck recognize that many of their final round applicants fall into this group and some of them can be better candidates than those who apply in the second and traditionally biggest round that attracts the most applications. Other schools that cropped up the list of recommendations include Yale School of Management, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and the London Business School


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