When is The Right Time to Apply to MBA Programs?

The 2023-24 MBA application season is already underway, and prospective students have plenty of considerations for submitting a strong business school application

For those hoping to bag a spot on a top MBA program, the advice from business schools and admission consultants is to start work on that goal as soon as possible. The 2023-24 MBA application season is already underway, with some leading business schools including Harvard and Stanford having released their MBA essay questions and application deadlines in recent weeks.

Most schools, those two included, open their applications in September 2023 for classes starting in Fall 2024. But rushing through the application process is ill-advised, experts say.

When to start preparing your MBA application 

“We advise our applicants to start at least a year before the application deadlines. You need time not only to prepare for the essays and interviews but also to thoroughly research the programs, including visiting the campuses, if possible, and gather the required documents like letters of recommendations and transcripts,” says Adam Nguyen, founder and chief executive of admissions consultancy Ivy Link.

Imran Kanga, director of full-time MBA recruitment and admissions for Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, agrees. “The application process for MBA programs can be extensive, requiring careful planning and preparation. Starting early will give you the advantage of sufficient time to carefully prepare all aspects of your application, enabling you to present the best possible version of yourself to the admissions committees,” he says.

In particular, starting early will give you time to prepare for a standardized test, such as the GMAT or GRE. The amount of time spent preparing for a standardized test can be reflected in the end score, and many candidates take the test more than once.

How to pick the right MBA program for you 

Experts say you should start early by researching MBA programs, attending school events, and networking with both current students and alumni. “Most candidates will have fixed ideas in their minds about what they want from the MBA experience. Is it a one year or two-year program? Where in the world are they looking to study? Do they want a school that can demonstrate strong success in a particular job market or sector post-MBA?” says Liam Kilby, associate director of MBA recruitment at admissions for the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford.

Once they have these absolutes, he says candidates should narrow it down to a shortlist of target schools. There is no magic number but experts say you should focus on at least three; some admissions consultants recommend applying to up to seven schools at once, so you have backups in case of rejection.

Kirby urges caution. “My advice here is focus on the schools that you know will give you the experience you want, and don’t spread yourself too thin; MBA applications are a huge piece of work if done correctly, and applying to several schools will have a notable impact on your free time and work- life balance,” he says.

Which application round should I choose? 

It’s important to apply early, ideally in the first round of admissions which is typically between September and January, as this is when there is the greatest number of spots available. With more candidates admitted, the chances of securing a place shrink with each application round.

Choosing which schools to apply to, and which offers to accept, is another challenge for MBA candidates. Katherine Alford, director of admissions at University of Virginia Darden School of Business, says candidates should go where they feel they will do their best work. 

“Decide which academic and social environment will be the place where you feel you will be equally stretched and supported,” she says. “Think about which educational experience will allow you to reach your potential. Visit your target schools and when possible, sit in on a class, speak with alumni and students, and do your research.”

Choosing the right offer to accept 

Rotman’s Kanga advises candidates to clarify their career goals and aspirations. “Determine the industry, function, or specific roles you are targeting after completing your MBA. Understanding your goals will help you evaluate MBA programs based on their curriculum, specializations, and career services that will help you achieve your aspirations,” he says, adding: “While this is by no means the most important consideration, ranking, reputation and accreditation might also be important deciding factors.”

It’s crucial to think strategically about school selection and develop a competitive mix of MBA programs to target, according to Stacy Blackman, a leading admissions consultant based in the US. “Apply to schools you would be thrilled to attend. Dream big and also be pragmatic, aligning your expectations with the MBA programs that match your particular profile,” she adds. “Shoot for the stars, or you might regret not trying.”

But you’re going to have to balance what school you want to attend with where you can actually get in. Start with the hard data points, says Blackman. “Compare your undergraduate GPA, GMAT/GRE score, years of work experience, and industry with accepted applicants reported by the school on their class profile page. As a general guideline, take a look at MBA programs you like where your profile falls within the top 10 percent of admitted students.” 

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