The conventional wisdom can be summed up as follows: apply when you’re ready but as early as you can. The common fear is that later in the cycle, particularly Round 3, it becomes “impossible” to get in. One admissions prognosticator I read said that she believes HBS admissions rates drop from 14% in Round 1 to 7% in Round 2 and below 3% in Round 3.
This is baloney. If you ask the admissions deans and dive into the data, you will find that while the number of applications fluctuates with each round and cycle, the acceptance rate remains reliably constant.
However, the key insight is that the applicant mix in each round is different.
Round 1 is for all the traditional MBA candidates: consultants, investment bankers, private equity investors, etc. If you worked at McKinsey or Goldman, your time to apply is in Round 1. And why wouldn’t you? You’re on “the path.” You’ve known since the day you started at your firm that everyone expects you to go to business school one day, maybe even with the company’s sponsorship. That means that you took your GMAT early, had your recommenders at the ready, and kept your resume up to date. All you needed was the essay prompt and you were ready for Round 1.
What happens to a candidate in this bucket who instead decides to apply later in a later round? Well, at the start of each application season, the admissions director allocates the number of admissions spots for each kind of profile. Because the traditional candidate applies early, by later rounds, almost all the spots for them are filled. You might be just the consultant the admissions committee was always looking for, but unfortunately they already gave your spot away. To prevent this from happening, follow the herd and apply with your cohort.
Are you literally any other type of candidate? Someone with a background in entrepreneurship, manufacturing, military, corporate finance, or healthcare? Then feel free to apply in whichever round you like. If you apply early, all the spots will be open to you, but you will be competing with the most prepared and impressive applicants. HBS usually places some Round 1 applicants under “further consideration” each year, bumping them into the Round 2 applicant pool. It can be nerve-wracking waiting for months while your application collects dust, so if you apply early you need to prepare yourself mentally for this possibility.
As for Round 3 – it’s not just for super impressive Olympic athletes and ex-presidents. Spots in the class are in short supply, but then again the applicant pool is much smaller too. More volatile industries like start-ups give less runway for employees to make important decisions like returning to business school. Accommodating those candidates are the reason why MBA programs have later admissions rounds. It is perfectly fine for those individuals to apply with confidence in Round 3; they should just make sure they’re applying then because that is the right time, not because they were lazy.