How many schools should I apply to – and which ones?

One of the most frequent questions we get from our clients and those who ask us for their odds of MBA admission is “How many schools should I apply to?” School selection – both the quantity and tier – is an incredibly important part of one’s application strategy and one that all applicants should invest a good amount of time considering early in the process.

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Categories of Schools

We recommend that you think of school selection like building a portfolio of personal investments. By investing your time in a number of different schools across different categories, you can decrease the esoteric risk of being denied at any individual school, pit financial aid offers against one another, and ultimately make a more informed final selection. For this reason, we recommend applying to no fewer than six schools, two from each of the following categories:

Stretch

Your stretch schools are your dream schools. These are the kinds of schools that you would drop everything and pay double price to go to if you could simply because their prestige, network, resources, and education would have an absolutely transformative effect on your career trajectory. The trouble is that these schools are normally difficult to get to for anybody and your admissions profile puts you in a rather uncompetitive camp. You should still apply to these schools! The admissions committee will still read your application. They are people too, and if you have a personal narrative that moves them or stops them cold, they may fight to make space in the class for you depending on the depth of the rest of the applicant pool.

Adding these schools to your portfolio is like buying the stock of risky tech companies. If things go well, the payoff is unbelievable. Plus, if you didn’t apply but later found out that you would have been admitted, wouldn’t you kick yourself about it? Personally, I would always rather the school say no to me, than for me to say no to myself. You can apply to these schools as a Hail Mary on your own at the end of the cycle, or if you want better odds you can engage with a consultant who has specific expertise at that school (much like how we do for HBS).

Reach

These are schools that you would be delighted to attend and where your profile is a little more competitive (e.g. two or more of the following is true: your undergraduate institution is better represented in the student body, your GPA is at or above average, your GMAT is at or above average, or your current employer is a major recruiter at the school). These are the schools that you are realistically targeting and which you will spend the majority of your time (either on your own or with a consultant) working on.

Grab

A grab school is not a safety school. It is a school where you would want to do, where your profile is competitive in most or all of the categories previously mentioned, but where your odds are still less than 50%. They are there for you to grab, if you can. Adding Grab schools to your portfolio does two things. First, if you’re sure that now is the right time to go to business school, helps give you the certainty that you will get in somewhere. Second, because you are a more desirable candidate to Grab schools, they will likely be more generous to you in financial aid. Suddenly if the cost of tuition for a grab school is 50-75% less than a Reach school, you’ll be a lot more excited about them. Also, getting money from one Grab school can help you in negotiating financial aid offers from other schools, but more on that at another time.

Run the analysis

Let’s run the numbers. If we believe that a person’s profile gives them a conservative baseline chance of admissions of 15% for Stretch schools, 25% for Reach Schools, and 40% for Grab schools (and for the sake of argument that there is negligible covariance between the applications), then the odds of being admitted to at least one school are the following:

Portfolio of 4 Schools: 1 Stretch, 2 Reach, 1 Grab – 70%

Portfolio of 6 Schools: 2 Stretch, 2 Reach, 2 Grab – 84%

Portfolio of 8 Schools: 2 Stretch, 3 Reach, 3 Grab – 93%

Conclusion

Which schools fit into each of these categories will depend on the unique admissions profile of the individual student. If you want our help in sorting, feel free to get your odds here.

The Eisenhower Matrix: A Five-Star General’s Application Strategy

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Want to apply to business school like a master strategist? How about like a five-star general?

General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States, led the allies to victory in World War II not necessarily through the innovative tactics of Omar Bradley nor the personal ferocity of George Patton, but rather through superior planning. By staying focused on the most important tasks on his plate, keeping track of other tasks on the back burner, and removing unnecessary distractions, he developed what we know today as the Eisenhower Matrix.

On one axis, the question is asked whether a task is important – as in "how essential is this task to mission victory?" On the other axis, the question is asked if the task is urgent – "is this task time sensitive and does it have a deadline coming up soon?" Tasks are arrayed on this matrix according to the answers to these two questions.

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Eisenhower would start with tasks in the top left box and accomplish them immediately. His goal was always to keep his top left box as clear as possible. He would then move to the bottom left box and quickly delegate those tasks to his subordinates. These were tasks that needed to be done, just not necessarily by the General. His key contribution here is picking the right person to accomplish the task, and following up to make sure it is completed. He then moved onto the top right box and decided when in his schedule he would get to these important, non-urgent tasks. If he didn’t plan them correctly, these tasks could quickly become urgent and fill up his “Do” box. Finally, if any tasks fell into the bottom right, he would simply cut them out of his calendar completely. His time was simply too important to be spent on things that did not add value.

We recommend building two Eisenhower Matrices during your application process. The first is for your GMAT study regimen. While your GMAT score is just a single data point in the over-all application, it is a necessary component and in part determines the strata of schools where your application will be competitive.

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The second is for your MBA application process itself. Applying for your MBA is a marathon, and if you don’t sequence your priorities correctly it is highly likely that you will not sequence your work correctly. For example, filling out your application forms and asking for letters of recommendation before developing a narrative almost guarantees that whatever you produce will lack the thematic clarity and focus of a good application. It’s the equivalent of filming a movie without first writing the script. Another pitfall is to do the same before you decide whether to hire an admissions consultant and which one. Starting on applications before finalizing both decisions can lead to a lot of wasted effort before the consultant can find and fix the flaws in your story, and refocus you on higher-value parts of the story.

Does it help to network with current students? If so, what should I ask?

When I first started researching MBA programs, I reached out to everyone in my network who was at that school to chat about their experiences. I’m not sure why I did it – perhaps I thought that the admissions committee would somehow find out all the effort I was making and take it as a sign of my commitment. Boy was that wrong. Now that I’m a student at Harvard Business School who is constantly bombarded by requests from strangers to “pick my brain” about MBA programs, I understand just how annoying and pointless such conversations can be.

School research is a critical step on your admissions path and students can be great resources. But recognize that arranging phone calls with MBA students and alumni will not in and of itself improve your odds of admission or reveal to you what you should put in your application. Instead you should have specific goals that you want to accomplish by reaching out, which I outline below.

Okay to reach out:

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To get a feel for the school culture

Admissions websites are full of hard information about the school: graduation requirements, curricular opportunities, and admissions criteria. What they often can’t capture is the soft information of the school – those elusive hard-to-define experiential aspects we call culture. Culture is an incredibly important part of any matriculation decision and it is something that current students feel constantly. Not only are current students most attuned to the school’s culture, they are often the ones most interested in talking about it.

To plug into an affinity group

Affinity groups for veterans and ethnic minorities are often plugged into the admissions department. They help with outreach in the community to broaden the applicant base, and they host special events for prospective students on campus. Using official channels to connect with these clubs and their “admissions ambassadors” can be a great way to get on the club’s email distribution list for admission events, access to any official club admission advice, and see what support resources exist at the school of someone in your community.

To make sure your application “speaks the school’s language”

MBA programs have unique vocabularies. Admissions committees and students alike can easily identify outsiders by the odd and foreign way they talk. For example, no one at HBS call it the “first year curriculum” – it’s the “required curriculum” or “RC”. Being able to talk about a school using its own language is essential to presenting yourself as a credible candidate.

To know what you get out of specific classes

Many applicants try to show off their knowledge of a school by talking about what unique benefit they seek to get out of specific required and elective coursework. I thought about it when I was applying, but there was only so much I could tell about what I would learn from a class by its title. Looking back, my intuition was WAY off and I’m glad I didn’t say anything about those classes. Anyone who has taken them would have immediately seen just how little I knew. Conversations with current students can help close this knowledge gap.

To verify likelihood of career transitions

Everyone goes to business school to make some change in their career. But is the transition you seek to make common or likely at the school in question? For example, if you want to work at an elite Venture Capital firm and are thinking of applying to a less competitive school, does that firm even recruit there? If you want to pursue a really non-traditional job, is that even one that an MBA will help you get? Having realistic career goals is an absolutely essential part of any application and current students (usually second-year students) will know best what career transitions are feasible – and at that school in particular.

To find compelling ways of giving back to the school

The best applications will argue why the candidate will actually improve the school. What clubs will you seek leadership positions in? Which positions are even available? Current students can be very useful in helping you find the best place for you to leave your mark.

 

Don’t reach out:

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To have them lobby the admissions department on your behalf

Individual students do not carry much sway with the admission committee. Unless they know you extremely well, they also would find it extremely awkward to vouch to the committee on your behalf. Paradoxically, the admissions committees will see such endorsements of close friends as biased anyway and discount what they say. Either way, it is a lose-lose except that by asking them to lobby, you spend up any social capital you may have.

To get them to read your essays

MBAs are busy and reading someone’s essay is a huge favor. If you box them into reading yours, they will likely give you short shrift without much actionable improvements. Furthermore, they may have made it through the process, but they are probably not experts at the admissions essay writing process. Finally, a stranger may be able to tell that an essay is bad or even why they dislike it, but unless they work with you closely and understand your narrative intimately, they won’t know what the range of options are for you to improve your story.

To chit chat / “pick their brain”

Again, MBAs are busy. They barely have enough time to hang-out with their friends at school let alone random people who want something from them. If you are going to ask for their time, make sure you respect them enough to have a definite purpose in mind. Send good questions in advance to show the MBA that you have done your research and are asking questions that only someone like them could answer

To collect names to drop in the application

This is probably the biggest abuse of informational chats. First of all, if this is your motivation you are using someone as a means to an end and will likely not even listen to what they say. Second, Elite MBA programs do not care how many people you spoke with before applying. Talk is cheap and there are better ways to show commitment. Third, if namedropping in conversation gets annoying, the same is true for your essays. Keep the focus on you and your story.

What To Do the Year Before You Apply for an MBA

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.
— Abraham Lincoln
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Say you're someone who knows they want an MBA but are not yet ready to apply. You might be a junior with a year to go before you're eligible for Harvard's 2+2 Program, Stanford's Deferred Enrollment, or Yale's Silver Scholars Program. You may have recently started on a new career and feel that you have not yet built up the work experience or credibility with potential recommenders to be successful in the regular application cycle. Older classmates and colleagues are sending in their applications and you may feel nervous sitting on the sidelines. Should you panic?

No. The only thing you need to do is recognize that the year ahead of you is a golden opportunity, which you can use to dramatically increase your chances of admission.

Even if you already have great GMAT / GRE scores in hand, the year ahead of you is your chance to "sharpen the axe" of your resume before you use it to chop through the MBA application. From navigating your career so that it will be in the best possible position right before Round 1 deadlines, to amping up community involvements that will resonate with your narrative and stand-out to admissions committees, to choosing your ideal recommenders and planning out how you can best shine in front of them, there is a lot you can do. We've thought a lot about this ourselves and have crammed all the best services to help a candidate boost their admissions odds in the year before they apply into a package that we call the Early Bird. Through that package, we seek to accomplish four major goals:

  1. Achieve clarity and confidence on your career and personal goals
  2. Discover your authentic personal narrative, and which moves you can make to bolster it
  3. Determine what your resume needs to say when you apply, and work backwards to achieve it
  4. Identify which "portable achievements" are within your grasp, and how to obtain them
  5. Obtain the best recommendation letters by determining who in your orbit could be best positioned to write them, and how win them over
  6. Get personalized coaching and mentorship over the course of the year.

There are many ways to do that. I've included the game plan we use in the Early Bird below, which also comes with 10% off any future purchases of our already lowest-priced Complete School packages, making it quite the valuable investment.

 

VisionBuilding

PHASE I: VISION BUILDING

STEP 1: Vision Exercise

We start with one of the most popular career-visioning exercises at HBS and Stanford GSB. You complete two fun, creative tasks designed to illuminate the hidden themes and dynamic tensions in your personal and professional life. The results of these exercises will help clarify pre-MBA career options worth pursuing and will help us understand how to best advise you.

STEP 2: Introduction & School Selection

We then discuss your background, goals for business school, and career aspirations. We offer our insights on what early careers in each field would feel like, and how they would eventually lead to business school. We then suggest a list of MBA programs for you to target, and back into the milestones you would need to achieve in your early career to be competitive at each.

 

 

Pre-Application Game Plan
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Are you thinking of applying to business school in a few years? We can help you use that valuable time to significantly improve your candidacy and raise your chances of admission.

This service starts with us getting to know you and understanding your motivations for seeking an MBA. We then help you determine which programs would offer the best fit, where you need to be in your career and community activities to get admitted to those programs, and then work backwards to develop a game-plan for getting you there. We also run you through our personal narrative boot camp, helping you build a compelling story to tell schools and future employers. After our initial touch point, we keep in touch throughout the year to answer any questions and make sure you are on track.

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    NarrativeBootCamp

    PHASE II: NARRATIVE BOOT CAMP

    STEP 1: Narrative Exercises

    We send you a series of exercises based on the Harvard Kennedy School's latest research on personal narrative, political campaigning, and public speaking. These forms are designed to tease out the inspirations and motivations that will make for a compelling personal narrative and, and link them to your future aspirations.

    STEP 2: Review and Ideation

    We then take your completed exercises and existing resume, and construct a few possible narrative story arcs that we believe will tell your authentic story in the most compelling way. This is a highly personal and creative process. Each narrative is work-shopped one at a time, and is not the cookie-cutter result of some computer read-out. This gives you the confidence of knowing that your narrative will be totally original.

    STEP 3: Instruction and Coaching

    Over the phone, we walk you through our materials on personal narrative and political campaigning. Through this instruction, you will understand what separates a good narrative from a great one, as well as the psychology of how the admissions directors will read and interpret your application. We then apply these learnings to your particular business school application and future career aspirations, taking your questions along the way.

    STEP 4: Narrative Selection and Honing

    Together we create 2-3 compelling personal narratives for your unique application. We run through their relative merits, why each is compelling, how each will be interpreted by the admissions committee. We workshop the narratives together over the phone until we decide on the one that is the most compelling and authentic for your application.

    CareerEnhancement

    PHASE III: CAREER ENHANCEMENT

    STEP 1: Employment Gameplan

    We discuss career-enhancing moves and the way in which can weave your new compelling and authentic personal narrative into the applications for achieving them. By working this way, you will ensure you are walking down the most compelling and purposeful professional path before you send out a single job application, minimizing the amount of time wasted in the application process.

    STEP 2: Resume Overhaul

    We then use your new narrative to overhaul your resume. Where possible, we provide school templates for you to use to emphasize your commitment to your dream school. After initial formatting corrections, we suggest strategic edits that will enhance your ability to showcase your narrative in the most persuasive way. 

     

    YearRoundMentorship

    PHASE IV: YEAR-ROUND MENTORSHIP

    STEP 1: Regular Check-ins

    We schedule three follow-up calls in the next year to check-in, make sure that you’re on the right track, answer any questions, and offer advice for any issues in your career that may arise. 

    STEP 2: Constant Contact

    You will retain email access to both Nate and Anna for one year to ask quick questions related to the topics discussed in Early Bird.

    STEP 3: Future Savings

    When you're ready to apply to business school, we will take 10% off our already best-in-class prices for any future purchases of Packages.

    When is the right round to apply to business school?

    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

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    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.

    Round 2

    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.

    Round 3

    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.