How Many Schools Should You Apply To?

Deciding how many applications to submit is something everyone must do, but what are the criteria you are using to make this decision?  Despite a decrease in applications in 2011 and 2012 due to the bad economy, early signs are pointing to a rebound in applications this year, which means the competition will be tough.  Yes, even Harvard Business School saw a drop in applications in 2012 (about 4% fewer) but they do not expect this to be a lasting trend.  With a couple of years of down applications comes pent-up demand for an MBA,  so it is expected that applications will trend upwards for the next several years.  The MBA is more valuable than ever, with recent statistics showing only 4.3 percent of people with graduate degrees being unemployed.

In order to have the best shot at going to business school, you must have more than one target in mind.  Even the most qualified candidate is not necessarily a shoo-in at Harvard, Stanford or Wharton.  These super-elite schools turn away well qualified applicants by the thousands each year.  Notice I said well qualified applicants—it’s not just the ones who apply with sub-par profiles who are sent packing.  At the end of the day, there are a limited number of seats in each school.

If you consider yourself to be fairly well positioned for an MBA with a good multi-year progressively responsible work history, a good GMAT score (within the 80% range of your target schools and ideally approaching the average), and a decent story to tell, a good rule of thumb is to apply to at least three schools.

Why would you apply to more than three?  For starters, if you are targeting only the top 10, you should increase your attempts to five or six.  The mathematical yields at these elite schools are simply too low to risk rejection at all to which you apply.  It’s important to apply only to schools where you feel you are a good fit, of course, but the more you try, the more likely it will be to get into at least one school of choice.  Another reason to apply to five or six schools would be if your profile is lacking in some way.  If this is the case, you may want to diversify the schools you are targeting across a broader range of rankings.   Particularly if going this year is more important than going to a particular school, you want to make sure you get in somewhere.  Some people refer to this strategy as having “reach” schools and “safety” schools, but be careful considering a lower ranked school as a safety school, since the competition has stepped up across the board.  Finally, it might make sense to throw a broader net if you are fearful something in your application is a risk. Particularly if you have a couple of different versions of your story, and are not sure which one will resonate best, you can send half your applications with one approach and half with another approach to hedge.

One last thing…if you plan to apply to more than 3 schools, you may want to diversify your recommender pool.  It would be rather onerous and even rude to ask one person to write five or six recommendations for you.  Three is about the limit before someone begins to resent doing it, or worse yet, does a poor or incomplete job on it.

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Scott Bryant has over 25 years of professional post undergraduate experience in the entertainment industry as well as on Wall Street with Goldman Sachs. He served on the admissions committee at the Fuqua School of Business where he received his MBA and now works part time in retirement for a top tier business school. He has been consulting with Veritas Prep clients for the past six admissions seasons.

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