MBA Program Selection: How Many Schools Should You Apply To?

By - Mar 18, 19:47 PM Comments [0]

NOTE: This is #7 in a series of blog posts on the topic, “How to Select the Right MBA Programs.” To see previous segments, link to the following:

Post #1, Introducing the Series

Post #6, Researching Schools


Deciding how many schools to apply to is another often shortchanged step in the pre-application process.  It’s something that people seem to think just happens.  And it will just happen, but not necessarily in the most advantageous way, unless you make it.   Your specific situation and needs should drive your decision of number of schools to apply to – in each category: on-par, reach, and safety.  Having a clear idea before you start your applications of how many schools you’ll be targeting will help you plan and allocate your resources.   Please note: by “number” I mean roughly; a short range such as “five or six” is fine.

A “typical” applicant would apply to about six programs: two to three reasonable reaches, two to three on pars, and one to two safeties.  This scenario assumes the applicant has selected programs in each category for which she can make an effective case.  The rationale for this scenario is that it yields a decent possibility of acceptance at a reach, likelihood of acceptance at an on-par program, and certainty through the safety.

This typical case doesn’t apply to a lot of people though.  Here are some common exceptions:

  • You’re on the older side, so getting in this year is essential – next year you will be solidly in EMBA territory.  Consider applying to more programs – as many as you can manage.
  • You’re fairly young, have a spectacular career and stats, and aren’t certain it makes sense to take off two years now if it’s not HBS or Stanford.  You should apply to those two only, because you can reapply next year if need be without worrying about age.
  • The brands you require are all reaches, some reasonable and some almost out of reach.  It wouldn’t be worth it to you to attend other programs. Apply to as many as you can that fit your criteria and offer some realistic hope of acceptance to increase the possibility of a hit.
  • You are applying with a handicap – a DUI or honor code infraction, were fired for cause, etc. – if you write a frank and compelling essay about growing from the situation (and if it didn’t happen yesterday), you should have a shot. But because it’s such an unpredictable factor and adcoms often react defensively, you should consider applying to more schools than you otherwise would need to.
  • You’re unsettled about geographic region and want to keep options open.  Apply to more programs to cover yourself.
  • You’re pressed for time – maybe you can’t devote more than 2 hours a week, or maybe you have to have all your apps done by a given deadline.  Select a number that will allow you to deliver quality, even if it’s fewer than you would normally do under other circumstances.

Last but not least, this number isn’t written in stone.  The application process is dynamic, and you are not closing off opportunities by deciding on a number to target now.

By Cindy Tokumitsu, co-author of The Finance Professional’s Guide to MBA Success, The Consultants’ Guide to MBA Admission, The EMBA Edge, and author of several articles and the free, email mini-course, "Ace the EMBA."

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