Applying to business school is extremely taxing. Submitting a successful application requires thought, discipline, and the ability to juggle multiple projects at once. Sometimes, it's hard to even know where to begin. We know—we've been there.
To help you through this difficult process, we put together this comprehensive guide. Below, we've gathered common questions about the MBA admissions process, laid out the tasks you'll need to complete, and specified a timeline for when you'll need to complete them—complete with a helpful chart. We've pressure-tested this timeline with hundreds of applicants, and we're confident it will work for you.
Of course, this is only a guide—the surest way to nail your MBA application is to work with a coach who can help you complete your application materials. You'll find dozens of world-class admissions coaches, with experience at programs like Harvard Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Wharton, and more, on Leland.
How Much Pre-MBA Work Experience Do I Need?
One of the first things to consider when applying to business school is how many years of work experience you should have. On average, applicants to top MBA programs have 4 to 5 years of work experience. Some will have fewer, of course, like management consultants from top firms, and some will have more, like military veterans, but 4 to 5 years is the norm.
Top business schools tend to favor MBA students with several years of work experience because they have accrued unique personal and professional experience, have more to contribute in the classroom, and have acquired more leadership experience, which sets them up for success both during their MBA and in the future.
Take this into account when deciding when to apply for your MBA.
*Note that if you’re a deferred MBA candidate, you won’t have any work experience, only internships!
How Long do MBA Applications Take? When Should I Start Applying?
The MBA application process can be grueling. You'll have to juggle standardized exams like the GMAT and GRE, successfully secure recommendation letters from mentors or supervisors, craft your MBA resume and essays, and submit everything on time.
To set yourself up for success, give yourself at least six months (including the time you'll give yourself for standardized test prep). if you're going to put your best foot forward and earn that coveted offer of admission at your dream school, the last thing you want to be is rushed. We've seen successful applicants go through the process in less time, but we don't recommend it. The application process is stressful enough—don't add the burden of a time crunch on top of it!
Start your application at least six months before the deadline.
Which MBA Application Round Should I Target?
Most business schools have three application rounds:
- Round 1 — with deadlines in September/October
- Round 2 — with deadlines in January
- Round 3 — with deadlines in April/May
*Note that Round 3 is also when deferred MBA candidates will apply.
The exact dates may vary, but generally speaking, these three application windows will be roughly the same year after year. That being the case, you should be able to outline the optimal MBA application timeline well before your targeted schools release their official dates.
Round 1 vs. Round 2
Now, the big debate: should you apply in Round 1, or Round 2?
Generally speaking, if you have the time, apply in Round 1. Top business schools accept the majority of their applicants in the first round. Admissions committees have a limited number of spots, so applying in Round 1 will give you an advantage, particularly if you're applying from an overrepresented background—i.e. from a traditional background like finance or management consulting.
That said, if you're crunched for time, either because of a project at work, or due to other extenuating life circumstances, then don't hesitate to apply in Round 2. On the whole, it's better to take your time and submit a thoughtful, well-considered application in Round 2 than it is to dash off a quick, poorly-crafted application in Round 1. Don't have time to boost your GMAT score, make your campus visits, or draft your essays by September / October? Apply in Round 2.
What Are the Steps of the MBA Application?
Here are the key steps of the MBA application, and when you should start each one:
- GMAT, GRE, or Executive Assessment (as well as the TOEFL, if applicable) — start studying 6 to 12 months before deadlines
- Choose a coach to help guide you through the process — 3 months before deadlines
- Select which MBA programs you'll apply to, and outline your Application Strategy — 3 months before deadlines
- Secure your MBA recommendation letters — start 3 months before the deadline
- Write powerful MBA essays — start 3 months before deadlines
- Craft your resume — start 1 month before deadlines
- Fill out the applications themselves — start 1 month before deadlines
- Practice for your MBA interviews — start 1 week before the interview
Below, we'll walk through each step in detail.
Prepare for the GMAT/GRE
Standardized tests are a staple of the MBA application. Boosting your test scores, even by a few points, can raise your profile and help you stand out in the admissions office.
These tests are notoriously difficult, so start as early as you can! Many strong applicants budget six to twelve months for test prep. Further, we recommend completing your exams at least a month before your MBA application deadlines.
Choose an MBA Application Coach
One of the best investments you can make as a prospective MBA is to work with a coach who can help you through the application process. It's extremely difficult, and nobody goes through it alone—we all have friends, family, and mentors who help us along the way.
When searching for a coach, consider your target schools, the coach's background, their experience, and your budget. Click here to learn more about How to Choose the Perfect MBA Coach, and here to browse Leland's world-class coaches.
Choose Your MBA Programs, and Outline Your MBA Application Strategy
Once you've decided on a coach, it's time to pick the MBA programs you'll apply to, and the Application Strategy you'll use to tackle those schools. Start this step three months before deadlines.
Selecting your programs will require deep investigation into what makes each business school tick—their academic offerings, faculty, and staff, access to top recruiting opportunities, on-campus extracurricular groups and clubs, student life, location, personality/character, and so much more. Doing in-depth research at this early stage will not only help you pick the right programs to apply to, but it will pay off later, as well, when you have to write essays specifying your interest in particular schools. So don't skimp here.
Then, once you've chosen your schools, you can put together an application strategy. This entails laying out your personal and professional achievements, strengths and weaknesses, leadership experience, and more, and expressing it all in a single, cohesive statement. This isn't easy to do, so click read about it here: What is MBA Application Strategy?
Secure Your MBA Letters of Recommendation
The letter of recommendation. This is one of the trickiest parts of the MBA application because it's the sole thing you don't have complete control over. Don't procrastinate on this one!
Given requirements at top business schools, you'll likely be asking for recommendation letters from an influential mentor or professional supervisor. These are busy and important individuals, and you'll need to give them ample time to write your letters—out of consideration and to ensure you get the best recommendations possible.
We recommend making your initial ask three months before your deadline. When making the ask, we also suggest sending your recommenders a preparation packet to help them write fantastic letters. You can then follow up with them at several points as you approach the application deadline: six weeks before the deadline, to check-in, and one week before the deadline, to ensure timely submission.
Click here to read more about How to Get the Perfect MBA Recommendation Letter.
Write Powerful MBA Essays
Ah—the infamous MBA essay. For many, this is the hardest part of the application. It requires introspection, emotional intelligence, and editing, editing, editing.
Top business schools are looking for candidates who are smart, driven, and on a successful trajectory, but who can also articulate their career goals and aspirations within a concise set of prompts. To do this, you'll need to budget significant time to outline, draft, and revise your essays. We recommend at least three months, depending on the number of schools you're applying to. Most MBA programs release their essay prompts, along with the rest of their application, in June, so this should give you the runway you need to succeed.
The essays are the toughest nut to crack. If you need a practiced guide to help you, you'll find dozens of MBA essay experts on Leland.
To learn more, read these articles:
- How to Write a Powerful MBA Essay
- A Guide to the Booth Essays
- A Guide to the HBS Essay
- A Guide to the Wharton MBA Essays
- The Ultimate M7 MBA Essay Guide
Craft Your MBA Resume
The resume is another critical part of the MBA application. It's your chance to highlight your professional achievements, leadership experience, and extracurricular activities. A well-crafted resume indicates to the admissions committee that you're an accomplished, mature applicant.
The MBA resume, of course, isn't like your typical job recruiting resume, so you shouldn't treat the two the same. You'll need to put ample thought and effort into offering up exactly the information the admissions office wants to see. Give yourself one month to do so.
To learn more, read here for How to Craft the Ultimate MBA Resume.
Practice for Your MBA Interviews
Finally, if you're extended an offer to interview at one of your chosen schools, you'll need to prepare accordingly. Typically, interviews are extended 4 to 6 six weeks after the MBA application deadlines. It can take several weeks to schedule those interviews, so you'll have time to practice, but we recommend starting as soon as you've submitted your materials. Give yourself at least one week to read up on practice questions and do mock interviews.
As part of your practice and preparation, you'll want to shore up your knowledge of the types of interviews:
- Blind vs Fully-Informed
- Admissions Committee vs MBA Alumni
- Group vs Individual
And you'll also want to familiarize yourself with the types of questions:
- Why an MBA/Why our school?
- Behavioral questions
Your MBA Application Timeline—A Detailed Schedule
Whew, that's a lot to get through!
To make sure you hit all the right steps, here's a helpful chart with all of the MBA application milestones, and our recommended timing for each one:
For a list of all the application deadlines for the top business schools, read this: MBA Application Deadlines of the Top 25 Business Schools (2023-2024).
The best way to make sure that your application is competitive is to work one-on-one with an expert Leland coach. Here are several of our highest-rated MBA admissions coaches; browse them all here.
Leland provides you with the content, community, and coaching that you need to get into your dream MBA program and accomplish other ambitious goals. Sign up today to gain access to additional free resources, community events, small group classes, world-class coaching, and more.
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