An Overview of the MBA Admissions Rounds: When to Apply to Business School

Learn what the MBA admissions rounds are as well as which is the best for you to make sure that you're applying at the right time and maximizing your chances of admission.

Posted March 12, 2024

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What are MBA Admissions Rounds?

Most business schools offer three admissions rounds that fall at different times throughout the year. Generally speaking, the first round falls in late September or early October, the second round in early January, and the third in late March or April. Though this is the standard system, there is some variability in specific programs. For example, Harvard Business School only offers two rounds and the NYU Stern School of Business offers four.

When the applicant hears back and how much space is left in the class depends on what round they applied to. Some early deadlines are binding, meaning if the applicant is admitted, they must commit to attending that program over any others they’re potentially admitted into later. Other early rounds are not binding and simply alert applicants to admissions decisions earlier than they otherwise would.

In this article, we’ll go over the specificities of each round and then provide some guidance on how to decide which round is best for you.

Round 1 vs. Round 2/3

Typically, the earlier the round, the better the chance of admission because there are more seats available. The more the class fills up, the more selective the admissions committee is. This is not to say that applying in a later round is not beneficial in some circumstances, however. If applying in Round 2 (or even 3) means the applicant is able to significantly improve their application–through an increased GMAT/GRE score or more time to flesh out an essay, for example–then it is usually better to do so. This is highly dependent on the individual, though, and something for which an MBA coach would be very beneficial.

There are other advantages to applying in an earlier round. For example, most international students will need to apply in Round 1 or 2 so that they have enough time to complete the visa application process. Other benefits include more time to find housing and complete any recommended prerequisite courses. And, some schools offer an Admit Weekend for those who have been accepted and this usually falls before the deadline or notification date for Round 3.

Here are the 2023-2024 deadlines for Rounds 1, 2, and 3 of the M7 MBA programs.

Round 1

Round 2

  • Stanford University–Graduate School of Business: January 4, 2024
  • Harvard Business School: January 3, 2024
  • University of Pennsylvania–The Wharton School: January 4, 2024
  • University of Chicago–Booth School of Business: January 4, 2024
  • Northwestern University–Kellogg School of Management: Early January (not yet released for the 2023-2024 cycle)
  • MIT–Sloan School of Management: Mid January (not yet released for the 2023-2024 cycle)
  • Columbia Business School: January 5, 2024

Round 3

  • Stanford University–Graduate School of Business: April 9, 2024
  • Harvard Business School: No R3
  • University of Pennsylvania–The Wharton School: April 2, 2024
  • University of Chicago–Booth School of Business: April 4, 2024
  • Northwestern University–Kellogg School of Management: Early April (not yet released for the 2023-2024 cycle)
  • MIT–Sloan School of Management: Early April (not yet released for the 2023-2024 cycle)
  • Columbia Business School: April 3, 2024

As you can see, only a few months separate each round; and yet, a lot can affect an application within those few months.

To see more deadlines, head to: MBA Application Deadlines of the Top 25 Business Schools.

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Early Decision/Early Action Deadlines

Though not as common, a few programs have deadlines that are usually referred to as “early decision” or “early action.” Their distinguishing factor is the binding nature of the admissions decision, as mentioned earlier. They involve an agreement between the applicant and the program: if an offer of admission is extended, the applicant must accept it and commit to enrolling in that specific program, withdrawing their applications to other schools.

The primary benefit of such deadlines is that the admissions decisions come much earlier than other rounds and, therefore, the chance of getting in is higher. This is partly due to the fact that there are more seats available but also because these schools care about yield, or what percentage of students offered admission actually accept and enroll. MBA programs want to accept students who actually want to get into that program and who, if accepted, will enroll regardless of where else they are admitted. Early decision rounds most clearly demonstrate that intent to enroll in a specific program over all others.

As implied in the nature of this kind of round, the primary disadvantage of applying for early decision is that you do indeed have to attend, given an admissions offer is extended. If you’re accepted into a more preferred program in addition to the early decision program, you have no choice but to decline.

For this reason, we recommend applying early decision if and only if there is one program that you’d like to attend above all others, and to which you have a chance of being accepted. If, on the other hand, you’d like to keep your options open or are not set on any specific school, we don’t recommend that you apply early decision. Though, if possible, you should still apply in an earlier round.

Here are three of the top business schools that offer early decision deadlines. If you’re applying for a deferred, executive, or part-time MBA program, there may be additional options and you should review the school’s official website.

  • Columbia Business School
  • Duke University–Fuqua School of Business
  • University of Virginia–Darden School of Business

When Should You Apply for Your MBA?

So, now that you have a good idea of what each admissions round entails, it’s time to decide which is the best deadline for you. Here are a few questions to consider and a corresponding tip given the different responses.

How far along is my application? Is it as strong as it could possibly be?

If your application is as good as it can be by the Round 1 deadlines, submit your application. Often, it’s difficult to judge if there even is room for improvement. An admissions coach can help here by providing an objective, holistic review of your entire, completed application or a certain part of it. There are a few Leland coaches who offer packages specifically for this service.

  • Final MBA App–Essay Proofreading and Review: Book this package if you feel confident about your finished application but would like one last review/edit of your essays for a given school. Karla is a Harvard MPP/Booth MBA who was accepted into 5 of the M7 programs with over $1 million in scholarship offers.
  • Chicago Booth Application Run-Through: For one final opinion before hitting submit, Booth MBA Ryan W. will review your entire application and provide notes and feedback, giving that last polish to elevate your app from good to great.
  • Resume Review: Get one last pair of eyes on your MBA resume with Sowa I., Stanford GSB MBA and Student Body President.

See more package options and the full suite of coaches to choose from here.

Is there a specific program that I want to get into more than all the others?

If yes, it’s probably worth it to prioritize that school’s application in order to submit it in Round 1 (or Round 2, depending on your timeline). Then, use the time between Rounds 1 and 2 (or 2 and 3) to finish up your other applications. You want to give yourself the best chance of admission at the school you most want to attend.

How competitive is my application? Is there any one area of weakness?

If you are confident in your application and are willing to compete for a more limited number of spots, then applying in a later round is less of a risk. Relatedly, if taking an extra month or two will significantly take your application to the next level, then it’s probably worth doing so.

Are there certain scholarships or financial aid packages that I want to apply for?

Many schools offer generous scholarships to certain subsets of students. If the schools you’re applying to have one that you’re eligible for, make sure to research its deadlines. Because they’re very limited, many scholarships require that you apply in Round 1 or Round 2 in order to be considered.

Are there any additional advantages to applying early for my target schools?

For example, the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College guarantees that Round 1 applicants will get to interview. If there are certain parts of your application that you’re worried about and would like to provide insight into, then applying for Tuck’s Round 1 deadline would ensure that you get the chance to do so. When choosing the schools to apply to, make note of anything like this that will affect the efficacy of certain rounds for your specific candidacy.

Final Note

Each MBA admissions round has its own advantages and disadvantages and the best deadline for you will depend on your unique circumstances. While later rounds give you more time to polish your application, they are often more selective and lower your chances of admission. Inversely, Round 1 deadlines require that you submit your application much earlier, but have more spots available and offer other benefits–like more scholarships, the chance to attend an Admit Weekend, a higher possibility of receiving an interview invite, and more. It's important to carefully consider these factors and choose the round that best aligns with your goals and needs.

As you formulate your application strategy, here are a few other resources you might find helpful.

The best way to make sure that you’re approaching your MBA applications as effectively as possible is to work one-on-one with an expert coach who will be able to provide personalized insight and feedback. We’ve found that applicants who do work with a coach 10x their chances of admission. Here are a few of our most popular and highest-rated MBA admissions coaches.

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