Occasionally we get queries such as this – “I applied to 15 business schools last year. But look at my luck. Not even one admit. I thought the odds would be better than this. How many b schools should I apply to this time to increase my chances?”
Three operative words (luck, odds, chances) in there would give you an indication as to why our friend’s machine gun strategy didn’t work. He was leaving too much in the hands of destiny.
He was assuming that his chances of getting an admit will increase if he spreads the net wide enough. That thinking might apply to other scenarios, like winning a lottery where determining the odds of success is purely a statistical exercise. If you buy two lottery tickets, your odds go up vis-a-vis someone who bought one ticket.
Here’s lesson one to keep in mind.
Business School admissions and MBA applications don’t work like a lottery.
In a lottery, every ticket has exactly the same ‘value’. Your ticket isn’t more likely to win than mine, even if you’ve gone bare-foot to Siddhi Vinayak temple to seek the almighty’s blessings on the day of the results.
In MBA admissions, you can influence the ‘value’ of your MBA application – by getting a good GMAT score, writing impressive MBA essays, submitting great recommendations – you know how it goes.
That means you may submit a weak MBA application to 20 schools where there’s no compatibility (a little more on this later) and the result will be the same. Or you could put in just a handful of applications to schools where you know the chances of getting in are more favourable and end up with a 100% admissions success rate.
Why it’s a bad idea to apply to too many business schools
Apart from the fact that going overboard with the number of applications does not automatically increase your chances of getting an admission call, there are some downsides too.
The overall cost of applying goes up
Multiply $150 to $200 (the application fee) by the number of MBA applications. That’s the tangible part of the cost calculations. Then there’s the effort (many hours writing, review, editing, fine-tuning each application). Remember there’s a bigger avalanche of expenses coming up once you join. [Read this – How much does an MBA abroad cost] Every dollar saved helps.
With a mechanical approach, the blind spots increase
It’s difficult to sustain the granular focus for each subsequent application. Just like your muscles start getting fatigued with every lap of the stadium, your brain has limitations too. You are more likely to start using short-cuts e.g. re-using earlier essays as a template and make minor tweaks to it (like replacing bschool names) before submitting. Adcoms won’t like reading stuff that says – “I was bowled over by Harvard’s Gachibowli campus.”
Your recommenders may stop being as supportive
The poor guys who agreed to write your MBA recommendations will soon start getting pissed off with the number of times you approach them. All the additional effort you are dumping on them doesn’t really have any strong incentive for them. A great recommendation will get you into your dream school, but they stay back where they are. Don’t abuse their time.
You might take the quality over quantity debate to the other extreme and end up applying to just one B-school. Several folks do this. They choose ISB, or Stanford (or whichever is their dream school) and spend 3-4 months obsessing about every nitty-gritty on the application. Some do it in the late rounds, just to save a year.
All hell breaks loose when they get the lone rejection of the season, because there’s nothing else to look forward to after that.
Just like the machine gun strategy (of spraying bullets in the dark hoping some might hit the bulls-eye, the canon ball strategy of putting in all the gun powder into one grand shot also isn’t very wise.
Alright, now that our fundas are clear, let’s get back to the main question.
How many business schools should you apply to?
Our general recommendation to most applicants who work with us is to keep the number in single digits and distribute it across Round 1 and Round 2.
We’ve found 7 to 8 applications to be optimal for many. Of course, this would vary based on how early you start and how much effort you are willing to put into the research and customisation for each bschool.
In Round 1, you could take a slightly bigger risk and apply to 4-5 MBA universities in the Ambitious and Stretch category, knowing well that there’s another round where you can put in a few more applications.
If you aren’t willing to wait for another year, ensure that the MBA colleges you select for Round 2 are more conservative.
The groundwork you’d need to do before hand is to have a clear picture of your profile (strengths, weaknesses, goals) and also which bschools would be a good fit for you. This is the compatibility part we were talking about earlier.
It could relate to your profile (age, experience, aspirations, personality, financial status, appetite for risk, dependency on financial aid from the university) and to the MBA school data (location, duration, teaching style, climate, job opportunities after MBA, work permit dynamics).
Note: The categories (Ambitious, Stretch, Practical etc) we refer to in this post are taken from the MBA MAP Application Strategy process where we slot each business school from the Financial Times top 100 into 5 buckets based on an elaborate evaluation of the candidates profile.