How Many Business Schools Should You Apply To?

The vast majority of MBA students are in their mid-20s to early 30s. Only a small portion come directly from college, and only a few attend full-time business schools in their late 30s and into their 40s. But even within the eight peak years for business school entry—from 24-32 years of age—applicants have a variety of inputs to consider when choosing the portfolio of MBA programs they should apply to.

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“How many schools should I apply to? Which schools should I apply to?”

These are key questions aspiring MBAs ponder during the summer before the busy application-writing season in fall and winter. The answers depend on where the applicant is within his or her window of applying to business school.

The vast majority of MBA students are in their mid-20s to early 30s. Only a small portion come directly from college, and only a few attend full-time business schools in their late 30s and into their 40s. But even within the eight peak years for business school entry—from 24-32 years of age—applicants have a variety of inputs to consider when choosing the portfolio of MBA programs they should apply to.

Age: Many applicants in their mid-20s decide they will only apply to their first two choices, figuring that if they don’t get in anywhere, they can re-apply a couple years down the line when they have a bit more experience. We can understand this approach for some younger candidates, but applicants who are a bit older should strongly consider a different approach.

Older applicants (late 20s, early 30s) should apply to a wider array of schools in order to ensure that they will at least have one attractive offer for the subsequent fall. Of course, the best approach involves an intelligent mix of top schools and “safer” schools that will yield a choice of MBA programs for the applicant. Still, some candidates get on an “Harvard or Stanford or nothing!” kick that doesn’t serve their best interests.

Next Career Alternative: Some MBA aspirants are in positions where they would be happy to remain for many years. Others hold roles at places like consulting firms or top investment banks, where policy and/or tradition encourage young employees to pursue further education. In environments where one can continue to advance unfettered, a candidate might consider applying solely to his or her top choice programs. However, candidates coming from companies with two- or three-year analyst programs that don’t allow for much upward progression should probably cast their nets a bit wider, assembling a bigger portfolio of schools.

Career Satisfaction: We’ve talked to several MBA aspirants who feel they are locked into roles that are too technical or too narrowly defined. Yet, some still want apply to a few very highly ranked programs. For those making a career transition to an entirely new role or industry, we highly encourage them to apply to a broader array of business schools. There are incredible programs throughout the top 20 in the B-school rankings (and even beyond) that can provide the classes, career programs, and alumni networks that aid this kind of transition.

First-Timer or re-applicant?: A candidate who is going through his or her second round of business school applications should almost always apply to more schools. If the candidate is applying a couple of years down the line after dramatically improving her experience base, then she might add a couple of new schools to the mix but still target her top programs from a few years before.

However, if the candidate is applying the very next year without significant changes in role, experience or extracurriculars,  it makes a lot of sense to pursue a different base of schools, with perhaps one or two holdovers from the year before.

Family considerations: Taking two years to get an MBA is not just a business decision—it’s a life decision. Sometimes, the interests of boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, and children are critical factors in making the decisions whether, when, and where to apply. These considerations are much more complex and varied than the factors listed above, so it’s difficult to work through them in depth here.

For instance, we’ve met some students who wanted to get through business school quickly so that they could start families afterward, but have also known of others who thought that business school (with day-care, low travel requirements, etc.) was a great environment to start a family.

Candidates should talk with family, friends, and mentors (and potentially an MBA application advisor) early in the application process to determine where they are in this “window” for business school. It’s an absolutely critical step in managing this multi-month application process thoughtfully.

Founded in 2001, Stacy Blackman Consulting has helped thousands of MBA applicants gain admission to the most selective business schools in the world. The Stacy Blackman team, comprised of former admissions officers from every top school as well as expert writers, editors and marketers, helps clients develop and implement a winning marketing strategy. Stacy Blackman clients have a significantly increased probability of admission to top schools and are frequent recipients of merit scholarships. The company is regularly featured in publications such as BusinessWeek, the Wall Street Journal and the Economist. Visit the Stacy Blackman blog for daily news updates and admissions tips.