Looking for an MBA Advantage? Consider Round 2

I've been having this conversation a lot lately with individual clients, so I thought I'd take it out wide.

Basically, the idea is that Round 2 might be offering a slight advantage, based on theories of market inefficiencies and so forth.  For years, I would say the prevailing belief is that Round 1 is the best round in which to apply to business and while there is no hard-core evidence to suggest otherwise, some common sense and deduction may point to a different result.  So let's quickly run this down. 

Why You Hear So Much Hype About Round 1

Let's start with understanding where the "Round 1" drumbeat comes from.  If it's not actually the superior round, why does it seem so (and in such a convincing way)?  

Well, for starters, the schools are out there banging that drum.  

  • I don't blame them for this at all, but candidates need to understand that when admissions officers are standing in front of a group of people in May or July or August and talking about applications, they pretty much have one "most important job" at that point - get those people to become applicants.  I've worked in an admissions office in my lifetime and I've been to the conferences (oh have I) and so I know this world - nobody who works in admissions is immune to the "top-down" pressures of the numbers game.  Every year a mandate slithers down from the Board of the university down to the deans down to the individual offices and it goes like this: "More of the good stuff, less of the bad."  For admissions that often means a higher yield rate (more people saying yes to you), lower acceptance (therefore more selective), higher average GMAT and GPA, and, yes, more applications.  Indeed, the applications are the key to a lot of the math, certainly for acceptance rate.  If apps go up and # of admitted stays constant, voila, your acceptance rate is lower, you are more selective, and everyone is happy.  So when you hear an admissions officer say "Round 1 is the best round to apply" ... and it's before Rond 1's deadline ... be sure to take it with a grain of salt.  Because I would bet my favorite shirt that if you went to that same info session in November, they will say that Round 2 is the best round to apply.  Because it's the next one where they can get your application.  Before these admissions officers can build a class and become curators and gatekeepers, they have to sell and they have to get apps in the door.  Just remember that and don't bite too hard on the "yes, yes, Round 1!" talk.  

Candidates also increase this sensation because many of the most Type A, driven, neurotic, passionate, and otherwise on-the-ball people are all out in front, starting early, cranking away, etc.  

  • And those are often the same people on message boards, talking at cocktail parties, and otherwise fanning the flames.  So this is often a feedback loop of everyone telling each other (and therefore themselves) that something is true. 
  • There are also a handful of places where it is indeed beneficial (Columbia ED, Tuck Early Action, Stanford, MIT, all for different reasons, which we can explain if you become a client - not to be withholding but because this blog post is already going to be way longer than I intended) to apply in the earliest round, and so the partial, situational truth can sometimes explode into a universal truth. 

Why Round 2 Might Offer a Slight Advantage

For years I have felt strongly that other than the handful of schools where early application windows do seem to matter, there is no real difference between Round 1 and Round 2.  I mostly still feel that way, but it's shifting every so slightly ... in favor of Round 2, believe it or not. 

1. Fewer elite candidates competing with you.  

I can't prove this.  Repeat: I can't prove this.  But my own anecdotal evidence for many years running is that more "elite" applicants swarm Round 1.  So deduction might indicate that you can stand out a bit more in Round 2.  And note that at many schools, Round 2 features a higher raw number of apps, so you actually get this nice dynamic (for you, the elite candidate) where readers are sifting through more weak candidates to get to each great one.  This creates more of an emotional response to the good ones - an "oh, sweet, finally a great applicant" feel.  

2. Better access to the elite consultants.  

I know for me personally, I am already pretty much full for Round 1, yet again.  Every year it seems I fill up earlier and earlier and so do all the top people.  There is still two months to go before deadlines and in many cases, if you are reaching out now to the top people, it's way too late.  Whereas with Round 2 it is way harder to fill up.  Part of this is simple math - there is about an eight-month lead up to Round 1, whereas all of the Round 2 "buying and selling" in the admissions consulting world is jammed into about a month or two.  Plus, as indicated above, it is my belief that there are fewer hard-chargers in the Round 2 pool, so therefore less people looking to spend top dollar to really increase their chances.  All of this can really open up pathways for someone willing to wait a beat, let the crowds swarm past them, and then go have their pick.  (Also, you can usually get sweet deals if you call around now and sign up for Round 2.)

3. Display of confidence.  

I have seen more HBS clients of mine get in during Round 2 the last few years, honestly, and I think it's in part because it shows a really assured attitude.  It's almost "I don't need to scramble around like a maniac for your increasingly, insanely early deadline.  I'll lay back.  I'm good."  And I truly believe that confidence gets rewarded.  Again, I can't prove it, so I'm not going to tell all of my HBS clients to NOT apply Round 1 ... but I truly think they might have a slightly better chance if they wait. 

4. Ability to tinker with the formula.  

Each year, schools seem more interested in changing their essays around and being "creative."  We have them pretty well pegged and we know what they are up to for the most part, but you can still learn from what happens in Round 1 ... and then apply it to Round 2 work.  Why not give yourself a glance at how things are shaking out?  If I gave you a race car and told you to tackle the Brickyard at Indy or the Circuit de Monaco in Monte Carlo, would you rather just go for it or watch someone else do it first?  

All told, we're not talking about a radical shift here, but if you really add up all the pros and cons of Round 1 vs. Round 2 ... it might actually be Round 2 that comes out ahead.  

If you are looking for help with Round 2, be sure to email us at mba@amerasiaconsulting.com.  Even if you are looking to stick with the tried and true of racing for Round 1, we can surely help ... but you had better move fast!