The Ideal MBA Application Timeline

Decide whether to apply round 1 vs round 2 and learn how to maximize your odds of getting accepted

the ideal mba application timeline prioritizes the applicant’s top-choice schools

the ideal mba application timeline prioritizes the applicant’s top-choice schools

Applying to business school can feel like a full-time job on top of what’s sure to be an already jam-packed schedule for you. From writing the essays to acing the GMAT, you need a clear plan for how to tackle the many facets of this application process.

Below, you’ll find a general guide for the MBA admissions season and suggestions regarding what you can be doing at any given stage to help you prepare to meet your program-of-choice’s deadlines. 

Before we lay out the timeline, take a moment to consider which MBA application round is best suited for you.

Why do MBA programs have several rounds?

The majority of business schools offer three rounds of admissions (some, notably Harvard and Columbia, offer only two rounds.)

The purpose of these rounds is twofold:

1.) Multiple rounds give you, the applicant, the opportunity to diversify the type and number of programs you can apply to in the case of being rejected in round one from your first-choice program.

2.) These rounds give programs the ability to review applicants in a more thorough manner than they would be able to if all applications poured in at once.

As a general rule, you should apply to your top-choice programs in the earlier rounds and your safer bets in the later rounds.

Round 1 vs Round 2 vs Round 3

Round 1

Round 1, for nearly every MBA program, yields the highest probability for acceptance. Why? Round 1 almost always has the smallest batch of applicants—a lot of people don’t get it together in time—so acceptance percentages of course skew higher within a smaller pool. But it’s also often the case that the strongest applicants are the ones ready to apply by the earliest deadline.

Your competition in round 1 is tough, but if you’re ready with your application materials and are satisfied with your GMAT scores, you should apply to your top-choice programs in the first round. 

First-round MBA application deadlines for top programs vary, but they begin on September 4 (Harvard) and run through early October.

Round 2

For programs offering 2 or 3 rounds, Round 2 consistently sees the largest batch of applicants. This fact makes your statistical chances for acceptance lower than they would be for Round 1, but don’t rely too heavily on statistics.

The amount of extra time you have between rounds 1 and 2 can mean wonders for the quality of your application, and if your application is significantly better for having waited for the second round rather than rushing to meet the first, then it behooves you to wait it out. 

Common reasons for waiting for round 2 include unsatisfactory GMAT scores that require a re-test and application essays that need further work. Both of these variables are solid ground for applying in Round 2.

Round 2 deadlines range from October to January, with most programs falling just after the new year. 

Round 3

Round 3 is a tough sell. For top-10 programs, the majority of acceptances are awarded to round 1 and 2 applicants. Lower ranked programs receive a flood of round 3 applicants who didn’t make the cut for top program’s earlier rounds. No matter how you look at it, applying in the third round yields your slightest shot at getting accepted to an MBA.

If you’re a current college senior applying to 2-for-2 programs or MBAs straight out of the gate, programs may advise you to wait to apply until round 3 so your college transcript is more fully fleshed out, but if you’re a professional applying to business school (as most MBA applicants are) then waiting until the final round of admissions should be reserved for last resort efforts.

Round 3 deadlines vary greatly. Though the vast majority of programs’ round 3 deadlines occur in late March and early April, some programs (like NYU and Duke) have round 3 deadlines in January.

It’s worth noting that most programs with earlier round 3 deadlines also offer a round 4 deadline around February and March. Our advice for 4-round programs remains consistent with 3-round programs: apply to your top-choice schools in the earliest possible rounds and work your way down your preference list in chronological order.

MBA Application Timeline

The summer before the application cycle starts

Step 1: GMAT 

It’s widely recommended that you take your GMAT at least two months before a given round’s application deadline so that your scores can be reported to the program. But if you’re aiming for a round 1 application, you’ll want to take your GMAT even earlier–the summer prior to your application cycle–in order to best figure out what your possible options are in regard to school rankings. Study, test, and leave yourself enough time to re-test in the event the first attempt goes awry. 

Step 2: Learn about the program

Assuming you’ve already decided to apply to MBA programs and your GMAT went as expected, the summer before the application cycle begins provides an excellent time to narrow down your list of programs and become more acquainted with their offerings, culture, and how you can grow while there.

If you’re able, arrange for a campus visit. Campus visits provide you a wealth of knowledge about all a program has to offer that far exceeds what you can find on a program’s website. While there, coordinate with the admissions office to see if you can sit in on classes, meet fellow students, or talk with an admissions rep about the program. 

The more you know about the program, and the more you can exhibit this knowledge in your application essays, and the more seriously the MBA admissions committee will consider your application. Readers want to believe their program is your first choice, and the best way to communicate this is being hyper familiar with what you can gain from that school’s MBA and how you can contribute to campus life.

Step 3: Tap into your network 

In line with gathering information, tap into your professional network to figure out if anyone you may know attended that program. Use them as resources for learning more and hearing any application tips they may have. Understanding the future impact of a program’s alumni network can go a long way toward arguing why a program is right for your professional trajectory. 

Step 4: Identify recommenders

Most MBA programs require 2-3 recommendation letters from people who know you and your work. More often than not, these recommendations will come from your immediate supervisors, but you can often choose one of the three recommenders out of someone from your past places of work, educational institutions, volunteer work, or even clients for whom you’ve done exceptional work.

Over the summer, decide who you’d like to recommend you and re-connect with them.  ask if they would feel comfortable providing a “strong letter of recommendation.” If they seem hesitant, simply thank them and move on to the next. Better to suffer that minor rejection than end up with a weak LOR and lower admissions odds. 

Step 5: Ready your resume

The resume is the centerpiece for every MBA application, and it will be the one common factor between all the different programs. While your essays will differ between applications, your resume is shining beacon that guides your applications. Start working on that way ahead of time so you can focus your fall efforts on the applications themselves.

(Further reading: The Perfect MBA Resume)

Application Season

Step 6: Get organized

With the deadlines now looming, it’s time to get organized. Construct a plan. What are your three top-choice programs? What are your three safer options? Plan to apply to your top-choice schools in Round 1 and, if necessary, your lower choice programs in later rounds. Make a to-do list including the essay prompts of your top schools and start preparing your answers. 

Step 7: Career Goals essay

The staple for pretty much every MBA application is the “career goals essay.” In one form or another, almost every single program asks for one of these types of essays. Tackle your “goals essay” first – and early – to give you time to adapt it to different programs. Review our comprehensive career goals essay guide to knock this seminal portion of your application out of the park.

Step 8: Essay packets

In addition to the “goals essay,” you’ll find that each application asks for a series of shorter, more pointed essays. Failure essays, campus life essays, short-answer questions, etc. Once your resume and goals essay are finished, dive into the specific application questions starting with your top-choice schools.

Step 9: Apply 

Assemble all your materials, send out your transcripts, check to make sure your recommendations are in line, and click the send button. 

Step 10: Prepare for your interviews 

Most programs offer interviews on an invitation basis. If they liked your application enough, you’ll be amongst the 20-40% of applicants who receive an invitation to interview. This is the final hurdle before gaining admission to your top-choice school.

After completing these steps, all that’s left to do is wait. If you receive rejections from your Round 1 applications, never fear. Repeat this process for your lower-ranked programs to meet their second- and third-round deadlines.

Last-minute MBA applications

Though we advise getting an early start when preparing for your MBA applications, if you’re a working professional, time is often not your friend. If it’s fall and you’ve just decided to apply to business schools, you can condense the ten steps above into something manageable for your abbreviated timeline. Still shoot for round two, or ~January.


  1. Resume—ace by the end of November

  2. GMAT—you’ll need to have taken this and earned a score you’re happy with by the first week of December

  3. Career Goals Essay—finish this by mid-December

  4. Program-specific Essays—get through these by the New Year 

You may not have time for campus visits, information-gathering networking, and recommender relationship building, but these are all secondary concerns to what matters most to an MBA admissions committee: YOU. If you’re a shining star bound to lead the future of business, the admissions committee might not mind that you don’t know every last detail about their campus or that your recommendations seem a bit impersonal.

Ultimately, they’re admitting you for your leadership potential, and that outweighs deadlines.