At this stage of your MBA journey, you might be interested in a long list of schools. However, as MBA programs release their application essays, you’ll want to whittle your list down to a manageable number. What that number should be is a personal decision—there isn’t a “right” number for everyone. But before we discuss how many schools should be on your list, let’s first talk about how you should go about building that list.
As you are thinking about your school list, it is important for you to answer the following questions:
Do I absolutely want to apply to business school regardless of which one I attend?
Will I only leave my job to attend one of a specific list of schools?
Making this decision early on is instrumental in building your school list.
If you absolutely want to attend business school, it’s imperative to have a balanced list across stretch, target, and safety schools. For example:
Eight schools –> three stretch, three target, two safety
Six schools –> two stretch, two target, two safety
Four schools –> one stretch, two target, one safety
Although you should certainly aspire to attend a stretch school, you should also find safety schools that will help you achieve your goals. If you will only leave your job to attend a specific list of schools, and that list consists of top ten MBA schools or M7 schools, you must understand that these schools are stretches for everyone based on the number of applications that these programs receive.
When deciding how many business schools to apply to, there are a few things to consider:
By “time,” we’re referring to more than the days between now and when applications are due; it is the time that you will dedicate to the process between now and the application due dates. To get a better idea of the amount of time needed to complete applications, read “How Long Does It Really Take to Build an MBA Application?” Think about all the application pieces you still need to tackle, such as testing, school research, and career plan. The more pieces you still have to complete, the fewer schools you might want to apply to in R1. For example, if you already have a test score that you are satisfied with and you know your intended career path, you can jump into researching schools that will help you reach that goal. However, without a test score and a career plan, you will need time to address these pieces in order to identify a strong school list.
People come to business school with different goals and objectives. Some are seeking a strong management background and a well-rounded understanding of business, while others are looking to leverage the MBA to change or pivot careers. All business schools can help you enhance your leadership profile and business skills. However, if you are looking to use an MBA for a career change, you will want to apply to schools that will support your intended new career. For example, if you want to pivot into real estate, MBA programs have varied levels of resources supporting this area. Schools such as Berkeley Haas, UCLA Anderson, Texas McCombs, NYU Stern, and UNC Kenan-Flagler offer a depth of resources in real estate. Take the time to understand the availability of resources that support your career goals in order to find schools that can help you make a career change, if that is important to you. Read “How to Use an MBA to Change Careers” for more guidance on this topic.
Every admissions committee wants to know that you have taken the time to get to know their MBA program. Although it is possible to throw together an application without researching a school, doing so is a waste of your and your recommenders’ time. Once you have defined your career plan, it is important to research each school and identify the resources you can leverage there. In addition to familiarizing yourself with the culture of each school, you should know the classes, clubs, and case competitions that you want to participate in. To make your application truly unique, identify and explain the contribution you want to make to each activity.
Complexity (and Overlap!) of Essays
Although test taking, research, and the administrative time involved in filling out applications should not be forgotten, the number and complexity of the essays can significantly affect how many schools you can feasibly apply to. For example, Stanford GSB’s essays for 2021–2022 allow close to 2,000 words that you can leverage to tell your story—across the school’s required essays, optional essays, and short answers. The time needed to develop a well-thought-out story across these essays is significantly longer than the time involved in writing the approximately 500 words requested by UCLA Anderson. Applications that include extensive essays can impact the number of schools on your list.
Also, look at the overlap. Are there essays from one school that you could build upon for another school? For example, in 2021–2022, Chicago Booth’s first essay and Wharton’s first essay both ask you to think about how the school will help you achieve your goals. And although each school’s resources are different—and you should identify specific resources at each school that will help you achieve your goals—the structure and framework of these essays can be similar. Or, one of the impact stories in Stanford GSB’s application might be a good topic for Dartmouth Tuck’s essay about a time when you were encouraging, collaborative, or empathetic.
In the end, if you have a clear career goal in mind, plan to dedicate five to ten hours per week to application prep. If you are starting in May, you could feasibly apply to seven to eight schools. As the deadlines get closer and work gets busy, you should scale down or prioritize your list. If you want to apply to a number that is not feasible for R1, consider spreading your list across both R1 and R2. Remember, between R1 and R2, what’s most important is to make sure your application is as strong as it can be. It is better to wait for R2 than to rush and throw something together for R1. Here is a great checklist to ensure you are ready to submit: “Help! Am I Ready to Apply in Round 1?”
Need help assessing the best number of schools for you? Reach out to Stratus for a free consultation to discuss your profile and get guidance on application timing.