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Round 1 vs. Round 2 in MBA Applications

Kofi Kankam

“Should I apply in round 1 or round 2 of MBA deadlines?”

As sure as the sun rising every morning and my son asking whom my favorite character on Paw Patrol is (Marshall, for those with kids), our team is asked this question without fail. 

Though I wish schools would be a bit clearer, the nuances to the subject likely prevent them from truly addressing it. So I am sacrificing myself to the MBA Gods and tackling this dilemma that keeps aspiring global capitalists up at night.

The Real Difference Between Round 1 vs Round 2

Many applicants look at the acceptance rates of the two rounds and see that round 1 is slightly higher. The reality is, there is no functional difference between applying in round 1 versus round 2 in terms of your acceptance. So why the difference in acceptance rates?

While the acceptance rate is slightly higher for round 1 applicants, analysis suggests that they are slightly stronger candidates. Round 1 candidates tend to have slightly higher test scores (GMAT & GRE) and grades than their round 2 counterparts. Round 1 applicants often also have more — and subjectively better — work experience. Essentially, the type of person who gets those higher test scores and has the superior work experience is also the type of person who starts planning for their MBA applications with enough lead time to make the round one deadline comfortably. 

The difference in acceptance rates, then, isn’t due to a preference by admissions committees to round 1 applicants, but rather the quality and type of applicants that tend to apply round 1. Do round 1 applicants get in at a slightly higher rate at many schools? Yes. Are they are slightly better applicant pool? Yes. But all-in-all, the chances of acceptance in round 1 versus round 2 is a wash. 

However, there are still reasons to apply in round 1 that are worth examining. Well, I’ll examine them for you and you can just read, I suppose. 

Advantages of Applying in Round 1

  1. All seats are available!  It’s common knowledge that business schools want diversity. When I was at Wharton, to my right was an Army Ranger who always spoke loud as hell and refused to teach me what I dubbed the Iron Claw Superhold (I had enemies) and to my left was a former Olympian who refused to spot me 30 meters in a 100-meter sprint (selfish, selfish).

    So, we know that schools want a varied class on every dimension – race, sex, work experience, nationality, language, career aspirations, locations post-graduation, etc. When you apply in round 1, the class composition is wide open. There are no types already accepted into the class. (Yes, we all are a “type”.) If you apply in round 2 in a year that a bunch of your ‘bucket counterparts’ apply in round 1 and you missed the memo, you could be in a bit of a jam. I was an African-American, Ivy League male entrepreneur (small “e”). If I waited to apply in round 2 and a bunch of other AA entrepreneurs applied in round 1, guess who would have suddenly been at a disadvantage? Me. So, applying in round 1 prevents you from being disadvantaged by over-representation.

  2. More free money! I’m going to assume that the ratio of those who love free money to those eligible for free money is 100%. The truth is, scholarships and fellowships are often not allocated equally across rounds. “But that’s not fair!”, you may cry in despair.

    Think of it this way: If you’re in Vegas with two equally responsible friends and one asks you for a few bucks for Blackjack at 8pm and the other asks you at midnight, who is more likely get it? (Note — assume inebriation and your rent aren’t factors.) The one at 8pm, only because you have more money in your own pocket at that time.

    Schools are the same: While they do plan for there to be some great round 2 applicants and save accordingly, the chances for money are not equal. An amazing female candidate who finished at the top of her class at West Point has a better chance of getting scholarships from her target school as a round 1 applicant than as a round 2 applicant. What changes between round 1 and round 2? Not her. Rather, the school feels a bit more constrained in round 2 because they have spent some of their money and have less left.

  3. The gift of time! As a round 1 applicant who’s been accepted, you’d find out in December, as opposed to March/April when round 2 decisions are released. And that three-month gap can be used to your advantage. Knowing your positive fate in December allows you to do a lot of things:
  • Leaving your job in the spring and traveling or relaxing to clear your mind 
  • Launching a company before school so you have some momentum heading in
  • Doing a pre-MBA internship in your potential new field if you’re career-switching
  • Getting an early jump on the best housing if you’re going full-time and moving
  • Meeting classmates in your city/town who you’re likely not going to meet in school because they are in a different section/block/cohort. 

So, it’s a slam-dunk for round 1, then? Eh…not exactly. Round 2 does pose a few advantages we should look at.

Advantages of Applying in Round 2

  1. Assets can mature! Sometimes, that three-month gap between round 1 in September/October and round 2 in January are critical. While applying is about presenting your backgrounds and merits in the best possible position, you still need great ‘stuff’ to present. Applying in round 2 gives you a bit more time to progress in your job — like a promotion or new responsibilities — or have a crescendo moment in your extracurriculars, like raising money for your alumni club. These particular items may also yield better recommendations. So, if you wait, you have a bit more time to polish up your assets. 

  2. Applications take time! With those improved assets, round 2 provides more time for you to get it together – Putting together your application, even when your ‘stuff’ is amazing, takes some time. Most candidates need about a month for their first school and two to three weeks for each additional school they are targeting. When you add in getting your GMAT or GRE as tight as possible, saving money for the applications themselves, and giving your recommenders enough time to wax poetically about you, it’s easy to see how the extra time can really help. 

  3. Relationships take time, too! If you are not clear on where to apply and/or want the admissions officers to know you a bit, the extra time can help a ton. Taking the time to visit schools in the fall to get to know them can help you pare down your list. Meeting admissions officers and students who can put in a good word for you can be quite helpful and applying in round 2 gives you a bit more time to let those bonds take form. 

So, while applying to school in round 1 and round 2 are similar in terms of general acceptance rates, the decision really depends on your background — will the applicant pool be full of applicants like you, or are you a rare applicant (like my Olympian friend)? Would you have to sacrifice quality in your application to apply round 1 or could you press ‘submit’ with full confidence? The bottom line is, don’t press ‘submit’ until you are fully ready to, and know that you are not at any major disadvantage by waiting until round 2. 

Kofi Kankam


Kofi Kankam

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