How Many MBA Programs Should I REALLY Apply To? The Truth

Philippe Barr, PhD
12 min readDec 14, 2023

How many MBA programs should I apply to? It’s a question we hear frequently. While initial instincts may lead applicants to narrow their options in fear of an application overload, our research and experience tell a different story. The competition for admission to top MBA programs is fierce, with acceptance rates often remaining at 10% or lower for many prestigious schools. It’s difficult to predict how your candidacy will be evaluated in comparison to other highly qualified applicants.

Hence, we recommend that aspiring students broaden their horizons and consider a wider array of options beyond their initial scope. In this post, we’ll break down the key factors to consider when determining your target program number, share what we’ve seen from past successful applicants, and provide our data-backed recommendation for a strategic yet realistic number of schools to aim for. By the end, we hope to convince you that more applications are better for your chances of getting into at least one top MBA program this year.

Know thyself

When it comes to deciding how many MBA programs to apply to, the mantra “know thyself” holds tremendous significance. Engaging in a candid and introspective self-assessment becomes the pivotal first step in this process. Take the time to deeply reflect on your academic and professional strengths and weaknesses, considering factors such as your academic performance, level of work experience, leadership roles, and other notable achievements. By doing so, you will gain a comprehensive understanding of where you stand competitively in the MBA application landscape. This self-awareness will guide you in determining the number of programs to apply to, ensuring a strategic and well-informed approach to your MBA journey.

When evaluating your potential for admission, it is important to take into account not only your GMAT or GRE scores but also how they compare to the median or average scores of students at your desired schools. Assessing these scores in relation to the school’s standards can provide valuable insights.

Additionally, it is crucial to identify any gaps in your profile that may require attention, as well as highlight any standout strengths that can make you a compelling candidate. By considering these factors, you can gain a better understanding of which schools are likely to view your candidacy favorably, ultimately helping you make informed decisions about your future academic pursuits.

When it comes to applying to schools, it’s important not to cast your net wide without direction. Instead, take the time to carefully consider and apply to a targeted list of schools that align with your criteria and career goals. By doing so, you increase your chances of thriving and succeeding in a program that truly suits you. Remember, it’s not about hitting a quota, but rather about finding the right fit and maximizing your potential for growth and success.

Consider your target schools

Asking yourself “How many MBA programs should I apply to?” leads to making a deeply personal and strategic decision. Take into consideration a spectrum of schools that fall into three categories — reach, match, and safe.

Reach schools are those where your profile might fall slightly below the average, but where you believe you could bring unique value. These are ambitious choices and represent high potential rewards.

Match schools are where your academic and professional profile line up closely with the average for admitted students. These schools offer a reasonable chance of admission and are often the bulk of your applications.

Safe schools, on the other hand, are those where your profile is above the average, providing a higher likelihood of acceptance. It’s important to ensure that even your safe schools align with your career goals and offer a good fit.

While there’s no definitive number, a balanced approach might involve applying to approximately 5–7 schools: 1–2 reach schools, 2–3 match schools, and 1–2 safe schools. This provides a wide range of possibilities while still keeping your efforts focused and manageable.

Remember, each application requires a significant investment of time and energy. Quality should always take precedence over quantity. Ensure each application is well-crafted and communicates your story effectively, increasing your chances of success across your chosen MBA program.

Factors to consider

Choosing the right business school is a crucial decision that requires careful consideration. If you find yourself struggling to determine where to apply, it is essential to engage in a thorough evaluation of all your options. Keep an open mind about each program’s potential and consider various factors that align with your goals and aspirations. Whether you aim to broaden your knowledge or focus on a specific area, factors such as curriculum, faculty expertise, networking opportunities, alumni network, location, and reputation should be taken into account. By delving deeper into these aspects, you can make an informed decision and create a list of schools that best suit your needs and aspirations. Remember, this process may take time, but investing effort in selecting the right business school will lay a strong foundation for your future success.

Environment: This is where conducting thorough research and school visits come into play. Understanding the school’s overall atmosphere, teaching methods, and available classes can greatly assist in streamlining your application process. Ask yourself these essential questions: Do I prefer a larger or smaller campus? Is a diverse learning environment important to me? Would I thrive in a bustling city or a more secluded setting? The key to finding the perfect program lies in identifying your personal preferences and then seeking a business school that aligns with them.

Comprehensive career services available: We understand that each individual has unique aspirations and goals. That’s why we prioritize recognizing and acknowledging your specific career objectives when helping you create a compelling MBA application. We also emphasize the importance of thorough program evaluation to ensure the perfect match. Take the time to assess not only the curriculum but also the recruitment capabilities of prospective programs. By focusing your applications on those that align with your ambitions, you can maximize the support you receive during your studies and beyond graduation.

Brand. Distinct from ranking, a program’s brand encompasses more than just a comparison to other business schools. It goes beyond that, offering a comprehensive impression of their identity, values, and educational philosophy. A school’s brand reflects its unique approach to education, the resources it provides, and the network it cultivates. It’s like a window into the soul of the institution.

Similar to your personal brand, a school’s brand plays a vital role in shaping your future. It sets the tone for your educational journey and influences the opportunities that come your way. A strong and reputable brand not only assures the quality of education but also opens doors to a wide range of career prospects. A school with a renowned brand can provide you with the network, mentorship, and exposure needed to excel in your desired field.

When aiming for a high-level position at a top-tier company, the importance of a school’s brand becomes even more evident. Employers often seek candidates from reputable institutions, as they are seen as a testament to excellence and dedication. The brand of your chosen school can significantly impact your chances of landing prestigious internships, securing coveted job offers, and building a successful career.

Therefore, when considering your educational path, it is crucial to select a school that aligns with your aspirations and values. Look for a brand that resonates with your goals, supports your passions, and offers the resources necessary to thrive. Remember, a school’s brand is not just a label; it is a reflection of the opportunities and possibilities that await you.

Location: When it comes to deciding where to go for business school, geography plays a crucial role. The location you choose can greatly impact your overall experience and opportunities. If you’re uncertain about your preferred location, it might be wise to apply to multiple programs in different regions. This way, you can explore various cities and get a better sense of what each has to offer.

On the other hand, if you have a clear idea of how far you’re willing to travel for an MBA, you can refine your list accordingly. Consider factors such as proximity to family, cost of living, and career prospects in each location. Remember, attending business school in a particular place doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll end up living there permanently. It’s an opportunity to broaden your horizons and gain new perspectives.

If you’re feeling stuck, see this as a chance to embrace something new! Explore studying in an unfamiliar region, consider studying abroad to immerse yourself in a different culture, or opt for a local program that allows you to build connections within your community. Having a sense of where you’d like to spend a few years can greatly assist you in deciding where to apply and ultimately shape your future career path.

Conduct research

Beyond a program’s website, there are several other valuable sources of information that you should explore in your MBA program selection journey. MBA fairs present a prime opportunity to interact directly with admissions teams, gaining first-hand insights about the programs and their application process.

Attending admissions events, whether in-person or online, should also be a crucial component in your MBA program research. These events provide a unique platform y offering a firsthand perspective on the program culture, curriculum, and opportunities. In addition, they often provide an opportunity to clarify any queries directly with the admissions team, clearing up ambiguities and setting realistic expectations. Moreover, your active participation in these events can demonstrate your genuine interest in the program, which could potentially influence your application positively.

Additionally, reaching out to the program’s admission teams, current students, or alumni via emails or social media can result in in-depth, personalized responses that could shape your application strategy. Leveraging these multiple touchpoints will not only enhance your understanding of the program and help you decide which programs you should be applying to.

Learn the admissions rates

As you are pondering the important “How many MBA programs should I apply to?” question, it’s crucial to make sure that you strike a balance between spreading your chances and focusing your efforts. Understanding acceptance rates can provide a realistic overview of your potential success in securing a place.

Highly competitive schools often have low acceptance rates, meaning a high volume of applications for a limited number of spots. However, don’t let these numbers deter you from applying if the program aligns well with your goals. You should consider applying to a variety of programs where acceptance rates diverge, including those with higher acceptance rates where you may have a stronger chance.

Having a target in mind while researching acceptance rates allows you to strategically allocate your resources, ensuring that each application you submit is of the highest quality. This research phase is not about finding an exact number, but about giving you confidence in the number of applications you choose to submit.

Budget your time and money wisely

When it comes to deciding how many MBA programs to apply to, careful planning is key. This spans both time management and financial considerations. Crafting an impactful, thoughtful, and personalized application is a time-consuming process. It involves reflecting on your career goals, drafting compelling essays, sourcing persuasive letters of recommendation, and preparing for potential interviews. Each application that you put forward will require considerable time and effort to ensure it effectively communicates your unique skills and aspirations.

The number of MBA programs you apply to should also be influenced by factors such as the proximity to application deadlines, your current workload, your need to take the GMAT, and the amount of free time you have at your disposal. As application deadlines approach, it’s crucial to prioritize quality over quantity. Attempting to complete multiple applications in a short timeframe can lead to rushed, subpar submissions.

Your professional obligations should also be taken into account. If your current job requires significant attention, this may limit the time you can devote to applications. Furthermore, if you need to take or retake the GMAT, the time required for adequate preparation should be factored into your planning. Ultimately, your free time is a critical resource. It’s important to strike a balance where you maintain a strong focus on each application without becoming overwhelmed.

On the financial side, application fees can accumulate quickly, particularly for top-tier programs. It’s not uncommon for these fees to range into hundreds of dollars per application. Additionally, prospective students should factor in potential travel costs for campus visits or interviews. By carefully considering your time availability and budgetary constraints, you can make an informed decision on the number of MBA programs to apply to, ensuring that your resources are used in the most efficient and effective manner possible.

Celebrate the end of applying

Once you have your answer to the “How many MBA programs should I apply to?” question, it’s important to take a moment and consider that applying to MBA programs is a considerable undertaking, one that requires not only meticulous research and strategic decision-making but also a significant investment of emotional energy and time. After you have submitted your applications, it’s essential to celebrate this accomplishment, regardless of the outcomes.

This journey is a testament to your ambitions, resilience, and hard work. Whether you receive acceptances from all, some, or none of the schools you applied to, remember that this process is not simply about acceptance into a program, but rather about your personal growth and the clarity of your career vision.

Each application you completed has contributed to your self-awareness, helping you articulate your goals and aspirations more effectively. If the outcomes are not as you had hoped for, it does not signify failure. Instead, it opens up alternate routes for you to explore-routes that may lead you to destinations just as fulfilling, if not more so, than your original plan. You’ve proven to yourself that you’re capable of taking on significant challenges and making complex decisions, skills that will serve you well in your career and life. Therefore, irrespective of the outcomes, recognize your hard work, and remember to celebrate the journey as much as the destination.

Navigating the High-Stakes Maze of MBA Admissions: A Critical Reflective Analysis

As you ponder upon your profile’s alignment with your target school, the quality of your application, and your chances of admission, it’s natural for a wave of anxiety to wash over you. Envision the admission committee members meticulously scrutinizing your application, weighing your academic prowess, professional accomplishments, and personal attributes against their exacting criteria.

Consider the thousands of other ambitious, well-qualified applicants vying for the same limited spots. In this highly competitive landscape, even the minutest details could tip the scales in or out of your favor. Faced with such intense competition, would your application stand out? Does your profile perfectly resonate with the ethos of your target school? And most importantly, have you convincingly demonstrated your potential for significant contributions to their MBA program and beyond?

Furthermore, navigating this process without professional guidance adds an additional layer of complexity. Remember, MBA admissions consultants have a deep understanding of the application process and are equipped with insights that could bolster your chances of admission. Attempting to traverse this challenging journey alone could inadvertently put you at a disadvantage in this cutthroat admissions environment.

Conclusion

With an impressive portfolio of MBA programs available, it can be hard to narrow down the choices. That’s why we’ve weighed in on the “how many MBA programs should I apply to?” question-to help you make a well-informed decision about which schools to target. To enhance your chances of acceptance, we recommend aiming for more applications than initially planned. Our over a decade of experience in the MBA admissions space has taught us that successful applicants often aim for at least 5–7 top target schools and up to twice as many lateral programs. Don’t limit yourself by confidence; bring your aspirations into action with strategic planning and expect nothing less than success! If you’re striving for the best possible outcome and need assistance with navigating the intricate world of MBA admissions, contact us at The Admit Lab today. We offer tailored application services to ensure you stand out from the crowd no matter how many MBA programs you land on-take advantage of it now and open up a world of opportunity!

With a Master’s from McGill University and a Ph.D. from New York University, Philippe Barr is a former professor and assistant director of MBA admissions at Kenan-Flagler Business School. With more than seven years of experience as a graduate school admissions consultant, Dr. Barr has stewarded the candidate journey across multiple MBA programs and helped hundreds of students get admitted to top-tier graduate programs Follow Dr. Barr on YouTube for tips and tricks on navigating the MBA application process and life as an MBA student. all over the world.

Originally published at https://admit-lab.com on December 14, 2023.

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Philippe Barr, PhD

I am Philippe Barr, founder of The Admit Lab, a graduate school admissions consultancy that helps students get admitted into grad school: https://admit-lab.com/