"first-round advantage" is a big fat lie... sort of

As summer in NYC rumbles toward a close, the emails and phone calls I receive from aspiring MBA applicants start to sound more and more ambitious.  Most students want to cram their GMAT preparations into three or four weeks, even if they need a massive score gain.  I hear the same refrain over and over again:  “I want to apply in the first round, so I have to take the GMAT really really really soon or else I’ll never have enough time to write my essays and then I won’t apply in the first round and then the world will come to an end…!” OK, so I’m paraphrasing a little bit.  Very few people sound that dramatic.  (Disclaimer: I swear that I'm not writing this to pick on any of my beloved current or former GMAT students. This post is about a general seasonal trend, not about any particular GMAT student.) But I always hear a lot of unnecessary panic in GMAT students’ voices this time of year, and the anxiety seems to increase as soon as I suggest that an MBA applicant might need more weeks of GMAT prep than they had (perhaps optimistically) anticipated.  Many applicants seem absolutely convinced that they’ll have a chance at their favorite MBA program only if they apply before the first-round deadline.

Call me a heretic if you want, but I’m convinced that the vaunted "first-round advantage” is mostly a myth.  Unless you fit into a few special categories, there is virtually no benefit to driving yourself into a GMAT-addled frenzy just for the sake of being one of the earliest applicants.

Sure, some of you have perfectly wonderful reasons to apply early in the admissions season.  If you’re looking for a scholarship (and are among the tiny handful of applicants who actually have a realistic chance at getting one), you’re definitely better off applying early:  scholarship funds are often given out early in the admissions season.  It’s also possible that you’ll get a lift from applying to binding “early action” programs (Tuck, Columbia, Duke, and Vanderbilt leap to mind); technically speaking, you make a binding commitment when you apply through these programs, and the schools have little reason to think that you’d flake on them if you’re admitted… and that will probably help your chances.

But if you’re obsessed with first-round MBA applications and nothing in the previous paragraph applies to you, you probably need to relax a little bit.  Sure, admissions committees are somewhat more likely to have some spare time on their hands in September than in January, and they’re a bit more likely to read first-round essays with fresh eyes and an open mind.  But that’s really the only general advantage to applying in the first round.

Think about it rationally:  the best MBA programs want to attract and select top applicants just as badly as you want to be among the top applicants; why the heck would they ding a strong MBA applicant in January, but admit that same applicant in September?  At most top MBA programs, less than half of the incoming class is admitted during the first round... so don't worry, you'll have plenty of opportunities during second round.

Or think of it this way:  if you're awesome enough to earn a first-round admit from HBS or Stanford, then you're probably awesome enough to get in during second round.  Then again, if your application is shaky for some reason, a first-round attempt won’t fix any of your problems.  If your essays are shoddy, your work experience is flimsy, or your GMAT score is hopelessly low, you’ll be just as screwed during first round as you would be later in the admissions season.  Sorry, but the "first-round advantage" won't mask any of your MBA application weaknesses.

Whatever you do, don’t let the stress of looming first-round deadlines hurt the quality of your application.  If you need an extra few weeks or months to raise your GMAT score, take your time:  a strong GMAT score in January will help you far more than a rushed first-round application in October.  If you could use a few extra weeks to perfect your essays, take your time:  a sloppy, typo-ravaged October application will be far less successful than a polished, eloquent second-round application.  If you get hasty with your essays and fail to tell a coherent “story” about your life and goals, you’ll do enormous harm to your candidacy—no matter when you apply.

The bottom line is that it’s always wise to produce the best MBA application that you possibly can.  If it's mid-September and you’re just starting to rumble into high gear with your GMAT prep or MBA essays, chances are good that your very best MBA application won’t be ready until second round.  And you shouldn’t feel even the slightest bit of remorse if you wait just a few more months to bless the adcom with your irresistibly charming second-round application.

why MBA rankings are (partially) BS

When I was a teenager, I used to hate talking about college admissions with my father. He was absolutely convinced that there was, somehow, a big difference between the #12-ranked university and the #14-ranked school, based solely on US News & World Report's annual list. On multiple occasions, I've told him that he's completely full of crap. Now, I'm going to tell you why he's full of crap.

First of all, keep in mind that MBA and undergraduate rankings are based on completely arbitrary formulas concocted by random journalists. (Click here for some commentary on the formulas themselves.) I'm not saying that the basic components are necessarily flawed (who would disagree with the notion that salary increases, reputation, and student selectivity are good indicators of the quality of an MBA program?), but there's some randomness in the way that any particular list might choose to quantify and weight these measures. They should always be taken with a grain of salt.

And then there's my favorite indicator of the stupidity of MBA rankings: the contradictions among the various lists. Here are a few of my favorites:

Dartmouth (Tuck): #1 MBA program according to Forbes, #3 in The Economist, but #12 in Business Week

Southern Methodist: #18 in Business Week (WTF??), #47 in US News and World Reports, and unranked in The Economist or Financial Times

Carnegie Mellon (Tepper): #15 in US News & World Reports and #24 in the Financial Times, but #5 (and higher than Harvard!) according to a Wall Street Journal survey of recruiters

Berkeley (Haas): #4 in The Economist, #7 in US News, #10 in Business Week, #16 in the Financial Times

Yale: #9 in Financial Times, #10 in US News, #15 in The Economist, #24 in Business Week

Northwestern (Kellogg): #3 in US News and Business Week, but #10 among US schools in the Financial Times... and only #21 globally

Would anybody out there really believe that Kellogg isn't even among the top 20 MBA programs globally? Would any of you put Tepper above Harvard on any list? Would any of you dream of putting Southern Methodist above Yale, as Business Week did?

All I'm saying is that these MBA rankings should be taken with a big, fat grain of salt. If you're thinking that you want to go to a "top 10 b-school" or a "top 20 MBA program," make sure that you don't rely on just one of these silly, arbitrary lists.