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Are last-minute MBA applications hopeless?

It’s spring in New York, which means that the sun is shining, the pigeons are frisky, and New Yorkers are much less cranky than usual. Springtime also means that the GMAT and MBA crowds have thinned out a little bit. Everybody knows that peak MBA application season is in the fall and early winter; if you’re calling a GMAT tutor in April or May, you’re probably a forward-looking planner with an eye on first-round MBA deadlines in October. And your GMAT tutor loves you for that.

But then there are the last-minute scramblers who defy conventional wisdom and take the GMAT in the spring. They then undergo a frenzied, abbreviated process of applying for MBA programs’ final deadlines in April or May. You would think that this approach is completely hopeless, right? An application sent within a few hours of a fourth-round deadline on May 15 couldn’t possibly succeed… right?

Here’s the odd thing: over the past few years, a certain subset of my last-second applicants have been extremely successful. Last year, I spent the morning of May 15 frantically helping two former GMAT students edit their MBA application essays–just in time for 5:00 pm deadlines on May 15. I thought that neither of them had much of a chance with last-second applications, but both students were admitted to their first-choice programs. This year, one of my favorite students submitted a third-round “express” application to a solid program, and managed to receive a substantial scholarship—after being waitlisted by a number of schools of comparable quality during the first two rounds.

And my all-time favorite procrastinator—Mr. L, a former actor who has been mentioned on this blog before—submitted an application last Monday for a one-year accelerated MBA program. Here’s the thing: he submitted the application two weeks AFTER the final deadline… and just one week before the start of classes in early May. And guess what? Of course, he was admitted. He was accepted to the MBA program on Friday, boarded a plane on Sunday, and started classes on Monday.

So how did these applicants do it? First of all, none of the aforementioned applicants were targeting top-10 programs. We’re talking about solid programs at the fringes of the top 30 or 50—think George Washington University or University of Florida or University of Iowa, not HBS or Columbia or MIT. MBA programs that are strong but not super-elite often face a great deal of unpredictability during the spring—they simply don’t know how many admitted students will actually choose to attend their school, which means that these programs may (or may not) have a bunch of empty slots at the end of admissions season.

In some circumstances, MBA programs can get pretty desperate in May. MBA programs often have high fixed costs, and nobody wants to have an empty chair in the classroom. So if a particular program has several unexpected empty chairs, they might be forced into “warm body mode.” Basically, they’ll admit nearly any (reasonably qualified) warm body who can provide a tuition check—even if the very same applicant would have been rejected (or waitlisted) by the very same program during earlier application rounds.

So there’s reason to have some hope if you’re submitting a last-second application to a non-elite program. If the MBA program has already filled (or nearly filled) their class, you’re probably screwed. But if the program is in “warm body mode,” you might be in luck, even if your GMAT score is below the MBA program’s average—as was the case for all four of the MBA applicants mentioned above.

Once you decide to submit a late application, be friendly but persistent with your calls to the admissions office. Try to make a connection with the person who answers the phone, since he or she might able to quickly get your case in front of a key decision-maker, even if the application deadline has already passed.

Whatever you do, don’t let the adcom think that you applied on a whim. In your phone calls, emails, and essays, do everything you can to make it clear that the MBA program is actually a top choice for you; as with any MBA application, be sure to clearly explain why you’ve chosen that particular program, and make sure that your essays are polished and error-free. If you have to, hire an editor or an admissions consultant to ensure that your work looks professional and convincing.

If you get a little bit lucky and you play your cards right, you might be among the blessed few who receives an acceptance in the spring… giving you the right to gloat in the general direction of your friends who are just starting to study for the GMAT.