First-Round Frenzy

With an uptick in applicants this year, admissions consultants say prospective students don't want to be late for class

By Jeffrey Gangemi

Two years ago, an unexpectedly high number of acceptances at the Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business prompted officials to defer about 60 admits from the Class of 2006 into the Class of 2007. On Nov. 16, a posting on the BusinessWeek Online forum thread "Ask ClearAdmit", which predicted fierce competition in the later rounds of the application cycle, hinted at a similar scenario this year.

To further worry applicants, there were simultaneous forum discussions citing an increase in the school's early action application volume. Tuck Admissions Director Dawna Clarke, who says the uproar was based on incomplete information, eventually confirmed an increase in first-round applications in a written statement on the "Tuck Tuck Tuck!" thread on Nov. 22, but denied that the number of deferrals was larger than usual.

With many admissions consultants and directors at top-tier schools predicting a jump in application volume after three consecutive down years, this season promises fiercer competition for fewer spots. More than ever, timing is of the essence. For many applicants, say admissions consultants and directors, avoiding the competitive later rounds may be the key to being accepted at their dream school.


  Although each of seven schools contacted by BusinessWeek Online considers round-by-round application volume proprietary information, each has confirmed an increase in applications in the first stage of the cycle, which usually ends by October or November. Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business cites an increase of 16% from last year, and Tuck's Clarke reports 39%.

After application declines in the past three years, admissions directors are cautiously optimistic (see BW, 4/18/05, "MBA Applicants are MIA"). But if the number of GMAT test takers is any indication, application volume will indeed be back up this year -- and not just in the first round. Through Oct. 31, total GMAT volume is up 3%, but only 0.2% in the U.S. vs. 9.3% outside, says Daphne Atkinson, vice-president of industry relations for the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), which administers the test. Atkinson notes that recruiter activity is up on campuses, another predictor of solid application numbers.

Admissions consultants are slightly more bullish than the schools about this year's market -- and that's why they're advising clients to get moving on their applications. Linda Abraham, president of admissions consulting service, predicts a 10% increase over last year among top schools. Alex Brown, a senior admissions counselor for consulting firm ClearAdmit, says if a school is experiencing a significant increase in application volume, as Tuck did, then "that's more than enough incentive to get that application in soon."


  Timing is everything this year. Abraham says choosing the round to send in your application will be even more important than last year, when she says a number of schools contacted her in search of quality third-round applicants. Latecomers to some schools might be better off waiting until the early rounds of next year. Over the years, Abraham says she hasn't observed a significant difference between the competition in the first and second rounds at most schools, but "there is a big dropoff in acceptance rate after January," she adds.

Each school has its own strategy in choosing a class, and that must be factored into an applicant's decision on when to apply. In the later rounds, many schools are looking to fill out their remaining diversity element, further decreasing the statistical handicap of many candidates, says Abraham. There's no sense in rushing your application, say experts. Brown generally advises his clients to avoid round three if possible, because it's statistically more competitive, and many applicants who wait until the end tend to sacrifice quality.

Just about everyone agrees that an applicant should never turn in a less-than-stellar application just to meet a deadline. For clients who are considering a third- or fourth-round application, Abraham urges them to do their homework. If an applicant is rejected by Harvard Business School or INSEAD, two schools that are notoriously hard on reapplicants, then they may have missed their only opportunity, says Abraham.


  But schools like the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business and Yale School of Management, which provide feedback to rejects, present a good option for later-round applications. In many cases, a reapplicant who heeds a school's feedback becomes an obvious round-one admit the following year, Abraham says.

Some schools favor reapplicants for their measure of dedication to the program. Alex Chu, president of consulting service MBA Apply, says that B-schools will even use the wait list as a way to measure a candidate's true intentions and not as a yield management tool. He says some schools are said to wait-list more candidates than they should, to ensure the highest eventual yield numbers possible.

Using the timing of your application to let a school know it's your first choice never hurts. Tuck uses its first-round early action model to give quick decisions to students who demonstrate substantial interest in attending the program. The more interest they show in Tuck, by connecting with alumni and visiting the campus, the more they help their cause.


  Columbia Business School is the only other top-tier school that offers a similar plan. Admissions Director Linda Meehan advises that it's better to apply early because Columbia's rolling admissions technique means that the number of spots continuously decreases throughout the application season.

All schools will keep a number of slots open in each round to account for those latecoming superstar applicants. And of course it remains to be seen whether application volume will increase overall this year. But beating the crowd by submitting your application in the first couple of rounds may mean the difference between attending your dream school and another year of waiting.

Gangemi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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