Why Your MBA Short List Should Include Dream, Target and (Maybe) Safety Schools

reach dream and safety schools

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com

One of the most important decisions you’ll make during the MBA application process—big surprise—is which schools you’re going to apply to in the first place. I cannot stress enough how important it is to put significant thought into which programs you’re going to dedicate dozens of hours to over the coming months.

The MBA application process takes up a huge amount of time and effort, and most candidates feel overwhelmed with applying to more than the average of four or five schools. Therefore, it’s crucial to be strategic when it comes to school selection and come up with a competitive mix of MBA programs to target.

Dream Schools

The majority of candidates who apply to the leading business schools are bright, personable overachievers who would be an asset to any program. However, each year we see excellent candidates who prematurely take themselves out of the running for some of the top programs. Certain programs have single-digit acceptance rates, and literally thousands of more-than-qualified applicants are turned away each year.

But if you don’t even give yourself a chance at admission, you may always wonder, “What if…” Is there anything worse? B-school is an ambitious dream, so shoot for the stars or you might regret not trying. While the process is extremely competitive, you shouldn’t count yourself out before the game even begins.

That’s why we typically recommend that people ask themselves whether or not getting an MBA is most important to them—or if getting an MBA from a certain school is what really matters most. If you’d truly be at peace with never getting an MBA if you weren’t accepted to School X, then you can move forward by focusing all of your efforts solely on your dream school or schools.

Word of advice: If your test scores are much lower than the average at your dream school, consider giving the GMAT or GRE another shot, and start thinking about how to explain your academic weaknesses and highlight the unique strengths you would bring to the classroom setting.  In any case, come decision time, it’s important to be realistic.

Target Schools

While an acceptance to Harvard Business School or Wharton would thrill almost any applicant, you’re ultimately going to have to balance what school you want to attend with where you can actually get in. Start with the hard data points. As a general guideline, take a look at MBA programs you like where your profile falls within the top 10 percent of admitted students.

Compare your undergraduate GPA, GMAT score, years of work experience and particular industry with those of accepted applicants reported by the school in their class profile page. If your industry is underrepresented, consider that an advantage for your application. Research the schools, make sure you know what’s important to you, and figure out which ones fit well for you. Remember the Golden Rule of MBA admissions—only apply to schools you would be thrilled to attend.

Word of advice: If you’re in an industry that typically makes up a bigger portion of the applicant pool, such as investment banking or consulting, make sure within your application that you think beyond your obvious achievements and differentiate yourself through your essays and interviews by picking stories and experiences that are memorable and unique.

Safety Schools

A good way to determine whether your list should include one or more so-called safety schools is by asking yourself how important it is for you to go to business school next year. Perhaps there’s a compelling reason you need to exit your job and make the move to grad school ASAP. If so, including safety schools among your targets would be a smart strategy.

If the need is immediate, then definitely include a range of schools of varying degrees of competitiveness. The application pool fluctuates each year, and all you need is one admit, so spread some risk around.

It’s important to be pragmatic and align your expectations with the MBA programs that match your particular profile, particularly if your GMAT score isn’t through the roof or your career trajectory has stalled out.

Word of advice: Safety schools don’t mean bad or less desirable schools—they’re simply a more obvious fit with your numbers and profile. Remember though, you’re still not guaranteed an offer of admission. Safety merely means your chances are far greater than at a program with an acceptance rate of 15 percent or lower.

In the end, I can’t overemphasize how important it is to really be yourself in your application and find the school that is right for you.  Contrary to popular belief, it’s not uncommon to be admitted into a more highly ranked program, and denied by a seemingly less competitive one.  That’s because the MBA admissions process is not only about numbers – it’s about numbers and experiences and personalities and fit.

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