Choose Safety Schools for Your MBA Applications Carefully

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on

Landing a seat at a top MBA program isn’t a slam-dunk for anybody. It’s getting increasingly competitive to get into the highest-ranked schools.

The term safety school gets thrown around quite a bit in MBA admissions, and it’s important for applicants to have a clear understanding of what that term means before they start the school selection process.

The rule when coming up with a list of business schools is that you must feel genuine enthusiasm about attending each and every one of them, regardless of whether they are dream schools or programs you might consider a safer bet. If you would feel disappointed rather than ecstatic about advancing your career by attending a school, then do not apply. That’s a waste of everyone’s time and your money.

[Consider the benefits of looking beyond the top-ranked business schools.]

A good way to determine whether your list should include one or more safety schools is by asking yourself how important it is for you to go to business school next year. 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.

However, if you’ve zeroed in on a handful of highly competitive programs that you strongly feel are the best choices for advancing your professional goals, and you have some flexibility with the timing, it would be better to focus your energies on the GMAT and elevating your profile in line with your target programs’ characteristics.

If you don’t get in the first time, you can learn from your weak points and reapply in the next application cycle.

A safety school doesn’t mean you’d be guaranteed an offer of admission, though. It merely means your chances are far greater than at a program with an acceptance rate of 15 percent or lower.

[Here are some tips to narrow down your b-school application list.]

So, in order to decide what qualifies as a safety school for you, start with the hard data points. As a general guideline, take a look at 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.

Everyone has different reasons for applying to business school. Your main focus may be on networking prospects, the educational experience, geographic location, culture, special programming or even family tradition. If you’re excited about any of those elements at a school and would be happy to attend for any of those reasons, then consider it, even if it’s a safe choice.

I had a client who applied to both University of California—Los Angeles Anderson School of Management and Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Of the two, Stanford is obviously the more competitive “reach” school, but my client was from Los Angeles and would have been happy to go to Anderson, thus making it a great selection for a safety school.

[Fight the fear of failure when applying to MBA programs.]

Ultimately, he did get into Stanford and chose that school over the full scholarship offer he received from UCLA.

Another client faced the difficult decision of remaining on the waitlist at the University of California—Berkeley Haas School of Business, his dream choice, or accepting an offer of admission from the University of Texas—Austin McCombs School of Business, his safety school and one he would be thrilled to attend.

When the waitlist purgatory continued into summer, even after he’d submitted a deposit to hold his place at McCombs, he finally decided to withdraw from the Haas wait list and commit to a sure thing. He was increasingly happy with McCombs as he met his future classmates and weighed the significant financial benefits of in-state tuition.

If you do apply to a range of schools, make sure each is a good fit and that your excitement, level of research and passion for the program comes through in your application regardless of whether it’s a safety school or not. The folks in the admissions committee have typically been at it long enough and can tell when an applicant has lukewarm feelings for them – and that’s the surest way your safe bet will become a bust.


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