MBA School Selection… a dilemma of fear?

I was sitting on the opposite side of the dinner table when my friend ask “Why should I start saying which schools I wanna go to when I don’t even feel like they would accept me?” The anxiety on his face and confusion in his voice reminded me how scared I was during my MBA application process. I was in the same exact spot. I have the same hopes and dreams as him but at the same time I fear myself (or my ego) being completely crushed because of rejection letters.

And I truthfully wanted to tell him: “Why not? How will you know they won’t accept you if you hadn’t even try?

There are two things I really want to mention today. One is the reluctance of choosing schools and the other is what and how many schools to select during the application process.

As a general rule, when we choose to give up, to stop pursuing what is truly important in life, that is usually worse than the alternative of trying and failing.

The Hopes and Dreams

One one scale of the MBA application is everyone’s dream of getting into either Harvard or Stanford. Imagine the feeling of prestige you would bath in for the rest of your like. Heck, I feel like even my future grandchildren would boast about how their granny rocked an MBA at those schools.

We all want to fly like Icarus. We want to feel free and be close to the sun. Hopes and dreams make us feel special about ourselves. These hopes and dreams become the applications we submitted to our desired schools despite the stats such as GPA, GMAT and WE, all of which might not be in the range of said schools.

The Disappointment

However, on the other side of the scale is the perception that we cannot live up to those hopes and dreams. We feel disappointed if we cannot achieve our dreams. Disappointment deflates our sense of self at every corner. This knowledge of disappoint makes applicants anticipate the consequences of rejection.

This anticipation of disappoint translates to anxiety and confusion of school selection. If we are Icarus, we want to feel the sun but we do not want to die from getting burn. Are we supposed to choose the schools that is within our competitiveness or shoot for the stars? How are we supposed to apply to them? As it turns out, applicants will start applying to schools that may be UNDER their competitiveness because they feel that the disappointment will drown them in shame.

This leads me to the next point, how is one supposed to balance school selection later on?

The MBA Dilemma

Both dreams and disappointment put us on the spot light. So what do you really want to choose out of the application process? The feeling of being accepted to all schools you applied to or some schools you applied to. Truthfully, I don’t feel that there are any differences between the two choices. After all, you are only going to 1 school and not multiple schools. Why be bothered by the schools you are not attending?

Because fear… but is it worth it to avoid applying? No!

The key thing I really want to emphasize on the last point here is the dilemma of fear. Fear is what is stopping us from doing things we can do and know we can do it. Fear is the embodiment of us not wanting to feel the consequences of our actions. If you look at things on hindsight after it had happened, the feeling is not too bad. I received a rejection letter from MIT. Of course it kicked my ego in the ass but it’s not too bad. At least I knew I tried and someone had read my application letter. No one at Harvard, Stanford or Wharton read mine because I didn’t apply. And this is my regret. 

I never knew I would get a good GMAT score and my profile would be acceptable at Kellogg. Hell, who wants an industry expert of an industry that is very… grey as an alum? Well Kellogg took the bite and I sure as hell won’t let the opportunity let lose for my MBA experience. However, I would totally feel better about my application experience if I received a rejection letter from H/S/W because at least I would have known I had tried my best at EVERY SHOT I had.

I hope MBA aspirants take this exchange I had with my friend as a story they want to reflect on. Luckily, school applications are not the sun and we will not die from a letter or rejection.

So just go with the highest of the highest so you know you tried and then make sure you take the reality as well. There is literally no one telling you NOT to apply. There is no dilemma!

MBA School Selection Strategy… so how many schools should I apply to?

Being ready to apply is one thing and the physical labor of school application is an entirely different process. Before you even start with your MBA school selection strategy, don’t forget to identify your goals first. This will help you scope out what kind of schools you should be going too. For example, if you want to get into IB or Corporate finance, it is a no brainer to go to Columbia over Kellogg. The key here is to know what specific skill sets you want to pick up and what recruiting goals you have for post-MBA.

The general rule of thumb (or the available information on the internet) will tell you to categorize your school selection into 4 criteria: far reach, reach, competitive, safeties. Far reach and reach are commonly lumped together.

The thing is, you should apply to as many school as you want to given your resources and time. I have friends who applied to 10 schools on a SINGLE ROUND. I also had met people who applied to only two schools. However, the criteria between both of these two people lay on one single factor.

How much risk are they willing to take?

High risk taker (2 – 4 applications for 1 round)

These people are strong willed individuals who often have the this school or bust mentality. They can narrow down which schools they definitely want to attend. They feel like it is a waste of their time to apply to any other schools and so put their effort and energy into 2 – 3 applications.

These applications are in the realm of competitive and reach, with the majority of the weight laying in between the two spectrum. For example, I met this alum who attended Kellogg. He only applied to two schools (Kellogg and Booth) because he wanted to be in Chicago. He knew that if did not get into either of the two schools he would not be bothered with an MBA that year and try again in another year.

I fall into this category as well. I applied to 4 schools in a single round with 1 more school done within a day because my GMAT score changed. My mixture of school pre-GMAT was 2 competitive, 1 reach, and 1 far-reach. These list shifted into 3 safeties, 1 competitive, and 1 reach.

Medium risk taker (5 – 8 applications between several rounds)

These people are individuals who are fine with going to schools that may not have every aspect they want. They are happy to be going to their safety schools. They typically can identify a broad range of school criteria to narrow down and have the time and energy to do multiple applications over a longer period of time. I am not a fan of lengthening the application process because the anxiety that follows is crippling. If you were a follower of during the last application season, you will see a lot of comments with people who are trying to predict when the schools will release their results. Imagine sitting through two rounds of it!

These applications cover all the realms of safeties, competitives, and reaches. The composition is commonly a split of 1:3:2 or 2:2:2. Of course this does not mean they are heavy on the safety side, some even have a split of 1:2:3. I had a couple of friends the past cycle who applied with this methodology. Once they have configured their lists, they applied to the reaches and competitive on the first round and the safeties in the second round.

Low risk taker (9 and above between several rounds)

First, I want to say that these people exist and I really admire their effort on writing out applications. I was tired after filling out 2 forms and did not want to apply to any other schools. It’s a lot of hassle and without a good essay writing strategy, you might just burn yourself out during the application process.

These individuals can persevere through all odds and are comfortable with any school they would get on their list. Of course they would want to go to the highest ranking one but they do not want to end up getting into no schools at all.

The compositions of these applicants are all categories with the split of 3:2:1 or 3:2:2 depending on the time and energy they have.The only difference between low risk takers and the rest are that they do a lot of applications just in case a school they want to go to takes a bite. All their applications are split between two rounds because on the third round, unless you have saved the earth or have an awesome profile like this one, the chances of getting in is very low.

Some admission consultants might persuade you to go this low risk taking approach. Personally, I feel that it is a bit of a bad ROI because you will be spending way too much on some schools that you will definitely get in but will not attend.

So what format should you take when you are about to apply to business school? I suggest taking a huge step back to assess what kind of risk taker you are. There is no right or wrong answers when it comes to application submission.

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