Well, it comes down to two main questions you will need to answer:
- What’s the maximum number of schools you plan to apply to?
- What is the risk exposure you wish to have?
Answering those two questions would help you refine your list.
While you can technically apply to an unlimited number of schools, you need to think of your referees. While schools have tried to make the process smoother with initiatives such as the Common LOR, it will take at least 15 to 20 minutes per school for your referees to fill each form. Also, applying to schools has an associated cost (think US$200 per school – in other words, if you were to apply to 21 programs, you would need to allocate US$4,200 just for application fees). So, how many schools, right?
Well, it comes down to the second question about your risk exposure. The typical recommended number when it comes to Elite MBA programs is to look at between 5 to 8 programs and the number of dream and reach programs will heavily determine your final number.
Meet Lucy and Laura. They are both Elite MBA applicants (with identical profiles) looking at very similar programs (M7 and S7 only), and yet are going to end up with a different number of schools.
Lucy wants to apply to Harvard, Stanford and Wharton while wanting to make sure she starts her MBA at a top school in Fall next year. As a result, having already 3 schools in her list, it would be advised for her to add 4 to 5 programs to her list with a mix of M7 and S7. Her final list could be looking like: Harvard, Stanford and Wharton with Kellogg, MIT and Booth as well as Yale and NYU. This list of 8 schools will maximize her chances of getting into one of the M7 while ensuring that she will secure at least one offer at either Yale or NYU.
On the other hand, Laura doesn’t believe much in her chances of getting into one of the top 3, and decides to only pick one in her list (because she doesn’t want to have any regrets). As a result, following the same logic as above, she will only have to apply to 6 schools to achieve an outcome similar to Lucy’s.
That’s a harder answer to give here because all of those programs are going to have very similar strengths and positioning. They all foster entrepreneurship and innovation and they all have strong and similar placements in Consulting, Finance and Tech. There are naturally some differences between them. Stanford and Haas are more tech-oriented because of their location than Kellogg or Booth; Wharton, Booth and Columbia are more finance-oriented than Haas, but Stanford – with strong placements in VC/PE – is one of the best schools for Finance, too.
Confusing, right? Well, it is, and this is why looking at employment reports is important to escape misconceptions. At the end of the day, you are about to invest close to US$200,000 for your education and you want to do your due diligence on such investment.
Yes, all Elite MBAs can take you where you want to go, but there will be optimal ones, and you don’t want to miss any of those. I think it is best to illustrate it with an actual example. Two years ago, I worked with an amazing applicant (a surgeon) who was applying to Harvard, Columbia and Cambridge only. Working on his applications, we discovered a couple of very strong aspects in his profile and advised him to add Stanford to his list. Harvard and Columbia rejected him. Cambridge (as expected) made an offer and, 24 days later, Stanford made him an offer as well. Talk about what could have been a missed opportunity!